There is a Spanish proverb that goes: Del dicho al hecho, hay mucho trecho, or, roughly translated, it’s easier said than done. This saying seems to apply to Uruguay’s reported readiness to recognize the independence of the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
The controversy began September 9, when Armenian media outlets publicized comments attributed to Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, who supposedly offered up an enthusiastic endorsement of Karabakh’s independence, along with his backing for the territory’s eventual union with Armenia.
Azerbaijani news outlets quickly disputed that Almagro had actually expressed support for Karabakh independence. Instead, citing a transcript of the speech posted by an Armenian Diaspora organization in Latin America, Azerbaijani media reports contended that Almagro merely acknowledged that Armenians themselves believe that independence for Karabakh, along with strong ties with Armenia, are “the best way.”
Uruguay’s Foreign Ministry has not commented on the various interpretations of Almagro’s remarks, nor has it posted its own transcript of his speech. Some 20,000 Armenian Diaspora members are estimated to live in Uruguay. In 1965, the Latin American state became the first country in the world to recognize Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide. A memorial to the slaughter stands in Montevideo.
Despite Uruguay’s continuing silence, the story has legs in the Caucasus. In Karabakh itself, Almagro’s supposed support for Karabakhi independence was greeted with surprise and gratitude, according to David Babayan, spokesperson for Karabakh’s de facto president, Bako Sahakyan. Karabakh has not been in previous contact with the Uruguayan government, he said.
“We understand that this does not mean our independence will be recognized right away. ... But the closed door has been opened,” Babayan continued. “Even if this process takes several years, we will be grateful to Uruguay all the same.”
Azerbaijani analysts assert that Karabakh’s leaders should not get their hopes up. “It is not a situation for Uruguay to be a pioneer on such a delicate and complicated issue,” commented political analyst Zardusht Alizade. “The situation over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is now unpredictable, and all countries, on the contrary, are trying to stay far away from it.”
Alizade questioned what Uruguay has to gain from recognizing Karabakh as a country. The initiative “could seriously harm the efforts of large countries and international organizations to resolve the conflict,” he said. Some in Baku want the United States to get involved, but the US Embassy in Baku has already made it clear that Washington has no intention of touching the issue.
Vafa Guluzade, a former senior foreign policy aide to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev doubts that Uruguay will go so far as to recognize Karabakh’s independence from Azerbaijan, given that even Armenia itself has not done so yet.
Independent Armenian political analyst Yervand Bozoyan agreed, saying that heightened tensions over Karabakh with Azerbaijan would preclude such a decision by Armenia. Calling it “the minister's personal point of view,” he voiced doubts that Almagro’s statement “will bring any substantial changes for Armenia and Karabakh.”
The Azerbaijani government, which maintains that Armenia is misrepresenting Almagro’s remarks, has reported that Montevideo has assured Baku that Uruguay respects Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
In Armenia, leaders of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun movement claimed credit for engineering Almagro’s statement. “We have done serious work in Uruguay in this direction,” said Kiro Manoyan, head of the party’s Hay Dat (Armenian Cause) and Political Affairs Office. “This is just the beginning.”
The ARF is not the only political party in Yerevan that sees Uruguay as a starting point. The opposition Heritage Party, which wants Yerevan to recognize Karabakh’s sovereignty, asserts that Armenian officials should lobby Uruguay’s Latin American neighbors. “The countries of Latin America can recognize Artsakh’s [Karabakh’s] independence, and Armenian diplomacy must work in this direction,” said Heritage Party parliamentary faction leader Stepan Safarian.
“These countries may go for such a move because they have no serious geopolitical interests in this region that could hold them back from doing so,” Safarian added.
That is exactly what Baku fears, said Elhan Shahinoglu, director of Baku’s Atlas Research Center. Azerbaijan has no embassy in Uruguay, and the two governments are not known to have active ties. Uruguay is not even on the list of 160 countries with which Azerbaijan has a trade turnover.
Without strong diplomatic ties or trade, Baku lacks levers with which to influence Uruguay. In addition, Montevideo does not need Azerbaijan’s support in international organizations, Shahinoglu noted. He worries that the ongoing silence from Uruguay on the controversy “could mean that Montevideo really is considering some anti-Azerbaijan steps.”
Any Uruguayan recognition of Karabakhi independence “could pave the way for some other small countries, which do not have any relations with Baku, to do the same,” Shahinoglu said. “Of course, the number of such countries will not be large, but even if three-four countries do it, it is a very negative development for Azerbaijan.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance journalist based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan. Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.