Ahead of the expected Armenia-Azerbaijan summit, Benyamin Poghosyan argues in this op-ed for commonspace.eu, that the negotiating paradigm based on the Madrid principles is doomed.
Since the victory of April - May 2018 "velvet revolution" in Armenia the key foreign policy issue facing the new Armenian authorities is the Karabakh conflict. The negotiation process has been stalled since the failed Kazan summit in June 2011, and the April 2016 four day war made any possible movement forward even less likely. The negotiations after April 2016 were focused on the launch of confidence building measures including the establishment of the ceasefire violations investigation mechanisms and the increase of the OSCE monitoring mission personnel. However, even these modest goals were difficult to achieve as Azerbaijan was urging for a start of "substantial" negotiations on issues of territories and status, otherwise perceiving the confidence building measures as a way to cement the current status quo.
The formation of the new government in Yerevan created some hope within the international community, as well as probably in Azerbaijan, that Armenia may be more inclined towards compromises than before the revolution. It's difficult to assess on what facts such belief was based, as no one from the new Armenian government was ever on record in the past criticizing the government for not making compromises, or expressing willingness to be more accommodating on issues such as territories or status.
It should be noted that immediately after coming to power Armenia's new Prime Minister made a clear statement that he had no mandate to negotiate on behalf of Nagorno Karabakh and that Nagorno Karabakh Republic should be returned to the negotiation table as one of the main sides in the conflict. Definitely, this was not welcomed with cheers in Azerbaijan, however, during the first months after the revolution there were signs of optimism from the Azerbaijani leadership that in 2019 negotiations could bring some breakthrough.
One of the reasons for perceptions that Armenia may be more inclined towards compromises than before the revolution could be the active discussions within Armenian political circles itself that the new leadership has no clear strategy on Karabakh, lacks experience in negotiating, and that this opens a great possibility of failure. However, it should be emphasized that these opinions were mainly disseminated by the representatives of the former authorities who were seeking to use the Karabakh issue as a leverage against the new leadership immediately after the revolution, as well as during parliamentary election campaign. Thus, the international community and expert community focusing on the South Caucasus were receiving contradictory and confusing messages regarding the real policy of new Armenian leadership.
Among the perceptions of the international community were those expressed by the former US Ambassador in Armenia, Richard Mills, who immediately after the end of his tenure in October 2018 made a rare public comment on Karabakh, explicitly stating that "the brutal reality is that any settlement will require return of certain part of occupied territories".
However, most probably, the initial statements of the Armenian Prime Minister were perceived in Baku as addressed to the domestic audience prior to the snap parliamentary elections in December. The first informal meeting between the new Armenian Prime Minister and the Azerbaijani President took place in late September during CIS summit in Dushanbe, and a verbal agreement was reached to reduce tensions and re-establish the military-to-military hot line. The agreement was honored by both sides, and of course this was significant, enabling Prime Minister Pashinyan to show his ability to get concrete results and secure a sharp decline in incidents and related casualties, thus boosting his position before the snap Parliamentary elections. As for President Aliyev, he may have thought that by doing a gesture towards Pashinyan he would raise the possibilities of the successful (from Azerbaijani point of view) negotiations to be launched in 2019. The second Pashinyan - Aliyev meeting took place in January 2019 in Davos with little information available on results.
Since the mid 2000s the negotiations on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict have been conducted in the framework of three principles and so called six elements, also known as Madrid principles, which envisage the return of territories around Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan, granting interim status to Karabakh, providing guarantees for security and self governance and the determination of final status through legally binding expression of will without fixing any precise date as well as modalities for a future referendum. All working documents prepared since 2007 - some were publicized and some not - the Kazan document, the updated Kazan document, the so called Lavrov plan, and so on, have all been based on this paradigm.
Meanwhile, despite some hopes in Azerbaijan that Prime Minister Pashinyan's rhetoric on Karabakh was addressed to the domestic audience aiming to defend his image against accusations of being weak on Karabakh before Parliamentary elections; the Prime Minister steadily continued to articulate his position that without Karabakh participation there are few if any changes for successful negotiations. This message was once more emphasised by Pashinyan during his speech at the joint session of the security councils of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh Republic, held on March 12 in Stepanakert. Even more, the Prime Minister raised the issue of clarification of principles and elements of settlement set forward in 2007, adding that Azerbaijan's interpretations were not acceptable for Armenia. The joint session took place only three days after the OSCE Minks Group Co-Chairs issued a statement, where they urged the sides to refrain from statements and actions suggesting significant changes to the situation on the ground and demanding unilateral changes to the format without agreement of the other party, and again articulated Helsinki Final act three core principles and six elements as a base for a lasting and fair settlement.
Obviously, this paradigm cannot be accepted in either Armenia or in Karabakh, and one must have a really vivid imagination to believe that any leadership in Armenia and Karabakh could sign an agreement based on these principles. Although the previous administration of President Serzh Sargsyan had announced its willingness to sign the Kazan document in 2011, but most probably Armenian leadership was hoping that Azerbaijan would in any case always reject the Kazan document, and thus bear the responsibility for the failure of negotiations, leaving Armenia with a more positive image with international community and Minsk group. We can assume that in case President Aliyev had decided to sign the Kazan document, President Sargsyan would have found some excuse not to do so.
Given that Kazan document was rejected by the Azerbaijani leadership, this paradigm is not acceptable for Azerbaijan toօ, as it creates, even theoretical, the possibility of independence for Nagorno Karabakh. President Aliyev has reiterated multiple times that Azerbaijan will never accept any solution which will not result in the return of Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, where it will be granted the highest level of autonomy.
Thus, as long as negotiations are conducted within the Madrid principles paradigm, the only tangible result could be the prevention of large scale hostilities. There are few if any chances that the upcoming Pashinyan - Aliyev meeting, and the continuation of the current negotiation process, will bring the sides closer to the signature of an agreement.
Source: Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia
Photo: The Kazan Summit in 2011 - Dimitri Medvedev hosted the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan for discussions on Karabaklh (archive picture)
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