United States Secretary of State John Kerry has created a diplomatic stir in the Caucasus by arguing that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan "aren't ready" to resolve their conflict over the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Kerry's remarks about Karabakh were made only offhandedly, in the context of a larger discussion about diplomacy and international negotiations. Discussing the recent deal over Iran's nuclear program, Kerry contrasted that situation -- where the parties were genuinely interested in a resolution because of the risks that failure would bring -- to the Caucasus.
"There are some frozen conflicts in the world today -- Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia, where you can’t quite see that right now because the leaders aren’t ready, because the tensions aren’t there," Kerry said. (Underscoring his pessimism, he contrasted Armenia and Azerbaijan unfavorably with the Palestine-Israel peace process, which he characterized as "difficult but you can see how you could get there if people made a certain set of decisions.")
More than 20 years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire to end the fighting over Karabakh, which ended Armenian forces in de facto control of Karabakh, the two sides seem farther apart than ever. And so to anyone following the Caucasus, Kerry's statement on Karabakh was not especially controversial, as the "tensions" that he referred to are mostly pushing in the direction of war, rather than peace.
Azerbaijan, suffering increasing public discontent as a result of a struggling economy, was able to rally citizens around the flag by launching an offensive in Karabakh in April. And in Armenia, radical nationalists staged a rebellion over the summer in order to pressure the government from conceding any ground to Azerbaijan over Karabakh.
Nevertheless, the reaction to Kerry's statement both from Armenians and Azerbaijanis was hostile. A spokesman for Karabakh's de facto president said the blame on the Armenian side was misplaced. “According to Secretary Kerry, the presidents lack the political will to resolve the issue," the spokesman, Davit Babayan, said. "Truth is, however, that Baku is not ready for a settlement as Azeri authorities have adopted fascism and Armenophobia as a state ideology.”
Azerbaijanis made similar claims, with Novruz Mamedov, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev's top foreign policy adviser, saying Baku was "surprised and upset" with Kerry's comments. “It is Armenia that during the talks on the conflict’s settlement claims that leaders aren’t ready to resolve the conflict,” he said on Friday.
Another official went further and said that Kerry was lashing out due to jealousy of Baku's close ties with Moscow. "Kerry is jealous of Russia-Azerbaijan ties that have reached the strategic partnership level," said Hikmat Babaoghlu, a member of parliament and editor-in-chief of the state newspaper Yeni Azerbaycan. And he accused Kerry of serving Armenian interests. "There are numerous facts that prove Kerry’s closeness with the Armenian lobby and his sympathy for the Armenians, said the MP, calling on the relevant US agencies to take necessary measures to this end," the news agency APA reported.
Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, said that Kerry's statement was somewhat misinterpreted in Baku, but also criticized Kerry's approach. "Former colleagues of mine at the State Department often tell me of Mr. Kerry’s eagerness to apply his abundance of energy to help mediate the conflict," Bryza told the news site Vestnik Kavkaza. "He would therefore be wiser to speak more of his proposals to achieve such success than talking about the political difficulty the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan face."