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Opinion: The current framework of negotiations has exhausted itself
22 July 2020

In the first in a series of three commentaries on the consequences of the recent military clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, Armenian political analyst Benyamin Poghosyan assesses the impact of the latest events on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, and says it is time to finally realize that the current framework of negotiations, which has lasted for sixteen years, has exhausted itself. The time has come to bid it farewell, and to start elaborating a new framework for negotiations, he argues.

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The escalation of violence along the Armenia - Azerbaijan international border on 12-16 July triggered a lot of international attention, and much debate and emotion in the region itself.  While some seek to understand the sequence of events, the more significant question is what will the implications on the long standing negotiation process between the two countries be. Since 2004 they have been based on a "phased approach solution", and in November 2007 they were articulated in what became known as the "Madrid document". The main features of this approach are the return of, in the first phase, some territories to Azerbaijan; an interim status for Nagorno Karabakh, security guarantees for Karabakh with deployment of peacekeeping forces; and the determination of the final legal status of Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will  sometime in an undefined future. Initially both Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to accept this framework as a basis for negotiations, but there were strong differences on some key issues, including the timing of a referendum, Azerbaijan's insistence that regardless the of results of such referendum Azerbaijan will never accept the independence of Nagorno Karabakh, and what states should form the peacekeeping forces, have prevented an agreement even on basic principles. After the failed Kazan summit in June 2011 negotiations continued, mostly lethargically and without any real hope of a breakthrough.

The significant growth of the Azerbaijani economy in 2006-2013 due to the oil boom, and an impressive increase of the military budget, ushered in a new mindset in Azerbaijan. If Armenia was not ready to accept the Azerbaijani interpretation of the "Madrid principles" - a phased approach with fixed final status for Karabakh in the form of autonomy within Azerbaijan - Baku would force Armenia to do that by increasing military pressure. Since August 2014 Azerbaijan has significantly increased military activities along the line of contact, and the growing escalation peaked in April 2016. However, that "four day war" showed that, despite an existing power gap between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Baku was not able to militarily force Armenia to accept its vision of a settlement.

Those events also impacted the public perceptions of the "Madrid document" in Armenia and in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. If before April 2016 some parts of society were ready to accept a "phased solution" given a timeframe for a referendum in Karabakh without any restrictions on outcome, after the war no one was ready to continue discussions based on the "Madrid document". The cornerstone in the phased approach is the idea of security guarantees to prevent Azerbaijan from attacking Karabakh using territories which it would get during the first phase.   Azerbaijan's overt break of the 1994 - 1995 ceasefire agreements in April 2016, and the failure of the Minsk group Co-Chair states to condemn this, rung alarm bells for Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and convinced many that international security guarantees meant very little. The 2014 Ukraine crisis, and the transformation of post cold war world order, resulting in the return of great power competition and growing instability, contributed to the skepticism of Armenians.    

Azerbaijan, after the failure of the campaign of military pressure on Armenia, returned to  its own version of the "Madrid principles", demanding the return of some territories as the first step, and continuation of negotiations to define the level of autonomy of Nagorno Karabakh within Azerbaijan.     

Thus, after April 2016 there emerged a paradoxical situation - neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan was ready to accept the "Madrid document". However, as no new framework was elaborated either by Minsk group Co-Chairs or by the sides themselves, negotiations continued to be based on this paradigm. Some new elements were introduced in the discussions after the "four day war", namely the launch of an OSCE investigative mechanism on ceasefire violations, and the expansion of the existing Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office. However, they did not change the substance of the negotiations and have essentially been rejected by Azerbaijan since it saw these suggestions as a way of perpetuating the status quo whilst depriving it of the leverage of military pressure.

In parallel with the Minsk Group process Russia in 2014 put forward a modified version of the Kazan document - the so called Lavrov plan, which again was based on a "phased approach". It allegedly dropped the idea of a referendum in Karabakh, instead offering to fix the final status of Karabakh through open-ended negotiations. However, the Russian offer came with strings attached - the requirement to deploy only Russian peacekeepers in the territories along the border with Iran which Nagorno Karabakh Republic should give to Azerbaijan during the first phase. This was a non-starter both for Armenia and Azerbaijan. From Yerevan's point of view the "Lavrov plan" was even worse than the "Madrid document". It was dubbed by some experts as "Land for promises" formula, and was rejected by the Armenian government. On its part, Azerbaijan had no intention to allow the de facto establishment of a Russian military base on its territory. This offer was also not in line with  US and French interests since neither wanted to see a significant increase of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. Another important regional player Turkey was not happy either as the establishment of a second Russian military base in the South Caucasus would complicate Turkey's strategic plans to gain the upper hand in the region.

The April - May 2018 Velvet revolution in Armenia triggered some hope in Azerbaijan that the new Armenian government might be more flexible, and more willing to accept either the Azerbaijani interpretations of the "Madrid document" or the "Lavrov plan". Prime Minister Pashinyan has no Karabakhi background and in the 2008 Presidential campaign he was one of the key supporters of the first Armenian President Levon Ter Petrosyan, who since 1997 has been campaigning for a phased approach solution. Azerbaijan hoped also that under Pashinyan Armenia-Russia relations would deteriorate, making it easier for Azerbaijan to put pressure on Armenia.

During the first year of Pashinyan government there were some signs of improvements in the environment surrounding the negotiations. In late September 2018 Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to establish a direct hot line, and reduce the tensions along the line of contact and international border. During their January 2019 Paris meeting the Armenian and Azerbaijan foreign ministers agreed on the necessity of taking concrete measures to prepare the populations for peace.

Pashinyan and Aliyev met twice in 2019, and in November 2019 Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists visited Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh. However, there was no breakthrough in the negotiations, and the public debate of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders on the margins of the February 2020 Munich Security Conference showed that the sides were still too far away from mutually accepted solutions.

In recent months the Azerbaijani authorities have publicly complained about the lack of any movement forward during the negotiations. It is clear that they felt that a two year period was enough for Prime Minister Pashinyan to consolidate his power in Armenia, and to manage the 2020 power transition in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. However, given that the phased approach was not acceptable for the absolute majority of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh population it was naïve to think that any Armenian leadership would be ready to accept it. In late April 2020 the spokeswoman of the Armenian foreign ministry in her reply to the Russian newspaper "Kommersant" said unambiguously that the proposals made before 2018 envisaging a phased settlement were not acceptable for Armenia, and since 2018 Armenia had not been holding negotiations based on a phased settlement plan.    

Thus it seems that since May 2020 the Azerbaijani leadership has returned to its summer 2014 policy - to put military pressure on Armenia. The Azerbaijani army conducted large scale drills along the line of contact in mid May 2020, which involved around 10,000 soldiers, hundreds of tanks and artillery systems, and dozens of warplanes and helicopters. On May 28, 2020 President Aliyev again reiterated that the only acceptable way forward for Azerbaijan was a phased solution, and that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be resolved only within the framework of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.  

Therefore, immediately prior to the escalation of the last days the Karabakh negotiations process was in deadlock. Azerbaijan insisted on the realization of its own interpretation of the "Madrid document" and threatened to put military pressure on Armenia, Yerevan de facto rejected the "Madrid document", while the OSCE Minsk group Co-Chairs continued to insist that the only viable path towards lasting peace was the implementation of the "Madrid document" as was mentioned in their March and December 2019 statements. Obviously in this environment negotiations can lead to nowhere.

There are now two main scenarios for the future. The first option is to continue negotiations within the current framework, but with a clear understanding that they will bring no tangible results. In this case we will see a growing number of military incidents along the line of contact and along the Armenia - Azerbaijan international border, as was the case from August 2014 - March 2016 period. They may peak like in April 2016, or tensions may linger for several years without peaks.

The second option is to finally realize that the current framework of negotiations, which has lasted for sixteen years, has exhausted itself. The time has come to bid it farewell, and to start elaborating a new framework for negotiations. This will be the difficult option, and will take time. However it is the only option that may break the vicious circle of "escalation - relative calm - escalation", and open the prospects of conflict settlement. One thing is clear. The new framework cannot be based on the phased approach.

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan

photo: Armenian soldier on the border (picture courtesy of the Armenian Ministry of Defence)

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