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A “Karabakh Spring” is still possible, even if it comes in Autumn
27 April 2017

The Foreign Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia will meet in Moscow on Friday (28 April) in an effort to restart negotiations for a solution to the Karabakh conflict. In this commentary, Dennis Sammut, says a breakthrough on Karabakh in the coming weeks remains a possibility, despite the all-round pessimism in the region and beyond.

With parliamentary elections in Armenia out of the way, the scene is now set for another round of discussions on the Karabakh conflict and its resolution. The Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan are due to meet with their Russian counterpart in Moscow on Friday (28 April). Past experience tells us this format is the one that usually produces movement, even if momentarily, in the negotiations process. Seasoned observers are cynical about the possible results of yet another meeting, but there is still a sliver of a chance that we will see this year a breakthrough in the negotiations.

When earlier this month commentators wrote on the first anniversary of the fighting last year between Armenia and Azerbaijan - which left hundreds dead and wounded - predictions were justifiably gloomy.  All the conditions which built up to the fighting in April 2016 remain, and if anything, have become more acute. The chances of another round of heavy fighting, which may be less easily stopped than last time, involving more sophisticated and deadly weaponry, remains high.

Yet throughout this period, and even now, the possibility that the sides may do what they had to do for more than twenty years but didn't, and push seriously for an agreement by accepting compromise, must also be considered. A ray of hope remains, even if it is often seen fading.

Those looking for conflict fatigue among the parties are usually disappointed. There is a resilience in the hard-line approach of the sides to the conflict that is more than simple bravado; it takes its strength from a sense of mission that grips both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani leaderships and that dampens quickly any sign that can be interpreted as weakness. But war, and the preparations for it, are a costly business, and neither side at the moment has a lot of cash to splash out on arms and equipment. Both governments are increasingly sensitive to domestic public discontent. Whilst regime survival until recently may have demanded a tough line that made peace impossible, it now requires moderation, so that peace can be achieved and a peace dividend cashed.

The solution for the Karabakh conflict is already known, enshrined in the so called "Madrid principles", already public, and articulated in the so called "Lavrov ideas", that are not public but can be predicted within a reasonable point of accuracy. They entail that both sides back down on some of their declared positions. In Armenia and in Azerbaijan both Presidents consolidated their positions internally in the last year. The Armenian parliamentary elections have strengthened the hand of President Sargsyan and the constitutional changes in Azerbaijan have strengthened the hand of President Aliyev. If there was ever a time when the leaders had some space for manoeuvre that time is now.

The international context is also at the moment conducive. Whilst relations between Russia and the west remain strained, these were never a determining factor on the Karabakh issue. Armenia and Azerbaijan have learned to have modest expectations from what the US and the EU can, or were willing to do, to broker peace in Karabakh. The two other co-chair of the OSCE Minsk process, apart from Russia, are busy with their own issues - the French with electing a new President, the Americans trying to reconcile the ideas of their president with their long held foreign policy priorities. But mid-ranking diplomats keep the western involvement ticking along. Much more relevant for the Karabakh context are the relations between Russia and Turkey, and these, whilst still full of mistrust, are now in a much better shape than they were last year, and some general understanding between the two on Karabakh may be emerging.

So, we may very well see, on Friday and subsequently, that the Russians will push hard enough for a breakthrough to become possible

A breakthrough in the negotiations should not be confused with a solution. Even if a solution is fully articulated, and it is a big if, getting to that point will take some time, and after that implementing whatever may be agreed will be fraught with risks and dangers for all concerned. So even if the sides in the conflict are able at this moment to muster enough courage to achieve a breakthrough, sustaining it over a long period of time will be very challenging.

At this point however the role of the international community will change, and the role of the US and the EU will become much more important. The Russian involvement in Karabakh is a double-edged sword for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and a wider international involvement will be necessary. The EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus was in the region in the last days meeting the two Presidents. The EU has been on the margins of the Karabakh negotiations for a long time. Everyone agrees that at some point its experience, expertise - and money - will be needed to turn a breakthrough in the negotiations from a fleeting moment into a new reality. It could be that that this point may be reached soon.

For the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations of Nagorno-Karabakh and the neighbouring territories, and for their compatriots beyond, the last twenty-five years have been a long winter. If Spring comes, even if it is in September, then it will be time for them to start re-building their lives without the fear and the danger of war. The next few weeks will tell us if that is likely to happen, or if indeed the gloomy predictions of renewed fighting were correct.

Dennis Sammut is the Executive Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) (www.links-dar.org). He may be contacted at dennis@links-dar.org He contributed this commentary for commonspace.eu

photo: A general view of Nagorno-Karabakh (picture courtesy of La Stampa, Italy)

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