ARMENIA: CONTRADICTORY APPROACHES TO THE KARABAKH SETTLEMENT
Aghasi Yenokian, Assistant Professor, Erevan State University, represents the Central Asia and the Caucasus journal in Armenia
In 1997 a heated discussion about two possible settlements of the Karabakh problem, known as the package and the step-by-step variants (details below) swept Armenia. Theoretical debates developed into an open political struggle as a result of which President Levon Ter-Petrossian had to retire in March 1998.
The discussion was limited to the upper crust—the variants were too confidential to inform the public. It was only in 2001, when the variants had become history, that they were made public in Azerbaijan and, several days later, in Armenia. The wide public finally learned what had caused the heated political debates. The publications started another round of discussions because by that time the adopted variant and its modifications had not produced the desired results.
Below I shall discuss the earlier and the presently accepted variants of a possible settlement. My approach is based on the fact that, first, the scheme that the Armenian authorities favor is not logical. In the process of its evolution it sometimes borrows and sometimes rejects elements of other approaches. Second, it is accepted neither by the other sides nor the Armenian nation itself. Third, the present Armenian leaders are not at the helm forever. They are also not always replaced through elections. So it may well happen that when the time of decision-making comes, other leaders will choose quite another solution. Fourth, sometimes the approaches develop from foreign policy into domestic problems.
For a long time the Karabakh problem was a domestic issue in Armenia in the meaning that certain circles adjusted it to their domestic political aims. It remained the most debatable pre-election question since 1988 surfacing during all presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. In 1998, the prime minister and three so-called “power” ministers (of the internal affairs, state security and defense) demanded that Ter-Petrossian should resign. They argued that the president favored the step-by-step variant of the Karabakh settlement. Strange as it may seem the president broke under pressure and resigned. His team followed him, including the Chairman of the National Assembly, his constitutional heir. The newly elected chairman, regarded as a candidate of the forces that had staged the coup, violated the Constitution and refused to fill in the presidential post. As a result of certain other violations of the Constitution Robert Kocharian became president albeit not completely legitimate and, therefore, vulnerable in the eyes of all sorts of international forces.
All existing approaches to the Karabakh settlement can be divided into two groups. The first unites all propositions that have already served as the basis for all sorts of variants. They have been supplied with documents and submitted to the interested sides by the OSCE Minsk Group on the Karabakh settlement so that they could adopt the final decision. Here I have in mind the package and the step-by-step variants, and the variant known as the “common state.” The latter presupposed that, having become two independent and equal states, Karabakh and Azerbaijan form a common state with horizontal ties between them, which means that Karabakh will no longer be subordinate to Baku.
The second group includes mainly declarative statements with no details and is rooted in the ideologies of varied political forces in Armenia. The Armenian Marxists who belong to the Democratic Party, for example, believe that the settlement should proceed from the Leninist proletarian principle of self-determination of nations. The national-socialists from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun have placed the settlement issue into a general Hai Dat context. It boils down to the idea of unification of all Armenian lands and punishment of all historical enemies of the Armenian people. It should be said that the Dashnaktsutiun party addresses all domestic issues in the context of their proclaimed aim: “restoration of historical justice and return of all Armenian lands.” There is no place for talks and mutual concessions within this approach—force is the only instrument to be applied. This is dangerous. It has become even more hazardous now when the Dashnaktsutiun has its members in the cabinet and may influence political decisions. The danger, however, is neutralized by the fact that, having grabbed ministerial posts, the party has pushed aside its ideology and is working together with the president without any objections.
There is another opinion known as the Russian position. According to it, to preserve its security Karabakh should be made part either of Russia or of Armenia, or it should become absolutely independent. Gennadi Selezniov, Chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, mentioned this variant during his recent visit to Erevan. There are sorts of pro-Russian organizations in Armenia that favor it. Because of its obvious absurdity it has never been discussed either in Armenia or at the negotiation table. Indeed, it makes no difference whether Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan or Russia—it should become an independent state.
When discussed in detail, the package variant differs but little from the “common state” variant. The meaning is the same while it allows to continue the game “Armenia/Azerbaijan has agreed while Azerbaijan/Armenia rejected,” the favorite entertainment of the last eight years.
When viewed from the ideological and political, rather than diplomatic, positions and from the point of view of formulas employed, the “package” and “step-by-step” variants differ in the way the international legal, varied and contradictory, instruments are used and the international legal principles arranged.
International law is frequently accused of the contradictory nature of its principles, in particular, the principles of territorial integrity and national self-determination. It seems that this lack of clearness is an advantage rather than disadvantage. Without them international law would have no objects—nobody would have bothered to sign relevant documents and nobody would have entered talks. International law is active in the sphere of international relations, therefore no matter how wise and just it cannot be higher than politics, i.e. a concentration of interests and forces.
There is also an opinion that these principles are not contradictory—they are mutually complementary since one of them (the inviolability of borders) belongs to a sovereign state while the other (self-determination) belongs to the stage when a new sovereign state is formed. The principle of inviolability of borders excludes frontier conflicts and seizure of territories of one state by another. The principle of national self-determination recognizes the high value of the right of any nation (as a free community of free people) to have a political entity of its own (an independent state). Wars are not banned within this doctrine—they can be waged by a new state on its territory to free itself from the empire.
Clumsily applied by the diplomats of one side or skillfully interpreted by the other side (in a specific foreign political situation), they may create jumble of concepts and cause an international legal impasse. This was what happened to the Karabakh problem.
Specialists in conflicts have pointed out that an impossibility of a continued armed conflict does not mean that the sides have entered the road leading to a settlement. If the positions of the sides are fundamentally different and there is no space for talks, the armed conflict can be resumed.
In case of Karabakh its status is the stumbling block. The Armenian side has two options: a concession under the “package” variant or the “step-by-step” variant under which the problem of status should be shelved till better times and other details addressed.
The Karabakh Problem without the Karabakh People
The format of talks changed when Armenia got new leaders. The new president Robert Kocharian started meeting President of Azerbaijan Aliev more often. The Armenian political elite expected nothing of the meetings between the former secretary of a party committee and the former first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. This was a joke, yet the result was a sad one: Karabakh was excluded from the talks.
The Karabakh problem can be put in a nutshell with two aspects: ensured security for the Karabakh people and restored economic and social infrastructure of the republic to make its life dignified.
The new format—personal meetings between the presidents—has excluded Karabakh as a subject of talks. From this it follows that there can be no discussion of its self-determination and that its security can be ensured by a third side, namely, Armenia. The prehistory of the events of early 1998 predicted these developments: the coup had been carried out by the premier and the “power” ministers psychologically prepared to use force rather than to respect the right of a nation. If the principle of self-determination of Karabakh were respected, then Robert Kocharian, a citizen of Karabakh, could not have been made president of Armenia. The coup itself belonged to the package, not to the step-by-step variant. After the coup its engineers were expected to demonstrate their loyalty to the terms that enabled them to perform the coup. Time has proved that the “package” variant was inadequate, but the present Armenian leaders find this irrelevant—any variant they are prepared to submit for talks or to discuss should be called “package.”
It seems that any discussion of any variant should answer the question: does it recognize the principle of self-determination of nations or not. The level of security of Karabakh depends on the answer.
The “package” solution offers the following guarantees of security: the Armenian side returns certain territories. In exchange Azerbaijan gives Karabakh a definite degree of autonomy. Peacekeeping forces will be placed along the border between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, buffer zones closed for flights of aviation will be set up, and refugees will be able to return. It should be said that these steps will be synchronous. The above guarantees have not yet been tested—therefore it is unclear whether they are sufficient. This is one of the plan’s major shortcomings. Under the package variant when all the issues are simultaneously addressed (with insufficient guarantees) there could be no backward movement to the original positions. The details cannot be correlated either. Another, even greater, shortcoming is an actual rejection of the self-determination principle—the plan invites Armenia and Azerbaijan (not Karabakh and Azerbaijan) to haggle over the territories and independence. Armenia is facing one of the negative results: Karabakh has been excluded from the talks, the principle of independence has been dropped. As a result, the discussed territories have been extended at the expense of Armenian districts.
Despite this, the authorities and the majority of the pro-governmental parties in Armenia are supporting the “package” variant. It was in May 1998 when the new stage of talks had just begun that Foreign Minister of Armenia Vartan Oskanian announced the country’s readiness to drop the demand of self-determination for Karabakh. The defeatist approach has been in vain: Azerbaijan did not want to discuss even these minimal conditions. It wants an absolute sovereignty over Karabakh and the right to grant autonomy to its territories. This position undermines any possible talks and makes impossible mutual concessions. Karabakh’s independence struggle may develop into a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia through the misguided efforts of those who support the “package” variant. The present haggling means that the Republic of Nagorny Karabakh that declared its independence is occupied by Armenia which is disposing of its territories as it sees it fit. It is quite logical, therefore, that the highly placed Armenian officials, the foreign minister in the first place, are using the term “occupied territories.”
All the advantages of the official Erevan’s current stand are doubtful. In fact, it contradicts the spirit of the national-liberation struggle of the people of Nagorny Karabakh. The stand is not diplomatically justified either: certain security guarantees are possible only if the entire settlement package is translated into reality. The document makes Azerbaijan a complete master of the situation able to violate any of the security guarantees. Even if the least important of them are removed, the entire system of Karabakh security will collapse.
The ideological part of the document called an All-round Agreement on Settling the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict is especially strongly worded. Another document that presupposes a “common state” has a more or less similar title. The wording tempts the statesmen to sign the document on the spot so that to cut the Gordian knot of the old problem and be hailed as national heroes. It seems that the same propagandist charge influenced the Azerbaijanian side when it declined the “common state” variant although previously Baku had accepted much worse variants.
If we borrow the terms used in the longest conflict of our time, that between Israel and Palestine, then the “package variant” can be described as “lands in exchange for freedom.” However, in case of Karabakh a status is not an aim in itself: independence is the genuine aim. Only international recognition can provide all-round international guarantees of survival. The half-hearted promises of security given by Azerbaijan and the world community and the prospect of Armenia being excluded from the circle of political guarantors (with the presently held territories ensuring Karabakh’s relative security returned) cause much doubt.
It should be borne in mind that there can be no mutual concessions if the principle of self-determination is discarded, which leaves us with one fact only: the occupied territories. It seems that after two years of failures the Armenian leaders are beginning to understand that self-determination is the only way to a settlement within the package solution.
If the talks are put on the foundation consisting of four factors (abandonment of the principle of national self-determination, exclusion of Karabakh from the talks, recognition of Armenia’s right to haggle in the name of Karabakh, and discussion of a possibility of territorial exchanges), the negotiations will inevitably lead to an offer to exchange the Lachin corridor that connects Karabakh and Armenia for the Megri corridor that separates Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan or at least to give them equal statuses. There is every ground to believe that Erevan will not agree because it will be asked to exchange something that it acquired recently for something it has in its possession from time immemorial.
Does Armenia Need Unblocking?
The former Armenian leaders favored the “step-by-step” variant of the conflict settlement. They had support of many pro-governmental parties that are still favoring the same variant.
According to the terms employed in the Arab-Israeli conflict, this approach can be described as “land in exchange for unblocking.” Terminologically this is much weaker than “lands in exchange for freedom.”
This variant has been never described as an “all-round:” it is simply “An Agreement on Discontinuation of the Armed Conflict in Nagorny Karabakh.” It says nothing about the status of Karabakh that is excluded, in this way, from the list of security guarantees. At first glance, the guarantees under it must be much weaker than those under the package solution. Indeed, even a limited authority gives certain guarantees absent in this variant while the military-administrative measures remain the same. This approach also has its advantages: demilitarization, raising blockade from the roads and other military measures that are realized step-by-step, in a more or less balanced way. If any of the sides violates any of the points, the process will be halted and may even move backwards.
On the other hand, the document’s obvious shortcoming—no mention of the status—may turn into its advantage. If peace is established, the question of the status will be discussed. It may even create additional guarantees all the more possible because international law does not describe war as an inalienable component of self-determination. In any case, the document does not violate the basic principle of the fight of the Karabakh people for its self-determination: it is not ignored or rejected altogether. Its discussion is merely postponed.
The present economic situation in Armenia is the weakest point of this approach. The economic and political transformations in the post-Soviet republics and mainly the blockade deprived Armenia of its wide economic contacts, it had to become self-sufficient. In this way, the powers that be gained control of the economic instruments as well. In 1995-1997 there were up to 20 firms importing liquid fuels—today there are five of them; in 1995-1997 over 2,300 firms brought foodstuffs into the republic—today there are not more than 200 importers (one of them importing 60 to 70 percent of the foodstuffs brought from abroad).
By preserving the blockade the top political crust is addressing three economic tasks of “their” businessmen: (1) they limit the number of firms engaged in foreign trade, (2) they keep the prices high, (3) they keep away potential foreign investors with the unfavorable investment climate thus created. From this it follows that raising the blockade is not something that the republic’s leaders badly need and that a possible diplomatic bargaining “land in exchange for unblocking” is not only asymmetrical: it is misplaced and badly timed.
In any case, if Armenia finds itself in a situation when any variant has to be accepted, the local businessmen will prefer the “step-by-step” variant. It will allow the sides to halt the process if security is not fully guaranteed or if one of the sides cheats. Besides, it will not bury the hopes of Karabakh’s independence in future.
In fact, any developments around Karabakh will create certain problems for the Armenian leadership. It is legitimate as long as the problem remains unsettled and its refusal to address it makes the already shaky legitimacy of the present leaders of Armenia even more questionable. They have to seek a solution in order to strengthen their positions in the eyes of the public and meet expectations of the Armenians. On the other hand, when settled the question will destroy the leaders’ legitimacy. As soon as the problem is settled in any way the authorities will have to answer numerous questions ranging from the social and economic situation in the republic to corruption and the mysterious killings that started in 1998. This explains why the final settlement is delayed.
The above is substantiated by what the Armenian leaders did last spring. It seems that in the United States they agreed on very big concessions. Having come back, they started using unacceptable terms and provoked equally unacceptable events. The country was indignant and critical, and refused to discuss what had been agreed on in the United States.
Integration as a Road to Solution
It seems that the time of the step-by-step settlement will come together with a clear understanding that regional integration is an absolute necessity. Today, the three South Caucasian republics prefer to keep away from each other despite their geographical proximity and porous borders. Trade among them is practically non-existent; joint economic projects are few and far between. Their foreign political orientations and their ideas about the regional geography are inadequate and have nothing to do with regional integration.
As soon as its necessity is recognized and joint programs launched there will be more mutual confidence among the South Caucasian nations that will help create mechanisms of regional security. There will be no room for lies and tricks—the situation will call for as high cooperation level as possible. This will also open wide vistas for international mediators that are busy contending for the right to mediate.
The above variants of the Karabakh settlement presuppose that the South Caucasian states need wide cooperation and want to ensure their security through integration. It should be said, however, that the Karabakh and certain Azerbaijanian officials do not agree with this. Naira Melkumian, Foreign Minister of Nagorny Karabakh, and Vafa Guluzadeh, advisor to the president of Azerbaijan, believe that Armenians and Azeris should live on their separate territories. This approach smacks of old hostility which prevails over a rational approach. Rejection of integration obviously rejects peaceful settlement. One feels sad to see that the policy of ethnic purges and ethnically pure zones still dominates certain minds. This affects the talks.
What are the general and most important aspects of the approaches discussed by Armenian politicians? Mostly, they are not aggressive and are mainly orientated to talks and mutual concessions. These approaches are still far removed from reality, from the sides’ real interests and possibilities.
They are mostly responsible for the slow pace of the process of negotiations. There is another potentially acceptable approach stemming from a very real need of regional integration. The smoldering conflicts could be ignored for the sake of setting up integration structures in economy, politics, humanitarian and security spheres, etc. When integration becomes a fact and the need for it is clearly realized by all, a settlement will be much easier to attain.
So far, the political elite is not motivated: it fails to perceive as an advantage an exchange of the conflict settlement for unblocking the republic.
There are two possible ways out of the present impasse. First, more intensive or even “forced” integration schemes and projects that will add profitability to economic cooperation. Naturally enough, this will call for more intensive democratic processes. On the one hand, they will become a factor of peaceful settlement; on the other, they will make it possible to elect legitimate authorities that will place the country’s interests above the selfish desires of the political elite. There is another option: to detach the settlement process from the problem of unblocking Armenia, to put forward such schemes that would create political, rather than economic advantages and accelerate the settlement process.