Azerbaijan may have achieved a decisive military victory in the latest round of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, but a lasting peace settlement remains elusive. Armenia and Azerbaijan now seem as far apart on a durable solution as they were before the war reignited last fall.
The Davis Center at Harvard University and Columbia University’s Harriman Institute recently convened an expert meeting to contemplate the peace-making challenges. Participants generally agreed that the post-Cold War framework for conflict resolution, centered on the OSCE Minsk Group, had exhausted its potential. But they struggled to sketch the parameters of a new paradigm for promoting stability in the war-ravaged territory.
The Minsk Group was ineffective in bringing a halt to last fall’s warfare; Russia acted unilaterally to impose a ceasefire. With Karabakh now reintegrated into Azerbaijan, the key peace-making challenge is determining the status of ethnic Armenians in the territory, said Gerard Libaridian, a former Armenian deputy foreign minister who participated in earlier efforts to broker a Karabakh peace.
“Will Armenian Karabakh be a territorially defined Armenian entity with some kind of autonomy?” Libaridian asked, or will Azerbaijan consider Armenians in Karabakh as an “ethno-religious minority … that has cultural rights?”
He added that “neither Russia nor Azerbaijan … are in a hurry” to address this issue. The absence of clarity could serve as a flashpoint of renewed conflict. Some of the participants at the meeting pointed out that Azerbaijan has a weak record on respecting minority rights.
Carey Cavanaugh, a retired diplomat who in the early 2000s served as the American co-chair of the Minsk Group, described the current state of affairs in Karabakh as “not a stable ceasefire.”
The featured speakers took turns dissecting the Minsk Group’s shortcomings. Libaridian noted that the OSCE framework from the outset sidelined interested regional parties, in particular Iran. The organization’s consensus-based decision-making process and its rotating leadership rendered it “structurally flawed” to act as a peacemaker, Cavanaugh said, adding that the United Nations would have been a better option to facilitate peace.
Libaridian said the OSCE Minsk Group’s peacebuilding approach was grounded in a “mistaken assumption about the evolution of liberal democracy.” There was an unfounded belief early on that the invisible hand would crack the Karabakh conundrum, or as Libaridian put it, “market success would cause national grievances to disappear” in the territory. No one could have envisioned in the mid-1990s that illiberal ideas would prove so resilient.
Leila Aliyeva, a political scientist affiliated with Oxford University’s School for Global and Area Studies, voiced the most severe criticism of the Minsk framework, suggesting that it was inherently biased. “None of them [the Minsk Group co-chairs, the United States, France and Russia] could be called neutral,” she said, alleging that the negotiating framework at times favored Christian Armenia over Muslim Azerbaijan. The result, she said, is that in the eyes of many Azerbaijanis, “the West is increasingly losing its meaning.”
Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, described the Caucasus as the “graveyard of multilateral diplomacy,” and suggested the Minsk Group never stood a good chance of success. He said Armenia and Azerbaijan shared responsibility for the peace process’ lack of progress because they generally refused to budge from “maximalist positions” in negotiations.
The results of Armenia’s snap parliamentary elections on June 20 kept the incumbent government in power there, providing for a measure of continuity. Still, Armenian society remains divided over how to move forward following the fighting last fall, which left thousands dead on both sides.
The speakers at the June 15 event did not offer a comprehensive vision for a new process aimed at producing a lasting settlement in Karabakh. Aliyeva suggested that the parties to the conflict – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenians – be left alone to work out a solution. Libaridian indicated that a new conflict-resolution paradigm would become apparent only after a larger question, whether a new world order is emerging to replace the post-World War II system, is clarified.
De Waal said Russia may have been capable of unilaterally enforcing a ceasefire, but expressed doubt that Moscow was “up to the task” of brokering a peace settlement. He also suggested that Armenia and Azerbaijan would not be able to find peace on their own, given the high costs of reconstructing Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories.
“The West is way behind the curve in having leverage in this conflict,” he said, but added that the financial power of the United States and European Union might offer way to revive their negotiating influence. After all, he said, “someone’s got to pick up the [reconstruction] tab.”
Eurasianet is housed at the Harriman Institute and acted as a co-moderator of the event. Nazpari Saati Sotoudeh and Erica Stefano are M.A. candidates at Columbia University and are Eurasianet editorial associates.