During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

The NIS Observed: An Analytical Review

Volume VI, Number 8 (2 May 2001)

How Close Are They to Peace?

by Miriam Lanskoy

The chances for peace are better now than at any time in the last decade, says Carey Cavanaugh. He would know. As US special negotiator for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since August 1999, he spearheaded the US mediation efforts and raised the profile of the nearly defunct OSCE Minsk Group. The presidents have arrived at a basic understanding, which is endorsed by the three chief mediators who represent France, Russia, and the US. The three will work out the particulars and present a proposal to the presidents at the next meeting in Geneva in June. Now the presidents must obtain public acceptance of the peace process, and this, according to Cavanaugh, constitutes the biggest obstacle to peace. (PRESENTATION to Strengthening Democracy Initiative (SDI), Harvard University, 23 Apr 01)

During the first week of April, President Robert Kocharian of Armenia and President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan arrived at the basic formula while attending four days of OSCE-mediated talks in Key West which were hosted by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Then the presidents had individual meetings in Washington, DC, with US President George W. Bush.

The parties and the OSCE are keeping the substance of the talks secret, but some details have been leaked in a scattered way among different media outlets and others can be inferred from the official statements. The Armenian side would return six of the occupied seven districts of Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh. This would allow the vast majority of the more than 700,000 Azerbaijani refugees to return home. According to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev, a territorial exchange is not on the agenda, but the retention by Armenia of the "Lachin corridor" linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh must be balanced by a corridor through Armenia from Azerbaijan proper to its non-contiguous territory, Nakhichevan. In this context, having dismissed the territorial swap, it would seem that by "corridor" the parties mean extra-territorial roads. (However, in the Lachin region some change of borders in Armenia's favor seems to be implied.) As regards status, Cavanaugh says the "common state" formula has been discarded and Guliev says that Nagorno-Karabakh will have a "high degree of autonomy" but formally remain within Azerbaijan. (REUTERS, 19 Apr 01; and THE ECONOMIST, 21 Apr 01)

The US State Department has announced that the OSCE in the person of Carey Cavanaugh is informing Iran about the talks and that a group of experts on borders has been summoned. This also suggests that extra-territorial roads are under discussion, since a road from Azerbaijan proper to Nakchichevan would have to pass very close to the Iranian frontier, perhaps even running along the border where there is a railroad already. If the agreement is signed, restrictions on US assistance to Azerbaijan and the trade embargo that Azerbaijan and Turkey have imposed on Armenia would be lifted. This would pave the way to normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia.

How to sell the compromise?
The arrangements discussed above are nothing if not fair: The Armenians are guaranteed security and self-rule; the Azerbaijanis retain territorial integrity (at least in areas other than Lachin) and obtain a link to Nakhichevan, which constitutes an uninterrupted path to Turkey. But these provisions fall far short of banners under which the war was fought or the slogans that the demagogues in the parliaments and on the streets of Yerevan and Baku still chant.

Persuading the populace in both states that this compromise represents the best available outcome requires a degree of openness and public accountability that has been woefully lacking. However, the last couple of months witnessed some very productive experiments with public discussion. The February publication of the outdated draft OSCE texts created a context for debate in Azerbaijan that humiliated the opposition, which had no viable alternative to offer. (See THE NIS OBSERVED, 28 Feb 01 and 21 Mar 01)

The presidents must trust their publics to be savvy enough to distinguish between an opposition that criticizes real flaws in the peace proposals and an opposition that only uses the occasion to attack the plan's authors. At the same time, the presidents have a very powerful tool - deniability. The governments already have leaked more information than was made available in 1997 and 1999, the two previous occasions when a compromise seemed imminent. Over the next few weeks, the opposition can have its say and, if its representatives propose improvements, the governments can modify the proposals before making them public. (Ways of ensuring the security of the roads without introducing foreign peacekeepers represents one fruitful area for discussion.) In other words, the break before the Geneva meeting provides the presidents with an opportunity to steal the thunder from the opposition by appropriating any constructive proposals that may emerge.

In 1994, when the cease-fire agreement was signed, both nations were exhausted by war. Now they are exhausted by poverty. The international community can play a very constructive role by holding out generous financial incentives. The Azeri refugees who eked out an existence amid devastating squalor need more than the formal right of return; they need services, transportation, and shelter. Veterans in both countries lack medical care, pensions, and employment. It's not enough to suggest that peace will remove obstacles to trade and promote economic recovery. It would be far more persuasive to offer an aid package to improve immediately the condition of those who suffered the most from the war.

Why isn't Russia misbehaving?
In his comments at Harvard on 23 April, Cavanaugh emphasized that the three mediating countries share a common constructive attitude and are working in tandem to develop a concrete proposal. In this context, Cavanaugh mentioned that Russia has treaty obligations to help Armenia in the event of a new war over Nagorno-Karabakh, but Russia has to contend with its own conflict in the North Caucasus.

In March two former Azerbaijani officials, Tofig Zulfugarov and Eldar Namazov, proposed launching limited operations to retake the Armenian-occupied districts east of Nagorno-Karabakh. (ZERKALO, 7 Mar 01)

Would the armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia be sufficient to counter such moves?
True, Russia has bases and thousands of troops in Armenia and it has supplied extensive weaponry to Armenia (most recently by moving CFE-limited equipment from a base in Georgia to Nagorno-Karabakh). But what if hostilities resumed on such a scale that this was not sufficient? Would reinforcements from Russia be available? The Russian military faces another summer of war in Chechnya, including mounting rumors of a Chechen counteroffensive. According to the preeminent Russian expert on nationalities, Emil Pain, the Russian side is running low on reinforcements, whereas the Chechens have the demographic resources to fight a guerrilla war for the next 50 years. (PRESENTATION to The Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy, Boston University, 4 Apr 01) A second front in the Caucasus seems more than Russia can handle.

It's ironic that for the second time in a decade the South Caucasus is poised to reap the benefits of a Chechen war. Nearly two years ago Azerbaijan's elder statesman, Vafa Guluzade, resigned his position as foreign policy advisor to Aliyev in protest over Azerbaijan's lack of support for the Chechens. His words ring prophetic now:

"I will tell you right now that if that brave and courageous people in their tiny republic (of Chechnya) had not managed to defeat Russia in the 1994-1996 war, Moscow would long have been back in Azerbaijan, making further trouble and trying to destroy our independence. Our debt to the Chechens is huge - and yet not one voice in this government will speak one word of support or solidarity. Silence. I am ashamed, mortified. That is why I quit." (Thomas Goltz, "The Question of Succession in Azerbaijan: Is the Aliyev era (almost) Over?" SDI CASPIAN STUDIES EXPERTS CONFERENCE REPORT, Oct 99)

Evolution of US policy
Major improvements in US policy under the present administration constitute the second set of factors pushing Russia to support a peaceful and fair solution to the impasse over Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1999, in a zealous pursuit of an elusive legacy, the Clinton administration abandoned the OSCE process. In the midst of the war against Serbia, Madeleine Albright launched the bilateral negotiations which were held in total secrecy and left Russian representatives out in the cold. When those talks showed promise, Armenian leaders were murdered in the nation's parliament. Then it was Putin's turn to mediate the bilateral talks, then Chirac's. In the meantime, the OSCE process languished. In its waning days, the Clinton administration made a shameful last-ditch effort by secretly offering a deal: It would lift US restrictions on aid to Azerbaijan if Turkey ended its embargo of Armenia. (AZTV1, 25 Feb 01; BBC Monitoring, via Had Azerbaijan accepted that offer, a key bargaining chip in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement would have been squandered.

The Bush administration improved the process substantially by merging the bilateral talks with the OSCE mediation. In Key West the main talks were among the negotiators and between the negotiators and each of the parties separately. The presidents met only once and for only a brief period. This format shares the spotlight among the mediators, expedites the process by having the presidents on hand to react swiftly, and gives symbolic weight to the proceedings by involving top figures from the US administration.

The Bush administration has come under criticism for taking a tougher line in its relations with Russia than the previous administration. Yet, in this instance, the Bush administration involved the Russian representatives in a cooperative and fruitful manner. This administration is said to be weak on foreign policy and uninterested in international conflicts. Yet, according to Cavanaugh, on the 10th day of the administration President Bush discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh quandary with President Chirac; in its 10th week the administration was hosting the negotiations in Key West. Azerbaijani embassy sources say that the US president himself ran the half-hour meeting with Aliyev. Bush exhibited such mastery of the complexities of the situation that the Azerbaijani president was very satisfied when he left the room.
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