During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict
Crossing the Line: Reflections on the Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process
by Thomas de Waal
(Thomas de Waal is a British journalist working on a book about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Last year he received a grant from the United States Institute of Peace to study the conflict and travelled extensively in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Armenian-held Nagorno-Karabakh. In London he received institutional back-up from Conciliation Resources, who also supported his recent trip to the region in order to better inform CR's Caucasus Programme and to raise public awareness of dilemmas inherent in peace processes in the region. This piece is his reflections on the trip and on the state of the Karabakh peace process.)
Crossing the Line
From 18-22 May 2001 I was one of seven journalists invited on a unique trip crossing for the first time one of the most closed borders in the world, the front-line between Azerbaijanis and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. The trip was organized by the American, French and Russian "co-chairs" of the Minsk Group, the body set up in 1992 by the OSCE to mediate between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis.
After a successful meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliyev, in Key West, Florida from 3-7 April, the co-chairs wanted to broaden the constituency for peace in the region. They designed a route that took in the sections of the population which are most affected by the stalemate: in Azerbaijan, displaced people; in Armenia, people suffering because of the economic isolation of their country. They also want to open up three routes across the Line of Contact, which can be used by aid agencies and mediators. Last year they made two crossings across the Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier, which has also been closed. This third crossing was the most sensitive because it took place in what is the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan.
After attending a meeting between the co-chairs and President Aliyev on 18 May in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, we flew by helicopter to the refugee camp at Agcabedi in western Azerbaijan. Here, as everywhere throughout the region, the mediators were besieged by
crowds, complaining about their problems. A common theme was established: all repeated the refrain that they wanted peace, but only on their terms.
From the camp we flew to the "no-fly zone" near the Line of Contact that divides the two sides. In minibuses we travelled to the Azerbaijan post, to be met by Colonel Elkhan Husseinov who led us down a narrow strip of country road that had been de-mined only that morning. The scene was peaceful, the uncultivated fields around had grown tall thistles since the 1994 ceasefire agreement. After five minutes we reached a group of soldiers, wearing almost identical
camouflage uniforms, waiting for us. These were the Armenians, wearing arm-patches that said "NKR" (the unrecognised "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic"). There was also a group of OSCE field officers who had an icebox of Armenian beer and caviar sandwiches.
But if this crossing was a breakthrough of sorts, it also pointed up the enormous gulf that these few meters of ceasefire-line represent. The handshake between Col Husseinov and the Karabakhi Armenian, Major-General Vitaly Balasanian was so quick that I did not catch it.
After that they avoided eye-contact. Col Husseinov looked especially uncomfortable - he had told us earlier that the other side were "Armenian bandit formations" occupying Azerbaijani land, so even to meet with them was a concession.
We walked back across no-man's land with the Armenians and then spent a day in the hills of Nagorno-Karabakh, now a self-proclaimed separatist Armenian state. On 20 May we flew by helicopter to Armenia and spoke to the poor and unemployed of the northern Armenian towns
of Spitak and Gyumri, which were hit first by the devastating 1988 earthquake, then by the economic blockade of neighbouring Turkey. We then flew to the Armenian capital Yerevan.
On 21 May the group of journalists met with Armenian president, Robert Kocharian. The mood was downbeat. A final briefing with the US mediator Carey Cavanaugh confirmed the general tenor of the trip. Both presidents had returned from Florida to hold consultations with
their political allies. Consultations during this "cooling-off period" only seemed to have hardened their positions. Given this, there was no point in holding a planned follow-up meeting in Geneva in mid-June.
The major obstacle to a successful peace settlement remains entrenched public opinion on both sides. We heard repeatedly that the two presidents are "ahead of their populations" in their
understanding of the need for compromise.
There is a central question here, which forces one to question the motives of the two leaders: If they are committed to a peace settlement, but the public is hostile, why do they not do more to sell the idea of compromise to their people?
Since Key West, developments on this front have been very discouraging. At a ceremony on 9 May, Aliyev said that just as German aggression had been punished in 1945, so Armenian aggression should be. As for Kocharian, when the group of journalists directly asked
him why he was not talking more to the public, he said: "I wouldn't want to raise public expectations until there is a certainty that a solution is found".
So why are the two presidents, who, we are told, have come 80 or 90 percent of the way to a peace deal, so reluctant to promote it? I can identify four main reasons:
- Tactics. Both leaders believe that a tough stance at home will win them more at the negotiating table. In his verbal sparring with the international mediators, Aliyev was evidently trying to put pressure on them to do more for Azerbaijan. Kocharian may be calculating that
a little brinkmanship with the ageing Aliyev could force more concessions out of him.
- Home and abroad. Clearly the presidents find it easier to imagine a peace settlement in Florida than back home. Many in the region are critical of the Americans in particular for "rushing" the process. The potential danger here is that the two leaders might sign up to
something on which they cannot deliver.
- Character. Neither man is a democrat. Aliyev is a former Politburo member, who has rigged all the elections he has held since coming to power. Kocharian was the war-time leader of the Karabakh Armenians. Both men energetically pursued the "military option" over Karabakh in
1993-4. For them, the popular will presents a potential threat and they would rather manipulate it, than engage with it.
- Power. For both men self-preservation would seem to be the highest goal- higher than peace and prosperity. Ultimately both men may decide that the cost of signing up to a peace agreement is too high and that they could be swept away by the storms of protest it arouses.
There is an unhappy paradox at the heart of the Karabakh peace process. Two essentially undemocratic leaders are pursuing a peace settlement. They have apparently come close to achieving one. They understand that a peace deal is best for their countries. Yet they are reluctant to engage their societies in the process.
Clearly there are reasons why undemocratic leaders can actually do more in a peace process. The political base they need to consult with is narrow. They have to worry less about elections. They can simply ignore the nationalist consensus that still grips their respective
publics. Equally, it is pointless to wait for more democratic leaders to emerge, which could take a generation - and is in any case more likely to be a consequence of peace than a cause of it. (It is also worth remembering that the freely-elected Popular Front government in
Azerbaijan in 1992-3 was both more democratic and more nationalist and war-mongering than the Aliyev regime).
And yet the lack of trust between authoritarian leaders and their publics, is now the biggest problem for the Caucasus in general and the Karabakh peace process in particular.
What can be done? Three of the biggest problems of the Karabakh dispute are: (i) The two sides live in deep isolation from one another. (ii) Public opinion in both countries is sceptical or
hostile towards a peace settlement. (iii) The two presidents while close on many issues are reluctant to make further concessions.
Why not take existing elements of the framework agreement and incorporate them into a "phased" or "step by step" plan, in which some of the thornier problems (such as security issues and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself) were postponed until later? The Armenians
could, for example, give up some occupied territory and the USA could lift Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act barring technical aid to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan and Turkey could open up some communications with Armenia (perhaps through the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan,
which is also suffering from economic isolation).
These are not hard-and-fast proposals, merely examples of the kind of mutual concessions that either side could make without surrendering their fundamental interests. I recognize that the example of the "phased" agreement in the Middle East is not encouraging. Opponents
of peace will mobilize, as well as its supporters. Yet something is needed to overcome the public cynicism amongst both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. My point is that some progress - any progress - could be the most crucial confidence building measure of them all. An incremental peace could be better than no peace at all.
Conciliation Resources (CR) was established in 1994 to provide an international service in the field of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. CR's principal objective is to support the activities of locally-based groups working at community or national levels in preventing violent conflict or seeking to transform armed conflict into opportunities for social, political and economic development based on more just relationships. Currently CR supports initiatives
in the Caucasus, Fiji, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, Angola and the Balkans. CR also publishes Accord - an international review of peace initiatives which is available free on-line
CR is registered as a charity in the UK ( No:1055436) and is located at 173 Upper St. London N1 1RG, United Kingdom.
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