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Karabakh Peace Agreement Impossible Without U.S. Involvement

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) sits down with his counterparts Serzh Sarkisian (right) of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev during talks over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) sits down with his counterparts Serzh Sarkisian (right) of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev during talks over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Meeting in Moscow on November 2, the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed a document pledging their continued commitment to resolving the Karabakh conflict peacefully. It was the first time that officials from Armenia and Azerbaijan had signed such a joint document since Russia mediated a cease-fire agreement in 1994, putting an end to one of the deadliest wars in the former USSR.

The so-called Moscow Declaration of Intent on Nagorno-Karabakh was an important diplomatic event in the 15-year long negotiating process. But it was much more important for Moscow, which thus reminded everyone that it holds the key to a solution to this conflict. The joint declaration was co-signed only by Russia, despite the fact that other two Minsk Group co-chairs, the United States and France, were also present.

A closer look at the declaration leaves no doubt that much of what was discussed during the closed-door talks was not reflected on paper. The declaration is just another expression of intent by the two leaders that they are serious about seeking a peaceful solution and that the military option can no longer be considered an alternative to peaceful diplomacy.

In short, both sides agreed on paper to tone down harsh military rhetoric and expedite the peace process. However, taking the text at face value would be overly optimistic.

Questions Arise

Every time Russia steps up its mediation efforts, questions arise about its motives for doing so. The simple answer in this case would probably be that it wants at least to preserve the level of influence that it had in Armenia, and more importantly in Azerbaijan, which has long been suspicious about its real intentions in the region.

Now that Georgia is out of the Russian sphere of influence, at least for the foreseeable future, Moscow will do all in its power to keep the two remaining South Caucasus countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, under its control.

The only way to do that is to act as an honest broker to bring about a settlement of the frozen, and potentially deadly, Karabakh conflict. Moscow's mediation could also be seen as an attempt to restore its credibility in the region following the war with Georgia, which further eroded its relations with the United States.

Depending on who wins the U.S. presidential election, Moscow will try to showcase its good behavior to the new leadership in Washington. There is one important line in the joint declaration, which shows that Moscow will not mediate the potential peace deal alone, bypassing its American and French partners in the OSCE Minsk Group. The declaration clearly states that the peace process will proceed within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group based on the "Madrid Principles" endorsed by the OSCE Ministerial Council, which envisage the return of occupied Azerbaijani territories and the possibility of holding a referendum on the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

High Expectations

It is hard to imagine that a Karabakh peace deal could be achieved without the United States, one of the major players in the OSCE Minsk Group. Azerbaijan and Armenia will not easily bow to Moscow's pressure without the approval of the new administration in Washington. It would therefore be premature to expect a breakthrough in the talks before January 2009, when the next U.S. president is sworn in.

Armenians have high expectations for Democratic Senator Barack Obama, hoping that, if he is elected president, he will support their cause.

"I will promote Armenian security by seeking an end to the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, and by working for a lasting and durable settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that is agreeable to all parties," Obama said in one of his campaign promises to Armenian-Americans.

The Armenian government will seek help from the United States if it is pressured to give up Azerbaijani territories without obtaining guarantees that the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians will be able to hold a referendum on their future status.

Some experts in Azerbaijan and Armenia believe that Russia might try to secure a substantial military presence in the conflict zone as part of the future peacekeeping force that is to be deployed once a peace agreement is signed. Azerbaijan will most probably seek support from the United States in ensuring that Russian troops do not return to Azerbaijan.

The Georgian experience has demonstrated that once they come, they are unlikely to leave peacefully.

Haryy Tamrazian is director of RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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