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07 Aug 2006

OSCE bombshell reveals Karabakh position

The OSCE Minsk Group's announcement on the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave is close to Armenia's position and spells bad news for Azerbaijan.

By Karl Rahder in Baku

In the latest in a series of diplomatic bombshells to hit the South Caucasus, Matthew Bryza, the new US co-chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group, announced last week that he had bad news for Azerbaijan. In an interview remarkable for its candor, Bryza told Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on 26 July that as part of its overall framework for ending the 12-year stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group was urging a referendum for Karabakh’s population to determine the enclave’s future status.

Why this seemingly reasonable proposal is so contentious lies at the heart of the aftermath of the bloody 1992-1994 conflict that dismembered Azerbaijan and gave the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh something very close to sovereignty.

Bryza’s comments to RFE/RL came amid the tumult following the Minsk Group’s previous announcements on 22 June and 3 July that were interpreted both here and in Yerevan as an expression of exasperation by the co-chair states (Russia, the US and France) and as a signal by some analysts that the Minsk Group would no longer take an active role in the negotiations.

The two announcements represented the first time the Minsk Group - the primary international body tasked with mediating the peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia - had publicly outlined its approach to a permanent peace. It was a major departure from the secretive talks that have been held since the end of the war in 1994.

In its 3 July statement, the Minsk Group outlined the “core principles” of what it considered to be a basis “for the two sides to draft a far-reaching settlement agreement.” The announcement laid heavy emphasis on action from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian. It stressed that the Minsk Group believed “it is now time for the two presidents to take the initiative for achieving a breakthrough.” It also chided them for “lacking” the “political will” for a settlement.

The key premise includes the "redeployment" of Armenian troops from territories bordering Nagorno-Karabakh, “with special modalities” for the two territories that the Armenian side has shown no willingness to cede: Lachin and Kelbajar.

By "redeployment" it is generally understood that the OSCE means "withdrawal." The Armenians were willing to give back five of the seven districts surrounding Nagorno Karabakh, as long as they received major concessions, as ISN Security Watch reported in February.

Other components include demilitarization of the territories, the establishment of an international peacekeeping force, the return of Azeri refugees who were forced out of Nagorno-Karabakh during the war, and “a referendum [...] at a date and in a manner to be decided through further negotiations” to determine Nagorno-Karabakh’s final legal status.

Defining a referendum

What was most remarkable about the 3 July statement was the word choice in its reference to a future referendum. Any plebiscite should “take place in a non-coercive environment,” it said, in which citizens would have “ample opportunity to consider their positions after a vigorous debate in the public arena.”

For the past year, the Azerbaijani government has been unambiguous in its view that any referendum to decide Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status would involve a vote in which the entire country participated - something mandated by Azerbaijan’s constitution.

The outcome of such a nationwide vote is clear. It is inconceivable that Azerbaijan’s citizens would, in the wake of a painful and bloody war that ended with their country’s defeat, endorse the separation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Minsk Group's statement on 3 July seemed to indicate that a referendum should take place not in Azerbaijan as a whole, but only in Nagorno-Karabakh - a position clearly supported by the Armenian side.

In his interview with RFE/RL on 26 July, Bryza appeared to confirm that the OSCE had largely accepted the Armenian approach to a referendum when he said the ultimate status of the enclave should be determined by the “people of Karabakh.”

And despite the seemingly even-handed appeals to the two presidents in the announcements, Bryza told RFE/RL after his 29 July trip to Yerevan that Armenian President Kocharian had displayed a "constructive, candid attitude."

Bryza added that Kocharian accepted the OSCE’s outline of a possible settlement, which may mean that the Minsk Group sees Azerbaijan as the main impediment to a resolution.

In an interview with ISN Security Watch, Baku political analyst Leila Aliyeva agreed that the Minsk Group had decided on a Karabakh-only referendum, while speculating that the co-chair states were attempting to pressure President Aliyev.

Aliyeva stressed that an up-or-down vote on independence that takes place only in Karabakh was “a trap” for Azerbaijan, “as it would be for any other state” in its circumstances.

Like a handful of other Azeri analysts, Aliyeva is not against a referendum on principle. Such a vote might give citizens a range of choices short of full sovereignty for Nagorno-Karabakh: "Even if legally it was possible, the questions regarding different degrees of autonomy within the Azerbaijani state would make more sense than questions about secession.”

For its part, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry does not accept the interpretation that the OSCE has adopted the Armenian view. Spokesman Tahir Taghi-Zadeh found the 3 July Minsk Group statement perplexing: “The co-chairs are trying to stimulate the process while being as vague as possible. A statement like this is designed to make both sides see what they want to see.”

Even the recent comments by Bryza leave room for more than one interpretation, said Taghi-Zadeh: “The population of Karabakh has the right to decide, which can only be utilized through participating in a national referendum. Their participation, in fact, is a must, if we want to make it a legitimate and lasting solution.”

The Karabakh-only view, if true, has major implications for Azerbaijan, which must now make some very difficult choices.

Preparing for peace or war?

Since the failed Rambouillet summit between the two presidents in February, the two sides have, at least in public, displayed little flexibility, with the war option being discussed with increasing frequency in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

President Aliyev said in February that the talks were at a “dead end,” and more recently, that further negotiations in the current framework were “hopeless” - a verdict that Minsk Group co-chairman Bryza described as “not helpful.”

The Minsk Group’s appeal for the two presidents to “prepare their publics for peace and not for war” is being given little emphasis in Baku, where the options seem to be dwindling.

Azerbaijan’s military is rated by many Western analysts as both weak and in a state of structural torpor due to years of neglect by the late president Heydar Aliyev. One of the few distinctive differences between father and son is the money now being lavished on the military sector.

Military expenditures in Azerbaijan for 2006 were slated to rise to some US$600 million, but President Aliyev said publicly on 31 July that the actual figure would rise to US$700 million, an announcement that came a day before the arrival of the OSCE’s Bryza.

Even the lesser figure represented a doubling of the 2005 defense budget. Aliyev says he wants Azerbaijan’s military spending to equal the total government budget for Armenia. (According to the CIA World Factbook, Armenia’s 2005 government expenditures were US$930.7 million.)

Having a large military - or at least a large defense expenditure program - may serve not so much as a platform for a future war, but rather as a bargaining chip. This strategy would be consistent with Baku’s approach thus far, promising a number of rewards for Yerevan if Nagorno-Karabakh is returned to Azerbaijani control.

Analyst Leila Aliyeva believes that the burgeoning military establishment will be used as an implied threat or a deterrent. “Most of the politicians here think that not the actual war itself, but rather the mere existence of a strong army, might be a deterring factor.”

When combined with the government’s economic carrot-and-stick approach to negotiations, the modernized military might begin to look like a very real threat, although an Armenian Foreign Ministry source told ISN Security Watch in February, “We defeated Azerbaijan in war twice. Do they really want to try again?”

Some analysts fear that the Minsk Group has withdrawn from the peace process. International Crisis Group analyst Sabine Freizer reportedly told the website Armenia Now that the region was "entering a dire stage" with the Minsk Group acknowledging "the pointlessness of continuing their activities." The situation is bleak, according to Freizer: "Now there is no peace process, even negotiations."

Despite such interpretations, Minsk Group co-chairman Bryza has just completed his tour of the region, with stops in Yerevan, Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh, activities that sound inconsistent with no longer being involved as a mediator.

Taghi-Zadeh, however, said the Minsk Group had "no intention of disbanding.

"I mean, first they make this announcement, and then say almost immediately that Matthew Bryza is coming to Yerevan and Baku? That doesn’t look like they are quitting the process,” he said in a statement.

But the involvement of other actors is not being discouraged by the Azerbaijani government, which now may welcome other mediators with perhaps more sympathetic views - but Taghi-Zadeh denied that Azerbaijan would seek to replace the Minsk Group.

He said that NATO and the EU had expressed interest in serving as mediators, but said that was "due to the region’s growing strategic importance. We are not trying to replace the Minsk Group, but we’d like to see efforts by others as well.”

The US embassy in Baku declined a request by ISN Security Watch for an interview with Bryza.

Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.

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