Russia has made a concerted effort since the fall of 2010 to break the stalemate in Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region.
The latest meeting of the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia in Kazan in June failed to produce any results. After the talks, Baku and Yerevan predictably accused the other side of standing in the way of an agreement, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reminded for an umpteenth time that Baku’s patience is not limitless and that the war is not over yet. Commentators rushed to label Russia’s mediation efforts a failure, some with glee and others with sorrow. But this is not fair.
Under President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia is independently seeking a solution to the issue, albeit with the approval of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
This is due to the fact that other members of the group see no hope for progress, nor any benefits from actively participating in efforts. Obviously, Moscow has a greater interest in stability in the region than Paris or Washington. The specter of a military conflict over Karabakh haunts the negotiating process, and puts Moscow in an extremely difficult position.
Russia has formal commitments to Armenia as an ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) and under bilateral agreements that were extended indefinitely last year. In the event of a military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia will have to defend Yerevan in order to uphold its reputation as a reliable patron. However, Moscow is aware of the growing importance of Azerbaijan as a key player in all energy and, therefore, geopolitical issues of the South Caucasus and Asia Minor. Russia simply cannot afford to ruin its relations with Baku. In other words, Moscow must avoid taking sides at all costs.
It is in Russia’s interests to keep the sides talking (even without results) and to help maintain military equilibrium, which in and of itself promotes a more durable peace. Toward this end, Russia has extended the lease of its military base in Armenia’s Gyumri through the middle of this century, primarily as a counterweight to Azerbaijan’s rapid military buildup, made possible by its vast superiority in terms of resources.
During my recent visit to both Baku and Yerevan I saw for myself that maintaining equilibrium is the only possible tactic under the circumstances. I didn’t see any evidence that the sides are willing to compromise and make real concessions beyond verbal balancing acts and polished statements. But this could be difficult, as the protracted conflict has taught both sides the value of words.
For Azerbaijan, reclaiming Karabakh has become all but a national priority, much like Kashmir for Pakistan. Azerbaijan’s confidence is growing as a result of huge profits from oil exports and rapid economic development, and it sees the occupation of part of its territory as a tremendous historical injustice that must be redressed by all means. This feeling is further aggravated by a suspicious attitude to Armenians in general. Far from receding as the events of the early 1990s fade into the past, this feeling has become institutionalized.
Meanwhile, Armenia does not trust Azerbaijan at all. Yerevan is convinced that any strategic concessions (at the talks the sides have discussed the phased return to Baku of the occupied regions that have not been part of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region) will lead to the collapse of its positions and the entire system of checks and balances that took shape in the disputed area in the 1990s. War would be inevitable. Therefore, Armenia believes it should not make any concessions.
Concessions are also made impossible by the fact that the leaders of both countries are not strong enough to risk such unpopular actions. Although Ilham Aliyev enjoys a secure position in Azerbaijan, he lacks his father’s authority. Geidar Aliyev would have had more room for maneuver. The situation in Armenia is even more complicated because its political environment is more fragmented. There are many different interest groups, including outside ones (the Armenian diaspora). An attempt to compromise may trigger an acute domestic crisis, while the loss of Nagorny Karabakh may lead to a civil war and the collapse of the Armenian state.
In this context Russia’s efforts to consolidate the status quo are rational and, indeed, there is no alternative for the time being.
The sides are aware of the risks involved in attempting to change the status quo by force. Azerbaijan, which is happily investing its windfall oil profits not only in the military development but also in its infrastructure and economic diversification, won’t put these achievements at risk unless the success of military action is guaranteed. But it cannot be guaranteed in the current circumstances. Armenia has an even greater interest in maintaining the status quo. Even a successful war for Nagorny Karabakh could precipitate an economic disaster in Armenia. Georgia, the only country to have an open border with Armenia, is already greatly dependent on Azerbaijan, and Baku could pressure Tbilisi to help blockade Armenia.
There is one factor that could dramatically alter the political landscape. I’m referring to a powerful outside shock with repercussions spreading all over the region. It could be a large international crisis linked to Iran – a neighbor of both Armenia and Azerbaijan that plays a major, albeit very different role, in both countries. Suppose the United States or Israel decides there is no time to waste anymore and Tehran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. The geopolitical fallout of such a decision could throw everything into disarray and create the grounds for other developments, especially considering that Iran has a substantial Azerbaijani minority. Another possibility is the spreading of social and political instability from North Africa and the Middle East to the countries that play a major role in the South Caucasus – Iran and Turkey (which is unlikely) or the collapse of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The latter could result in a civil war, which would increase regional instability and unleash a flood of Armenian refugees from Syria. These scenarios may look hypothetical and even far-fetched, but if anything, the last few years and months should have taught us that anything is possible.