When Will Nagorno-Karabakh Stop Being a Frontline?

The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have not offered their nations any solution to this difficult conflict, preferring to place the blame squarely on each other.

President Vladimir Putin’s recent meeting in St. Petersburg with his counterparts Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan focused on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It was closed to the media. Although a joint statement on that meeting mentioned the presidents’ “approval to an increase in the number of OSCE observers working in the conflict zone” and satisfaction with the ceasefire, it is still unclear when Nagorno-Karabakh will cease being a frontline. Valdai Club experts from Azerbaijan and Armenia discussed each side’s interests and how they envision developments in the conflict zone following the trilateral meeting.

“Plans for a meeting between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia were made public in Vienna on May 16 of this year, after a meeting of the presidents and foreign ministers from the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group. There has been positive dynamics. In other words, after an escalation of tensions in early April, the parties have been complying with the ceasefire and honoring the decisions made at the aforementioned meetings,” said Farhad Mammadov, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Azerbaijan.

“The next meeting was held with the mediation of the Russian president. This is evidence of the co-chair countries’ commitment, including Russia, to settling the conflict. The president of Azerbaijan has pointed this out when thanking President Putin for attention given to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Mammadov said.

“Azerbaijan has always pinned its hopes on the ability to bolster substantive talks on the conflict and changing its status quo by bringing about the withdrawal of the Armenian military from the occupied territory, leading to the gradual settlement of the conflict, whereas Armenia is highlighting monitoring plans along the frontline,” the Azerbaijani expert said, adding that these are interconnected processes. “The implementation of the agreements reached to build up confidence must go hand in hand with the start of a gradual settlement process,” he said.

Mammadov also believes that the intermediaries’ interest in settling the conflict is conducive to implementing agreements and “is also reducing the risk of provocations and detours from the negotiating process,” he said.

However, Sergey Minasyan, Dr, SCi, Political Science, Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, believes that nothing much has changed even though the trilateral meeting ended just as its participants expected.

“Considering the complexity of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the numerous attempts made over the past decades to settle the conflict or at least promote rapprochement between the conflicting parties, the smooth diplomatic formulas of the joint statement did not correspond to public expectations and fears in Armenia or Azerbaijan, let alone Nagorno-Karabakh,” Minasyan said.
He said that Russia, which initiated the meeting, tried to demonstrate the continuity of the negotiating process, to show that efforts are being taken to prevent a repetition of the April tragedy in Nagorno-Karabakh, and also to reaffirm its leading role in the region.

“At the best, the meeting in St. Petersburg could repeat the achievements of the Meiendorf Declaration on confidence-building measures and attempts to reach political agreements within the document signed in Kazan. Towards this end, Moscow needed to convince Armenia that guarantees and mechanisms for preventing a repetition of the April tragedy would be created as a precondition and the first step towards substantive negotiations. At the same time, Moscow wanted Baku to see that the current situation would not lead to the suspension of the talks on the Karabakh conflict or the reinforcement of the new status quo, provided Azerbaijan agrees to create conditions for starting the talks by guaranteeing confidence-building measures,” Minasyan said.

Speaking about possible scenarios, the Armenian expert said “it is highly unlikely that Azerbaijan would faithfully comply with the ceasefire in the current situation, for in this case Baku would be unable to threaten a resumption of hostilities, which is its main tool for influencing the negotiating process and the further development of the Karabakh conflict.”

Minasyan believes that the meeting in St. Petersburg faced President Ilham Aliyev with a new political choice. “He must either adapt to a new and more complicated status quo by presenting the April events as a success for Azerbaijan in order to justify the failure of the talks mediated by Russia and the OSCE Minsk Group, even if they focus on issues of substance, because he cannot accept a territory-for-status compromise with Armenia in the current situation. Or Azerbaijan will again provoke a military escalation in the Karabakh conflict zone, which is unlikely to remain limited or local but could grow into a large-scale war with unpredictable military, political and other consequences and losses, above all for the party that starts this war,” the Armenian expert said.

“Hopefully, Azerbaijan’s choice will be influenced by the final provisions of the June statement, in which presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev pledged to continue their regular contact in addition to the efforts of the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group that were invited to attend the concluding part of the St. Petersburg meeting,” Minasyan said.

Andrei Sushentsov, Programme Director of the Valdai Club Foundation, said that Russia was committed to settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“Moscow is alarmed by the growing temptation to seek a military solution to the conflict. Azerbaijan has a much larger population, economy and military budget than Armenia, and they are growing faster. At the same time, the population and economic growth rates in Armenia, which has been isolated from the main regional markets, are declining. Even Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union could not help it resolve its economic and demographic problems. The current status quo will become impossible to maintain in 20 years, which is fraught with the prospect of a large war, in which Russia and Turkey could become involved,” Sushentsov said.

He believes that the St. Petersburg meeting reflected the Russian intention to convince Baku and Yerevan that the conflict can be settled on the basis of the Madrid principles and that neither party would stand to lose.

“Unfortunately, the parties’ deep mistrust for each other and domestic political pressure are preventing their leaders from coming to terms. Besides, they are obsessed with current circumstances of the conflict and cannot look sufficiently far into the future. The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have not offered their nations any solution to this difficult conflict, preferring to place the blame squarely on each other,” the Russian expert said.

He added that media outlets in both countries present the conflict as a defining event in their nations’ history.

“By urging people to think that the conflict can only be solved in favor of one of the sides, they effectively rule out a compromise. They are fostering a psychological atmosphere that justifies the use of military force. Instead of discussing the essential elements of a settlement, Armenian and Azerbaijani experts are focused on analyzing the latest upsurge in tensions. As a result, the sides are moving ever closer to an all-out war despite their lip service to a peaceful solution,” Sushentsov said.

“Russia and the other countries of the OSCE Minsk Group have so far managed to prevent the conflict from escalating, but this is not enough for settling it. In the absence of a solution, the situation will deteriorate from year to year, and military clashes along the frontline threaten to become a norm,” the Valdai Club Foundation Programme Director concluded.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.