Opinion: Restoring trust in the Karabakh peace process
23 July 2020

In the third in a series of three commentaries on the consequences of the recent military clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, Dennis Sammut gives an assessment of the events from an international perspective. The elusive peace for Nagorno-Karabakh and for the Armenian and Azerbaijani people now appears more distant than ever. The mediators need to take tangible steps to strengthen the moral authority of the peace process, and restore trust in it.

The fighting that erupted on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Sunday 12 July has now largely abated. A few military personnel on each side and at least one civilian were killed. There was material damage on both sides. But the biggest victim has been the peace process between the two countries. The elusive peace for Nagorno-Karabakh and for the Armenian and Azerbaijani people now appears more distant than ever.

Both sides vehemently blame each other for starting the fighting. On this occasion it is even possible to believe that no one did start it deliberately, and that a series of skirmishes, of which there are daily occurrences on the international border and even more so in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, were somehow allowed to spiral into a major incident.

With tempers in both countries strained due to the coronavirus pandemic and the many restrictions that remain in place, a parallel battle emerged within hours - a propaganda war, and one for the hearts and minds of populations that have already been well indoctrinated with enemy imagery. Rumours, fake news, and not-so-fake statements of bravado by both sides quickly created a poisonous atmosphere that will linger long after the bodies of the dead have been buried.

In the previous two articles in this series, writing from Baku and Yerevan, my colleagues Ahmad Alili and Benyamin Poghosyan shared their concerns and frustrations, and both painted a bleak picture of the state of the peace process led by the OSCE Minsk Group co-Chair countries - France, Russia and the United States. This process has not delivered and trust in it has now fallen to rock bottom. 

"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 a 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," wrote Poghosyan.

read Benyamin Poghosyan's commentary here

"Secret diplomacy has failed and is causing more damage than it is creating constructive outcomes. It is time to think of alternative approaches,"  wrote Allili.

read Ahmad Alili's commentary here

The sides in the conflict must bear a big part of the responsibility of this failure of the peace process.  Their entrenched positions and failure to compromise has made the task of mediation all but impossible. This is partly because their room for manoeuvre on this highly emotional issue for the populations concerned is very narrow.  However, the hole that they are now in, they themselves have helped to dig, and it is useless to shoot the messengers if you do not like the messa ge.

Yet, regardless of how we got to this point, the international community now has little choice but to go back to the drawing board in its efforts to mediate an agreement between the sides, without necessarily trying to re-invent the wheel.

The co-Chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group is not some God-given right of France, Russia and the United States. It emerged over time because it was considered expedient: Russia's participation was considered necessary because many felt in 1992 - and since - that without Russia, no deal was likely to last. But a counterweight to Russia was necessary too, so the idea of having a co-chairmanship emerged. When both the United States and France started lobbying for the place upon its vacancy in 1996, diplomats in their wisdom decided why not have three co-chairs, and so the trio emerged and were formally installed in January 1997. For the moment, trying to change this will likely be more disruptive than helpful, so bar some small diplomatic earthquake, the baby is going to remain in the co-chairs' lap.

But the approach needs to change, and while this has been said before, the case now is absolutely compelling - not least because the process needs to regain the trust of the people on both sides of the conflict divide, and increasingly, of the wider international community.

There are four steps the co-Chairs to strengthen the moral authority of the peace process,  as they   start engaging again on the core issues, and as they try to move the sides towards substantial negotiations. Ideally these steps should be taken with the acquiescence of the sides,  but some can also be implemented unilaterally, even if incrementally:

First, widen the circle of the mediators by bringing into the process - even if only in a consultative role - the United Nations and the European Union. Their role in the future, at the point where an agreement is likely, is already tacitly recognised, but they can also contribute to the process now.

Since becoming Secretary General of the United Nations, António Gutteres has taken an interest in the Karabakh conflict and has signalled a readiness to engage with the peace effort.  It has always been understood that the UN Security Council will have to be the ultimate guarantor of any peace agreement, and should probably be the one that authorises the deployment of a peacekeeping force if it ever comes to that. Whilst the UN should not replace the OSCE as the lead in the mediation efforts, there is good reason why it should be involved now, even if in a consultative capacity.

One can make the same argument for the European Union. It is commendable that EU High Representative Josep Borrell spoke with the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan within hours of the start of the recent border clashes, to express concern and encourage the sides back to the negotiating table, repeating the message in a second phone call a few days later.  Yet, the EU's narrative on Nagorno-Karabakh remains weak. It often looks reluctant to be further involved, and its capacity to engage is inconsistent. It is often said that the EU will need to be brought in if ever a deal was reached because its money and expertise will be required for a post-conflict reconstruction. There is a good case to be made for it to be brought into the process now, even if initially at least, in a consultative capacity.

Second, if the Russians seriously want to help bring the conflict to a solution, they must be transparent about their end game.

Russia often uses the "white man's burden" argument to justify its role in the South Caucasus and particularly its involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process where it shamelessly plays the role of primus inter pares. Yet it has simultaneously flooded the region with sophisticated military equipment costing billions. It should start by declaring a moratorium on arms sales to the sides, which it can review annually. Russia's not-so-hidden agenda on Karabakh is that it wants to be able to have a military force deployed in Azerbaijan as part of a peace keeping force. This Russian need has lurked in the background over the whole life span of the Minsk process. It should not. Russia, like Turkey and the United States, should declare clearly that they will not be part of a military peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh. Such a declaration will go a long way in clearing the air on Russia's intentions.

Thirdly, whilst there is nothing wrong with the Madrid Principles, and they contain the ingredients necessary for a peace agreement, it is now time to repackage them, based on lessons learnt.

Once the shooting stops, there must be a time for reflection. This is going to entail a process of distancing from the Madrid Document (and principles) that have guided the international mediation effort since 2004. The core ideas underpinning them remain valid, even indispensable. But there is a need now to repackage them based on the lessons learnt.

Fourthly, engage more constructively with the wider debate on the peace process.

The co-chair mediators have not always appreciated the contribution of think tanks and civil society in discussing the conflict and its resolution. This is partly due to the obsession of the Armenian and Azerbaijani negotiators with secrecy, and their distrust of their own civil society which they suspect to be proxies of their opposition's forces. On this point, Armenia and Azerbaijan have had perfect consensus, at least since 2008. The co-Chair mediators have made some very erratic attempts to open a dialogue - a process usually instigated by the American part of the trio. This now needs to be done systematically, and in two ways:  through  a much more dynamic interaction between  the track 1 peace process and the track 2 initiatives; and by creating as soon as possible within the track 1 process expert working groups  to start digesting some of the issues ahead.

None of this is simple to deliver, and some may see little gain in these ideas when the focus needs to remain on the core issues which are as contentious as ever. But a reshuffling of some of the certainties that have dominated this process is now overdue. Everyone needs to be conscious of the risks of inaction. The capacity of the conflict not only to flare up into an all-out war but to quickly embroil other countries is very real. Every military escalation now comes accompanied with an escalating rhetoric and defiance. If before this was a nuisance, now it has become a major problem. A truce in the war of words has become as important as the cease fire itself.

De-escalation, a genuine return to negotiations, and progress in achieving a durable peace are going to require much more than a cease fire, or even an incident investigation mechanism. The sides have upped the ante, and the international community needs now to do so too.

source: Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS Europe, and has been involved in Track II activities in support of the Karabaklh peace process for mor than two decades.

photo: The mediators of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs Andrew Schofer (USA, Stéphane Visconti (France), and Igor Popov (Russian Federation) (archive picture)


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