As Armenia-Azerbaijan diplomacy advances, a solution to Karabakh remains elusive
Yerevan and Baku have fundamental disagreements about how the rights and security of Karabakh’s Armenian population should be guaranteed. Observers are pessimistic that they can be bridged.
As diplomacy intensifies between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the two sides appear close to reaching agreement on some critical issues, the most sensitive issue of all – the fate of the ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh – remains the biggest sticking point.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, and European Union President Charles Michel met on May 14 in Brussels, following up on multi-day negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Washington two weeks earlier.
In Michel’s statement to the press following the meeting, one figure attracted particular attention: a reference to Azerbaijan’s approximate total area, 86,600 square kilometers. It was mentioned in the context of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreeing to recognize the other’s territorial integrity. The specific number underscored that in terms of Azerbaijan, this includes Nagorno-Karabakh, still populated by tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians.
It is yet further confirmation that Armenia is prepared to accept Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. It is a dramatic shift following nearly three decades of helping to prop up the ethnic Armenian, self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that was formed after the first war between the two sides in the 1990s and the resultant ethnic cleansing of the region’s former ethnic Azerbaijani population.
“Armenia has accepted what the international community has accepted all along, that Karabakh was, is, and will remain part of Azerbaijan,” said one Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations, speaking to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity.
But in the current negotiations with Azerbaijan, Armenia is seeking guarantees that the region won’t now see another round of ethnic cleansing. Yerevan is trying to ensure that a peace agreement with Baku guarantees the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians, maintained by some kind of international mechanism.
Azerbaijan, for its part, argues that what happens in Karabakh is solely a domestic issue, not subject to any international interference.
In his statement, Michel said that the talks included “exchanges on the issue of the rights and security of Armenians living in the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.” And he included a pointed appeal to Baku: “I encouraged Azerbaijan to engage in developing a positive agenda with the aim of guaranteeing the rights and security of this population, in close cooperation with the international community.”
Azerbaijan has yet to demonstrate much interest in developing a positive agenda. In their public statements, Azerbaijani officials have not offered any vision of how Armenians’ cultural, educational, language or any other rights may be protected, instead offering take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums.
“We have repeatedly stated that we will not discuss our internal affairs with any country. Karabakh is our internal matter,” Aliyev said in an April 18 interview. “Armenians living in Karabakh should either accept Azerbaijani citizenship or find another place to live.”
The Western diplomat said that the negotiations have touched on local rights for Karabakh Armenians (without providing specifics) but said that the onus also was on Baku to do more publicly.
“You can only do so much behind closed doors. What is needed is for Baku to step up to the plate and say that this is what we are offering, these are the reassurances that we are willing to give so people feel safe to stay where they are,” the diplomat said.
“It should be in the Azerbaijanis’ own best interest to come up with something that is magnanimous enough to assure the Karabakhis, within the framework of Azerbaijan’s own laws and regulations,” the diplomat continued. “It shouldn’t be all that difficult, and it would buy Azerbaijan a heck of a lot of international recognition if this matter is handled well.”
Azerbaijan may be willing to offer certain special rights for Armenians in Karabakh, said Shujaat Ahmadzada, a researcher at the Baku-based Topchubashov Center. Closed-door discussions in Baku have raised potential examples like Croatia, where Serbs have certain religious and cultural accommodations, Ahmadzada told Eurasianet. Another potential model is the West Bank, where Palestinians have locally elected authorities and local police and other institutions, he said.
But Azerbaijan first wants to get assurances that it will have full sovereignty over Karabakh and that Karabakh will have no territorial autonomy, and only then will negotiate over special accommodations and a potential limited, “technical” international role in guaranteeing them, Ahmadzada said.
“The rejection of international involvement is more of a bargaining chip in the negotiations. It seems that the main calculation is to set the bar too high so there is a space left for maneuvering and backpedaling in the later stages,” Ahmadzada said. He nevertheless characterized the Palestine and Croatia examples as “optimistic” outcomes. “Although I still don't believe this is the [Azerbaijani] calculation, the risk of an all-out exodus is real.”
Tellingly, Azerbaijani readouts of the Brussels meeting ignored the question of the Karabakh Armenians’ rights and security, instead highlighting progress made on other issues like Armenian acknowledgment of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh, transportation networks, and border delimitation.
But since then there have been efforts from Baku to circumscribe the significance of Michel’s reference to the international community’s involvement, underscoring the sensitivity of the issue.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on May 15 taking issue with comments made by the EU ambassador to Armenia on Michel’s statement; the ambassador reportedly went a step further than had the European Council president and said that "the rights and security of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh must be ensured" and for this purpose, an "international mechanism" must be created. (Eurasianet could not independently verify that those were the ambassador’s words.)
The foreign ministry statement said the ambassador’s comments amounted to “an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of Azerbaijan” and were “unacceptable.”
“Azerbaijan's efforts to establish a dialogue with the Armenian residents in the aforementioned direction must not be hindered, prejudices against our territorial integrity and sovereignty must be ceased,” the statement said.
An article in the website Caliber.az, associated with Azerbaijan’s defense ministry, took issue with the common interpretation of Michel’s mention of the “international community” and parsed the sentence to argue that it in fact limited the international involvement to the development of the positive agenda, not to the guarantee of Armenians’ rights and security.
The question of the rights and security of Karabakh Armenians “remains the outstanding, the most important, and the most problematic issue between the sides,” said Tigran Grigoryan, the head of the Yerevan think tank Regional Center for Democracy and Security, in an interview with Civilnet following the Brussels meeting. “This is a clear red line for both sides. Armenia cannot sign any kind of peace treaty while there is no agreement on the creation of this international mechanism of talks between Baku and Stepanakert, and Baku can not accept international involvement because that would nullify all of its postwar narratives,” i.e. that the conflict is resolved and any Karabakh issues are purely domestic.
“The mediators will try to bridge the differences but I’m not too optimistic about that, I don’t think that a solution will be found and it is more likely that Azerbaijan will resort to the use of force again to impose solutions on Armenia,” Grigoryan said.
Pashinyan, Aliyev, and Michel are slated to meet again in Chisinau on June 1, along with the leaders of France and Germany. Michel also said that he and the Caucasus leaders were planning to meet again in Brussels in July.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.