Superpower Rivalry In South Caucasus. Interview With Maciej Falkowski
PRAGUE. August 15, 2009: Azerbaijan and Armenia are not the only players in the Mountainous Garabagh (Nagorno-Karabakh) dispute – says the Center for Eastern Studies expert Maciej Falkowski in an interview to Radio Free Europe.
By Anna Zamejc
There has been no breakthrough in the Karabakh peace talks despite numerous meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. How to interpret that? Are we closer to or further away from a settlement?
The main problem when it comes to Nagorno Karabakh conflict is that there is very little information about the negotiations itself. It is hard to say whether we can expect a breakthrough judging by sheer intensification of meetings since we do not know what is being discussed.
Personally, I would not expect a breakthrough. A document might be produced but there will be no final settlement of the conflict. First of all, the parties are not ready for that and won’t be ready for a long time.
They are not ready to make a compromise. Even if some concessions were made, like Armenians ceded the occupied territories to Azerbaijan and Azeris put off the final status of Karabakh and temporarily left the Lachin corridor under Yerevan control, it would probably raise strong opposition within societies and political elites. It could even lead to a coup d’etat in Armenia. In Yerevan the return of the occupied territories is perceived as a treason by a large part of political elite. The President of Armenia is aware of that while pondering potential concessions.
Another issue is that there is a conflict of interests between Russia, EU and the United States. The West does not want Russia to be the „peace guarantor” over Nagorno-Karabakh. And Russia does not wish to see the US or Turkey taking the lead.
Initially, it seemed that Russia and Turkey were playing in one team. They would both benefit from that. Turkey would have an open border with Armenia and access to communication routes in South Caucasus. Russia would become „peace guarantor”. However, things turned out to be different. They consult each other’s movements but they do not trust one another. There is no Turkish-Russian tandem working towards the conflict resolution. Russians do not want to see Turkey as an active player in the South Caucasus and will not allow them to play an important role in talks over Nagorno Karabakh.
But isn’t Russia already taking the lead in the peace negotiations?
They are trying to do that but in my opinion their efforts are doomed to failure. Before, I thought that one of the crucial settlement conditions would be deployment of peacekeeping troops, naturally Russian ones. Otherwise, without Russian presence, Armenia would be afraid to return the occupied territories. But the Azerbaijani stance is unequivocal: no Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijani experts put it this way: we did not put so much effort into having the Russian military bases withdrawn only to let them in again. They are also aware of what is going on in Georgia.
And what about the Minsk Group? There are co-chairmen from Russia, US and France working together towards conflict resolution.
I do not believe that the Minsk Group is able to work out a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia and America have opposite interests when it comes to South Caucasus. None of them wants to give up lead role.
If a potential settlement of the conflict resulted in Americans strenghtening their position, then Russia would prefer to leave the Karabakh dispute frozen for many years. And Americans would react the same if it was Russia having the upper hand. Therefore, I would not count on the Minsk Group here.
Why is there such a mindset? Stability and peace in South Caucasus should be in the interest of all parties, including Russians and Americans.
There has been such a mindset in the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I would point out that Russia exploits conflicts for its own interest. Not only in the Caucasus, also in Central Asia. Russia does not have an interesting mode of co-operation to offer. The Kremlin kind of coerces those countries to co-operate. It’s the conflicts like in Osetia or Karabakh that make Russian presence in the region still possible and strong. Otherwise, all those countries would seek relations with the West. It is the case too when it comes to Armenia. Armenia has close ties with Russia not because Yerevan wants it so much but because it has to.
Who could be the alternative for the Minsk Group?
For now, nobody. Resolution of the Karabakh conflict is not possible if we simply bring the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to the table. They will not be able to work out a solution themselves.
In the beginning of the 20th century Soviet Russia ended the dispute over Nagorno Karabakh by imposing new borders. Nakhicevan became an autonomous district within Azerbaijan, Zangezur was given to Armenia and Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Today, there is no superpower country in the South Caucasus to impose a solution on both sides.
Are the Madrid principles a good base for negotiations?
They are not perfect but it is difficult to work out better ones, given the current situation.
It may be a reasonable idea to put off the determination of Karabakh status. In one of the recent interviews President Aliyev said that Azerbaijan is ready to postpone that issue for even 100 years. It signals Azerbaijani readiness to be flexible.
President Aliyev also said that broad autonomy for Nagorno Karabakh could be granted.
Indeed. A couple of years ago such statements would not be possible. Now Aliyev mentions autonomy for Karabakh and signals that Azerbaijan is ready to cede the Lachin corridor to Armenia. If we can speak about some progress in the peace process, it is the case more in terms of Azerbaijan. It’s Baku that sends a clear message that it is ready to make a compromise. The Armenians are not, for now.
Why? Does the political situation in Armenia affect President Sarkisyan’s flexibility in talks?
It stems from the political system in both countries. Ilham Aliyev is in powerful position. There is no strong opposition in Azerbaijan and people will not go out on the streets to oust the president. In Armenia that could happen as history shows us. President of Armenia may fear for his life and certainly for his presidential office if he goes too far in negotiations.
Do you think that Nagorno Karabakh could follow the case of Aland Islands? Remained under Finland’s sovereignty, they are inhabited by Swedish people who once demanded to be seceded from Finland and join Sweden. Eventually, they agreed for an autonomous status and the conflict was solved.
Let me reply by telling an anecdote I heard in Azerbaijan. Armenian and Azerbaijani delegations were taken to Aland Islands by a foreign peacebuilding organization. The aim of the visit was to convince them there is a solution to the conflict and it was successfully implemented in the case of the Islands. The journey appealed to both sides. Eventually, somebody from the Azerbaijani delegation turned to his Armenian colleague: „listen, we can do the same! Karabakh will be granted autonomy just like the Swedes in the Aland Islands”. The Armenian reply harshly: if you were Finland, we would have no problem to agree on the autononomy within your borders. But unfortunately, you are Azerbaijan.
What is this anecdote about? A huge distrust and even hatred does not allow such solution to happen. The Armenian Karabakh people would fear of Azerbaijani military intervention. I do not say it would be a real option, but that’s the way they feel about it.
In other words, trust should be built first between the peeoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan. A million dollar question arises: how to do it? How to bury the hatchet and neutralise mutual animosities?
We get to another problem here. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities don’t want it to happen.
The Karabakh conflict allows them to keep their own societies at a tight leash. You can always justify the need to stifle protests or to put somebody in prison by saying that a war may break out over Nagorno Karabakh. When there were large demonstrations in Armenia last year, the situation in Karabakh worsened.
It was not a coincidence, then?
Was it a coincidence? In my opinion not. There are many signs suggesting that it was the Armenian side that fueled the tensions. Armenians started shooting. Why? To show the oppositon and the people to go home. We cannot demonstrate when our country is in danger.
Would it be easier to build trust if Armenia and Azerbaijan were full-fledged democracies?
Yes, an open discussion could take place in media, there would be voices calling for a compromise and more people’s ideas for reconciliation. In case of authoritarian system where authorities control media and society, it is more difficult to be done.
Democratic opposition both in Armenia and Azerbaijan and many experts raise that issue as well. They say that we should first democratize our countries and then get down to solving the Karabakh conflict.
Your overall analysis on the conflict is quite pessimistic.
But let’s try and tell the future. What will happen in 10 years? Will anything change in Nagorno- Karabakh?
A lot depends on the general situation in the whole South Caucasus region. If we look at the impact of the last year war between Georgia and Russia, it seems like the military option is ruled out now. Azerbaijan will not try to get back Karabakh by force as it fears Russia.
It also depends on the Armenia-Turkey relations and the position of Russia in the Caucasus. If the Kremlin’s position gets weaker, a new window of opportunities may appear.
What is most likely to happen then?
Probably nothing will change. It’s really hard to say what the future holds. Of course, miracles happen in international relations and a breakthrough over Nagorno-Karabakh is possible. But certainly not a durable peace. I don’t believe in that. Some small steps may be taken, a framework agreement may be produced and some contacts established between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Should international community rather focus on people’s diplomacy than on official channels?
Yes. But on the other hand, it would be difficult without even a small breakthrough in the official negotiations. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh does not need to be determined right now, but why not open the border? Why people shouldn’t have an opportunity to travel from Armenia to Azerbaijan and the other way round? It would make a great progress if contacts like that were established. For now, an Armenian does not know what Azerbaijani looks like, he thinks it’s a devil incarnate according to Armenian official state TV.
Positive examples from Moscow and Georgia show it is possible. Even if there is an ongoing conflict, Azerbaijanis and Armenians meet in Moscow and make business together. In the South of Georgia there is a big market where Azerbaijanis and Armenians trade their goods. Azeri tea is available in Armenia through that way. If direct contacts were established, certainly the conflict would tone down.
* Maciej Falkowski – has worked at the Polish think-tank, Centre for Eastern Studies (Osrodek Studiow Wschodnich) since 2002. He is the expert on the Caucasus and Central Asia issues. He also publishes articles about the region in the Polish press. Since 2006 he runs the Kaukaz.net Foundation (Azerireport).