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Opinion: Ahmad Alili says there is still hope in the wisdom of the leaders and their ability to lead their nations out of conflict to peace.
21 March 2019

Baku softened its rhetoric on Karabakh following the velvet revolution in Armenia. Nikol Pashinyan's statements however have disappointed Baku at a time when its room for manoevre is limited. In this op-ed for commonspace.eu Ahmad Alili says there is still hope in the wisdom of the leaders, and their ability to lead their nations out of conflict to peace. 

For some time over the last months, it was noticeable that the Azerbaijani authorities were being careful in their speeches when commenting on developments with regard to the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, choosing accommodating rhetoric toward the new government in Armenia. At their first informal meeting in Dushanbe, during the CIS summit in late September, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev verbally agreed to reduce tensions on the line of contact, including by re-establishing the military-to-military hotline, something which the Azerbaijani side had previously rejected as a measure that strengthened the status quo. These were positive developments: the number of causalities drastically decreased; the number of daily incidents at the Line of Contact reduced from around 90 to 20. In addition, Azerbaijan replaced its Armed Forces with the Border Service, which compared to the Armed Forces are lightly armed, at the international borders with Armenian Republic. Earlier Armenia had taken a similar measure, sending Ministry of Interior troops instead of Army units.

Now, it seems, this break from the 'rhetoric of war' is coming to an end. On 18 March 2019, Hikmet Hajiyev, head of Foreign Policy Affairs Department of Azerbaijan's Presidential Administration was interviewed by Turkey's 'Anadolu' news agency. The main take-out from the interview is Mr Hajiyev's quote: "Azerbaijan has a limit to its patience". In his 'Novruz' holiday speech, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan also expressed his dissatisfaction with the public statements of the Armenian Prime Minister. It seems we are back to the war of words, which existed prior to the Dushanbe meeting between the two leaders.

What happened, and why had Azerbaijan thought it could work differently with Nikol Pashinyan, to the extent that it decided to use a softer rhetoric position towards the new government in Armenia?

Nikol Pashinyan, a figure unknown to the wider Azerbaijani audience up to the time of last year's 'Velvet revolution', was associated with the former President of Armenia - Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Ter-Petrosyan was seen as Nikol Pashinyan's mentor. It was a sign of hope for Azerbaijan.

In December 1997, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, then-President of Armenian Republic, agreed with the 'step-by-step' approach, proposed by the OSCE MG co-chairs, for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A plan emerged which envisaged the withdrawal of the armed forces from the conflict zone, return of refugees and IDPs to their initial place of settlement, and then continuing discussions on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The proposal was approved by the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership. At the time Levon Ter-Petrosyan met strong domestic resistance from the public, and had to publish the article "War or Peace? Time for Thoughtfulness", to explain his vision of peace. Not everyone in Levon Ter-Petrosyan's team was happy about the deal either. Nevertheless, President Ter-Petrosyan was convinced that, in the existing geopolitical situation, it was the best solution for Armenia and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Soon however the opposition to the deal became so strong that he had to resign.

Since then the popularity of Levon Ter-Petrosyan as a political figure, and the influence of his ideas on Armenian society, were considered an indicator of the willingness of Armenians to agree a peace deal similar to the deal that was on the negotiations table in December 1997. Hence, during last spring's velvet revolution in Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan and his role in the 2008 Armenian presidential elections as Levon Ter-Petrosyan's associate, was recalled, and interpreted by Baku as a positive sign.

In addition, the Azerbaijani leadership was pleased by Pashinyan's "economy and internal issues first" policy. Baku considered that in order to improve living conditions in Armenia and build a sustainable economy, Pashinyan would realise the importance restoring ties and communication lines with Azerbaijan and Turkey. From the outset, it was clear that Azerbaijan did not intend to rebuild economic and transport communication lines with neighbouring Armenia without first signing a comprehensive document on the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Another reason for a softer rhetoric towards the new Armenian government from Baku was that the 'Velvet revolution' was seen as a success story for the Azerbaijani leadership. President Aliyev, in his speeches directed at an internal audience, proudly announced that the revolution in Armenia was the result of Azerbaijan's policy toward Armenia. He considered the economic blockade and isolation of Armenia, hitherto pursued by the Azerbaijan government, was an effective mechanism which led to a harsh economic situation in Armenia, and eventually the overthrow of president Serzh Sargsyan. Nikol Pashinyan was seen as a more agreeable figure compared to Sargsyan. Pashinyan's first public statements on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, after the revolution, were seen as expressions of the 'populist politician' addressing the crowd, and it was assumed that he would soon change his rhetoric once he approached the negotiation table. Pashinyan's persistence however, has disappointed Baku.

In particular, Baku is not pleased by Pashinyan's repeated public statements on the change to the existing format of negotiations by including Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians as the third party at the negotiation table. During his visits to Brussels on 5 March and to Nagorno-Karabakh on 12 March, the Armenian Prime Minister repeatedly delivered the same messages, to the irritation of Baku. Officials in Baku are satisfied by the official reaction of the European Union, especially Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, who stated that "the existing format should be preserved. Nothing new should be created". Furthermore, soon after Prime Minister Pashinyan's Brussels visit, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group issued a statement on President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan's forthcoming meeting in which they reiterated "the critical importance of reducing tensions and minimizing inflammatory rhetoric". This was also a reasonable cause for Baku to hold its temper. Yet, despite the co-chairs statement on reducing inflammatory rhetoric, Pashinyan's visit to Nagorno-Karabakh and his public messages were considered as provocative by the expert community in Baku, and strongly criticised.

Baku considers the public proposals of the Armenian leadership for change in the negotiations format, their refusal of the Madrid principles, and the proposal to include the Nagorno-Karabakh de-facto authorities in the negotiation process, as an attempt by Yerevan to stall the peaceful resolution of conflict. The renewed diplomatic talks, following the Four Day War in April 2016, had already raised expectations of what can ensue from the negotiation process. Therefore, the Azerbaijani leadership is limited by the public mood and expectations.

Currently, the public debate in Azerbaijan regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be explained in two ways: firstly, domestic public opinion is in a critical mood toward the leadership because of the softer rhetoric toward Nikol Pashinyan's public announcements, his visits to Nagorno-Karabakh, and the fact that his son is serving with the Armenian army on the Line of Contact. Azerbaijan's relatively softer rhetoric during the revolution and post-revolution period in Armenia, which many in Azerbaijan consider to have enabled Nikol Pashinyan to secure his position, is also confusing for the Azerbaijani public, many of who consider that it was wrong for Azerbaijan not to have used the time of turmoil in Armenia for its advantage.

Secondly, there are increased expectations among the Azerbaijani public for the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict following the April 2016 events and the subsequent diplomatic talks. Discussion and expectations of a diplomatic or military resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has intensified. Public opinion considers April 2016 as a success, and expects the momentum to be continued at the diplomatic negotiation table. The recent joint statement by OSCE MG co-Chairs and the foreign ministers of the two countries calling for "preparing the populations for peace", the US president Donald Trump's letters to Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, US National Security Advisor J. Bolton's statements and other activities, have pushed the public expectation far higher than what had been the case so far. Any sign of procrastination, or attempts to restart the negotiations process from scratch, would meet resistance by the public in Azerbaijan, with unclear consequences.

Currently, Azerbaijan is undergoing an economic and political transformation period. In recent months, President Aliyev has on several occasions spoken about deep reforms in the economy and in the political sphere. Right now, President Aliyev needs a success story more than ever to gain full public support for implementing his vision. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has a strong narrative presence in Azerbaijan's public agenda and the lack of success in this regard could have a significant impact on the intended reforms. Any change to the negotiations format would be considered as a 'loss' for Baku, and a serious reputation setback with regards to the domestic audience.

These factors limit the Azerbaijani leadership's room for manoeuvre, and its ability to continue its soft rhetoric toward Pashinyan and his team. There is a fear that the first meeting of Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev under the auspices of OSCE MG, could be a failure, and some are already coining it as Kazan 2.0. This would rebound on the Azerbaijani leadership, and their soft approach to Pashinyan.

What to do next? There is a need for more Confidence Building Measures. There is also a need for more representatives from different social groups to meet and understand each other's reasoning. Cross-border meetings would also be an effective tool in this regard.

 In addition, it's very important to bring "Track 1" and "Track 2" closer to each other, so there is less room for 'wrong' interpretations and misunderstanding. The conflicting parties tend to interpret the existing documents on a diplomatic resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a way benefiting them most. Hence, each party developed its own interpretation of the existing situation, which are mutually contradictory. "Track 1" and "Track 2" contacts could lead to shrinking the gap of misunderstanding and help to bring the public expectations to an adequate level.

In conclusion, change of the negotiations format was publicly favoured by Azerbaijan for a long time. Following the Kazan meeting in 2011, which killed the diplomatic resolution process back then, and prior to the August 2014 skirmishes, which created a new diplomatic impetus, Baku was actively lobbying for an active role of the UN and other international bodies at the peace-building process. It was seen as a way out of the existing diplomatic stagnation. The April 2016 events changed that. Now, Baku is not in a position to afford any change, and sees no reason for abandoning the existing formats and accepting new ones. This is a dead-end. Nevertheless, there is still hope in the wisdom of the leaders, who can lead their nations out of conflict to peace. In Dushanbe they appeared to have started the journey. It is still possible that they can resume it.

source: Ahmad Alili is the Head of Research department, Caucasus Policy Analysis Center, in Baku and Adjunct-Professor at the Azerbaijan Academy of Public Administration.

photo: President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan held a conversation in Dushambe in September 2018 (archive picture)


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