Russia’s escalating confrontation with the West resulting from its annexation of Crimea has thrown long-running international efforts to end the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh into uncertainty. Analysts in Yerevan believe that the standoff bodes ill for continued joint US-Russian mediation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks, which is seen as critical for achieving a compromise settlement.
The onset of the crisis in Ukraine late last year coincided with a renewed push for Karabakh peace made by US, Russian and French mediators acting under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group. In November 2013, the mediators got Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to meet in Vienna for the first time in nearly two years.
Both leaders gave rather positive assessments of the Vienna talks and pledged to meet again early this year. The three co-chairs of the Minsk Group engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity in the following months, hoping to arrange the follow-up summit in February. However, its conduct was delayed indefinitely by a January upsurge in deadly ceasefire violations in the conflict zone and ensuing bitter recriminations traded by the warring sides. The mediating troika announced no dates for the summit after completing a series of talks with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on March 11. James Warlick, the US co-chair, tweeted on March 19 that he is “looking forward to meeting with the Presidents and [foreign ministers] of Armenia and Azerbaijan” on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit to be held in The Hague on March 23-25. It was not clear if he was referring to the mediators’ attendance at an Aliyev-Sargsyan encounter or to separate meetings with the two presidents.
Crimea’s March 16 referendum on becoming part of Russia, a vote denounced as illegal by the international community, appears to have done little to affect Warlick’s outlook. The day of the vote, he tweeted that “peace in Nagorno-Karabakh” is one field where the US and Russia “can continue to work together” despite their differences over Ukraine.
A tagline notes, however, that the feed is “Nothing official, just my thoughts.”
But with the US and the European Union imposing sanctions against top Russian officials and threatening more serious punitive measures against Moscow, Armenian pundits questioned Warlick’s unofficial optimism.
“After what happened in Ukraine, I can’t imagine how the Russians and the Americans are going to work together on Karabakh,” said Tatul Hakobian, a senior analyst for the Civilitas Foundation, a Yerevan-based think-tank. “The Cold War times are coming back and it will be harder for them to broker a solution,” commented Hakobian, who has written extensively about the Karabakh conflict.
“If the US and Russia clash over fundamental issues, that could clearly have an impact on other problems such as Karabakh,” agreed Stepan Grigorian, head of the Armenian Analytical Center on Globalization and Regional Cooperation. Grigorian said that the very existence of the Minsk Group will be “in question” if Western powers opt for tougher economic sanctions against Russia.
Armenia, too, might find itself at loggerheads with the West. Sargsyan telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 19 effectively to back Crimea’s secession from Ukraine. A readout of the phone call released by the Armenian presidential press office said the two men agreed that it is “yet another example of [the] realization of peoples’ right to self-determination.”
Sargsyan’s risky move was in tune with his unexpected decision last August, widely attributed to strong Russian pressure, to make Armenia part of the Russia-led Customs Union. It was also an indication that Yerevan is hoping to capitalize on a further blow that has been dealt by Crimea’s annexation to the principle of territorial integrity of states, championed by Azerbaijan in the Karabakh dispute. Asked by state television on March 17 to comment on the Karabakh-related implications of the Ukraine crisis, Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian spoke of “the supremacy of the Karabakh people’s right to decide their destiny in their own country.”
Karabakh’s Armenian-backed de-facto leadership went further, organizing a public celebration of the disputed Crimean vote in the territory’s capital, Stepanakert, on March 18. A joint statement released by political groups represented in the local legislature said the Black-Sea region’s secession set another positive precedent for a Karabakh settlement.
Independent analysts in Yerevan reject any parallels between Crimea and Karabakh, however, saying that the Karabakh Armenians broke away from Azerbaijani rule in a far more legitimate manner. “What happened in Crimea was a classic annexation, not self-determination,” said Grigorian. “I believe it is offensive to the Armenian people to compare Crimea to Karabakh.”
Both Grigorian and Civilitas’s Hakobian also contend that the Crimean precedent is unlikely to change the essence of Karabakh proposals made by the mediating powers. Various peace plans put forward since 1998 have not envisaged Karabakh’s return under Azerbaijani control, calling instead for the liberation of Armenian-controlled districts in Azerbaijan proper surrounding the disputed territory.
Joint statements repeatedly issued by the US, Russian and French presidents propose a “future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will.”
As of yet, Azerbaijan and Armenia have failed to agree on timeframes and other practical matters for such a vote.
Emil Danielyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.