Weeks of pronouncements hailing the chances for a "breakthrough" in the Nagorno- Karabakh peace process at the planned June 24 meeting in Kazan between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents have proven misplaced.
Despite international diplomatic pressure, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev did not, after all, sign the so-called Basic Principles for resolving the conflict, successive versions of which have been on the negotiating table for five years.
Each side subsequently blamed the failure to reach agreement on the other's intransigence. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was quoted
on June 25 as saying the two sides "unfortunately failed to reach agreement on a number of key issues because the Armenian side is demanding maximum concessions from Azerbaijan, distorting the essence of the negotiating process begun seven years ago."
But the real obstacle is not so much negotiating tactics as a fundamental division.
It is difficult, if not unrealistic, to hope for progress when the conflict itself is based on at least two completely opposed views -- largely defined by the inherent contradiction between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity.
A Maximalist Approach
And although the very mission and mandate of the OSCE Minsk Group mediators is to forge a delicate balance between that seemingly insurmountable contradiction, the real key is political will coupled with the courage to make concessions that many will immediately denounce as unacceptable at best, and at worst a betrayal of national interests. And the lack of political will, coupled with an Azerbaijani diplomatic strategy that appears to be based on a maximalist, all-or-nothing approach, does little to inspire optimism.
That maximalist approach proved impervious to sustained diplomatic pressure at the very highest level. At the Deauville G-8 summit in late May, the presidents of the U.S., France and Russia, the three countries that jointly co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group, issued a joint statement arguing that the status quo is "unacceptable."
President Aliyev construed that statement as a demand that Armenia should withdraw from the districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh that are currently under its military control.
High-Level Diplomatic Pressure
The three presidents argued that the most recent version of the Basic Principles "lays a just and balanced foundation for the drafting of a comprehensive peace settlement," and warned that any failure to sign it at the upcoming Kazan summit would call into question the professed commitment of Armenia and Azerbaijan (a commitment enshrined in a document Aliyev, Sarkisian and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed in Moscow in November 2008) to a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) is reportedly so disenchanted with the deadlock that he may decline to host further mediation efforts between Sarkisian and Aliyev
In the run-up to the Kazan meeting -- the ninth hosted by Medvedev over the past three years -- U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned both Sarkisian and Aliyev to encourage them to finalize the Basic Principles.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy similarly sent a written message to both presidents urging them to opt for "the path of wisdom, courage and peace."
Yet even such high-level diplomatic pressure
was not enough to achieve a breakthrough in resolving the longest standing "frozen conflict" in the South Caucasus.
Upping The Ante
On the contrary, the high expectations and external attention may have encouraged Baku to up the ante: Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian told journalists
after the June 24 talks that the Azerbaijani side had tabled about a dozen last minute changes to points on which agreement had been reached earlier.
Meanwhile, tension is mounting along the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, as is the threat of a resumption of full-scale hostilities, as both the scale and scope of military attacks steadily intensify.
But while last year most analysts agreed that the most likely scenario was a "war by accident" driven by miscalculation and faulty threat misperception, the question now arises whether Azerbaijan might now go beyond periodic sniper attacks and attempts to infiltrate the Armenian lines, and deliberately launch a more serious, but still limited offensive.
The Day After Diplomacy Died
Pundits who construed the failure of the two presidents to sign the Basic Principles as heralding the death of the formal diplomatic search for a peaceful solution to the conflict are likely to adduce the military parade in Baku on June 26 -- two days after the Kazan talks -- as a further alarming indicator.
June 26 was formally designated Armed Forces Day
by President Aliyev's father and predecessor Heydar Aliyev in 1998. It is celebrated annually, but the last military parade was in 2008.
This year's parade
involved 6,000 servicemen, armor, weapons systems (including ground to air missiles), 14 armored personnel carriers (APCs), 35 combat helicopters, warships, and domestically produced weaponry, including sniper rifles and 60 mm and 82 mm mortars.
To quote Aydin Mirzadade, deputy chairman of the Azerbaijani parliament's committee on defense and security, that display of military muscle was clearly intended to convey the message that Azerbaijan has "one of the strongest armies in Europe."
Addressing the parade in his capacity as commander in chief, President Aliyev stressed that his country will continue to build up its military potential "until our territorial integrity is restored," and that if peaceful means fail, it will resort to "any other methods."
A Challenge to Credibility
The formal statement issued following the Kazan talks, saying that the two sides "reached common understanding on a number of issues whose resolution will help create the conditions for approval of the Basic Principles," failed to mask the limitations of the Minsk Group-mediated peace process.
Yet, as British expert Dennis Sammut has argued, writing off the Minsk Group and starting from scratch with a new set of mediators is not an option, as it would take years for any new mediation process to reach the stage the Minsk Group is at now.
Now may be the time for the European Union to step in and assume a greater role is supporting and supplementing the Minsk Group diplomacy. Nagorno-Karabakh is, after all, the only conflict in wider Europe where the EU has no role whatsoever.
apparently leaked to the Russian daily "Kommersant" by an unidentified Kremlin official that President Medvedev is so disappointed and disenchanted by the failure of his mediation efforts that he may decline to host a further meeting between Aliyev and Sarkisian unless both give firm assurances they will sign the Basic Principles is almost certainly more blackmail than a simple statement of intent.
Meanwhile, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani, possibly sensing a window of opportunity opening on the eve of his planned visit to Azerbaijan on June 30, today told the Azerbaijani news agency 1news.az that "regional conflicts should be resolved by means of talks within the region, without the involvement of the Great Powers." Such talks, Larijani continued, would stand a better chance of success as the countries of the region "are better able to understand each other."
Richard Giragosian is director of the Yerevan-based regional Studies Center