THE KARABAKH CONFLICT AND STABILITY IN THE SOUTHERN CAUCASUS

Marina KARAPETIAN


Marina Karapetian, Expert, Center for Political and Law Studies Soglasie (Erevan, Armenia)


It is for over ten years that the South Caucasian countries, former Soviet republics, have been living as independent states. This period proved adequate for creating a political and socioeconomic basis for sustainable development in the post-Soviet Baltic states. In the Southern Caucasus, however, one can expect similar institutional changes not earlier than in ten-year time if all the three countries launch reforms simultaneously and immediately. Procrastination is fraught with a loss of an opportunity to find a place among the civilized countries and with weakened statehoods. The choice is between a shared success and another failure. I proceed with my rather gloomy forecast of the history of the 20th century when our countries acquired and lost independence under similar circumstances. To find a road leading to a stable and flourishing future we should perform a post-mortem of the events of the last decade that can be conventionally divided into four periods.

The first period was marked by ethnopolitical confrontation that turned the region into one of the planets hottest spots; our societies came face to face with the horrors of bloodshed, ethnic purges and destruction caused by armed clashes. This went hand in hand with the problems created by the collapse of totalitarian regime (other republics had a taste of this as well). No matter how well we realize the urgency of political and economic reforms, we have to admit that in these conditions human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rights of ethnic minorities could hardly be protected.

The second period pushed economic problems to the fore and left the most urgent political problems unattended. Being the key to regional stability and integration, the Karabakh settlement deserves special attention.

We have wasted the early years of independence on conflicts and wars. After the cease-fire in Karabakh we should have been transformed from fighting societies into peaceful ones. We should have covered a long road and address the problems related to security, national identity and vital interests and removed the factors breeding mutual hostility. These problems can be described in the following way: inadequate security for Karabakh; Azerbaijanian and Turkish blockade for Armenia and Karabakh defined as hostile acts by the relevant U.N. resolutions, and lost territories and refugees for Azerbaijan. Judging by the documents concerning conflict settlement, a peace treaty should address simultaneously all these problems.

Before we start discussing the documents we should say that the lost territories are a direct outcome of Azerbaijans policies and its desire to resolve the conflict by force. This is amply confirmed by Bakus unwillingness to accept all cease-fire suggestions of the Minsk OSCE Group.

By spring 1992 the Azerbaijanian army had captured nearly half of the territory of Nagorny Karabakh. Stepanakert and the nearest villages were shelled from Shusha. The area was nearly completely isolated from the world, therefore on 9 May, 1992 the Karabakh self-defense forces had to capture Shusha; on 17 May they broke the blockade and established their control over the Lachin corridor. In 1993, another cease-fire was disrupted by another Azerbaijanian offensive as a result of which Azerbaijan lost some of its territories.

Having condemned occupation of the Azerbaijanian lands, in 1993 the U.N. Security Council adopted several resolutions: No. 822 of 30 April; No. 853 of 29 July; No. 874 of 14 October, and No. 884 of 12 November that demanded withdrawal of forces from the recently occupied territories and lifting the blockades. The U.N. Security Council pointed out that the troops should be withdrawn according to a schedule corrected by the OSCE that envisaged complete lifting of all blockades. In the fall of the same year the Armenian government informed that the communication lines with Nakhichevan were open and absolutely safe.

The cease-fire document, the Bishkek protocol signed in May 1994 by the official representatives of Karabakh, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, presupposed the speediest possible establishment of the cease-fire regime through a treaty that would have created mechanisms designed to prevent resumed military and hostile actions; withdrawing troops from the occupied territories; and restoring communication lines. Under this document Azerbaijan should have recognized Nagorny Karabakh as an equal side in the conflict and agree on the deployment of the international interposition forces.

The document adopted by the December 1994 OSCE summit in Budapest clearly identified the settlement stages and stated that the peace treaty should guarantee security for the people of Karabakh with the help of international interposition forces and liquidate the conflicts worst aftermaths by lifting blockades and returning the refugees. Under the document the sides (Azerbaijan and Karabakh) having signed the treaty should have proceeded with the talks about the status of Karabakh. Indeed, confidence between the sides will start building up only when the troops are consistently withdrawn, blockades lifted, security guarantees given and refugees returned home. Only after that the sides could have formulated their interests and coordinated them with the regional requirements for peace and cooperation; this would allow the three countries to pool efforts to reach an understanding and create unshakeable stability through regional cooperation.

To make the future peace more attractive it was suggested that regional cooperation should be limited to economic matters; it was argued that if realized the Caspian oil and the Great Silk Road programs would boost local economies and help resolve regional problems. In fact, this was an attempt to bypass the complex political problemsand it did nothing to settle the conflict. Under a delusion that time was in its favor Azerbaijan toughened its position and erected even more stumbling blocks on the road to settlement. Continued blockade of Armenia and Karabakh is designed to destroy their economiessomething that goes against the cooperation idea.

The efforts to put pressure on Armenia by deliberately bypassing it when it came to oil pipelines go against the principles of regional integration according to which all states should have an equal share of economic prosperity.

In 1999 in Istanbul it became absolutely clear that the conflict could not be resolved with economic measures alone. It was there that Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey signed a treaty on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline while the talks on the Karabakh issue remained stalling. It was Armenia that suffered most because it was isolated from the economic cooperation programs. No region can flourish when one of its states is either isolated or has to survive under pressure. At the same time, the OSCE member countries signed the OSCE Charter for European Security that said in part: We will build our relations in conformity with the concept of common and comprehensive security, guided by equal partnership, solidarity and transparency. The security of each participating State is inseparably linked to that of all others. We will address the human, economic, political and military dimensions of security as an integral whole.1

The failures of the second period were caused by the fact that the South Caucasian countries guided themselves (and continue to do so) by principles that had nothing to do with the above. Having established the cease-fire regime, we stopped shelling each other, yet the confrontational frame of mind survived. We are still resolved to proceed from the idea that our security can be guaranteed at the expense of our neighbor; that our interests can be secured at the expense of our neighbor and that we can develop at the expense of our neighbor. We have underestimated the role of human and military-political dimensions of the regional security issue and have overestimated its economic side. We all know that none of the international systems can limit itself either to military or economic partnerships. Look at the CIS: it failed because it concentrated on economic cooperation. The GUUAM, on the contrary, is developing and strengthening because it is developing from the economic cooperation system into a security system. NATO, on the other hand, has developed from a military into a political structure.

During the third period the region acquired dividing lines. As soon as Armenia was isolated from regional economic cooperation the boundaries of the system of global and regional security separated it from its South Caucasian neighbors. Having become the GUUAM members, Azerbaijan and Georgia withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty (CST) and made public their intention to join NATO. Armenia betrayed no intention to join either one or both systems and stayed in the CST. The treaty itself proved beyond doubt that a member state that had no common frontiers with other members could not hope to strengthen its security or promote its developmentwhat was more, it faced a threat of limited state sovereignty. In particular, as soon as Armenia joined the CST its enterprises were transferred to the Russian government under a property for debts scheme; as soon as Russia redeployed its military bases from Georgia to Armenia Erevan became dependent upon Moscow both in the economic-energy and military-political spheres.

One wants to ask: Is Armenias economic isolation a true and only cause of the dividing lines in the region? To answer the question one should identify on which basis each of the South Caucasian states is building its relations with the global and regional superpowers pursuing their aims in the area: after all, in the absence of their own pronounced interests the local countries attach great importance to the aims of others. In particular, any seeming identity between the countrys own interests and those of a superpower boosts the latters influence many times over. There are cases when local countries readjust their foreign policies according to the policies of this or that superpower. It should be noted that throughout the entire period of independence power in the South Caucasian countries changed through coups, grave domestic crises and destabilization rather than through elections.

How do we build our relations with the global and regional superpowers? Outside the region we choose the states whose interests contradict the interests of our neighbors ally. This approach further aggravates regional contradictions.

The above is not merely a result of the local conflictsit stems from the policy of freezing the local conflicts caused by inadequate legitimacy of the local authorities. Starting with 1998 the so-called package variant of Karabakh settlement has been discussed. It presupposes simultaneous coordination of positions on all key aspects of conflict settlement including the status of Karabakhsomething that cannot be done. The negotiation process was transferred from the OSCE Minsk Group to the bilateral format; Karabakh was excluded from the process altogether and thus became an object of conflict rather than its subject. A peaceful settlement is hardly achievable in this context. These processes transformed the conflict into a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan in which concessions are no longer expected from Karabakh. It is Erevan that is expected to make them. A possibility of settling the conflict at the expense of Armenias territorial integrity is being discussed together with depriving it of control over communication lines that cross its territory. This will change the geographic map of the region and deepen the contradictions between the states interested in the Southern Caucasus.

On the other hand, cooperation between Aliev and Kocharian is designed to freeze the settlement process even if this may turn the area into a place where the superpowers interests clash. To create an illusion of continued talks intensive bilateral meetings have taken place (and will take place in future); the MG co-chairmen issue optimistic statements while the European structures are prepared to fund the process of liquidating the conflicts results. From time to time bilateral meetings discontinue; comments from both sides speak about a failure of another round of talks while the presidents do their best to convince the international structures that the public in their countries is not yet ready to accept a settlement. Controlled opposition immediately obliges the authorities by saying: No concessions!

An analysis of over twenty meetings between Aliev and Kocharian suggests a conclusion that the heads of both countries are deliberately freezing the conflict and preserve tension in foreign policy relations. One should admit that they meet mainly to deal with domestic problems. Being convinced that Kocharian and Aliev are working toward a settlement, international community gives them a carte blanche so that they can retain power by any means. Ridiculously, this approach is justified by the need to preserve regional stability.

The European Security Charter says in the Our Common Challenges Chapter: Security and peace must be enhanced through building confidence among people within States. This presupposes that human rights and fundamental freedoms, together with the rights of ethnic minorities, should be protected. The document also says that the desire and ability of each member state to support democracy, the rule of law and human rights are the best guarantee of peace and stability across the OSCE territory.

Recently Europe (France and Germany, in particular) has been taken as an example of a successful settlement of political problems through joint efforts. One should bear in mind that this was attained when both countries had reached democracy, created an institute of free and just elections, and acquired a free market.

One wants to know whether Russias influence in the region can be diminished in the conditions when Moscow increases its influence in one of the countries because of the local policies based on contradictions. There are forces in Armenia (belonging to the present system of power) that are convinced that Russia was and remains the only ally of the Armenian republic. In fact, Erevan has neither allies nor partners. We all know that the subjects of the independence struggle (Abkhazia and Nagorny Karabakh) are looking at Russia even though it repeatedly supported Azerbaijans and Georgias territorial integrity. Certain political circles argue that Moscow does not want a settlement that will decline its influence in the region.

Since 1997 Azerbaijan has been unwilling to contact with Nagorny Karabakh, therefore one finds it hard to trust statements about the widest autonomy for the area coming from Baku as well as promises to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms there. Such doubts are well justified in view of violation of human rights in Azerbaijan itself.

Obviously, until the former Soviet autonomous units receive real guarantees of protected civil rights they will continue seeking justice in Moscow by force of habit. International organizations can create an alternative by treating the human rights issue in the South Caucasian states impartially and firmly. Karabakh will consistently move away from its present pro-Russian policies if Azerbaijan develops democracy. I am convinced that the same is true of Abkhazia.

Potential trends of the last period have become clearanother wave of instability and upheavals. The Armenian authorities have contributed and are contributing to these developments. When justifying the countrys foreign policy by the need to freeze the conflict, President Kocharian in fact helps create more dividing lines between the security systems. Today, Armenia is economically and politically isolated. It was what NATO Secretary General George Robertson had in mind when he said last year in an interview in Armenia that the country held the key to long-term peace and stability in the important region that tied Europe and Asia together.

The following confirms that the South Caucasian and Central Asian states are the next NATO frontier: when describing specific tasks to the member countries of Partnership for Peace program the alliance created mechanisms to be applied to specific conditions. In particular, it insists on the fulfillment of all obligations to strengthen stability and security across the Euroatlantic expanse proceeding from cooperation and joint activity, stronger democratic institutions, the principles of freedom and international law. It offers its resources to meet the partners specific needs and creates mechanisms of individual cooperation. The declaration signed at the recent Prague summit says: We encourage Partners, including the countries of the strategically important regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia, to take advantage of these mechanisms.

I regret to say that against the background of the Prague summit George Robertsons forecast of an inevitable new war and more upheavals is becoming more and more real. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia formed the third group of countries to work together to join NATO. Armenia rejected the new mechanisms and emphasized that it was not seeking NATO membership. President Kocharian said, in particular, that bilateral relations between NATO and its partners should proceed at the sub-regional level. Having virtually rejected a possibility of joining a security system together with the neighbors, the Armenian president reconfirmed his adherence to the dividing lines policy.

The current geopolitical developments clearly testify that we have come close to a period when conflict settlement in the region will depend not so much on bilateral talks or negotiations within the OSCE and other international structures as on rivalry between the superpowers wishing to build up their military presence in the Southern Caucasus.

Passivity of the MG co-chairmen in settling the Karabakh conflict testifies that it wants nothing but continued cease-fire regime. Judging by what the co-chairmen have to offer, negotiations will go on at the bilateral level. No settlement can be reached in this format. While in the past it was admitted that Karabakh would be involved in negotiations, today its participation is ruled out. By delaying their visit to the region the MG co-chairmen push away a possibility of the final settlement. It seems that an obvious mutual agreement between Kocharian and Aliev not to damage the interests of one another creates hopes in the MG that hostilities would not resume.

This looks very much possible because Russia still looks at our region as a sphere of its influence and responsibility and tries to prevent NATOs eastward movement. In his annual address to the RF Federal Assembly President Putin said that Russia looked at the CIS expanse as a sphere of its strategic interests. In this context George Robertsons hope that deeper cooperation between Russia and NATO would help realize the alliances program tapping the regions potential looked unfounded. Meanwhile it was precisely these plans that the NATO Secretary General was talking about during his recent South Caucasian tour.


1 OSCE Charter for European Security, Istanbul, November 1999 [http://www.osce.org/docs/russian/1990-1999/summits/istachart99r.htm].

SCImago Journal & Country Rank
UP - E-MAIL