The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev, met in Paris on October 27 for a further round of talks under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group tasked with mediating a peaceful solution to the deadlocked conflict over the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Few observers seriously believed that the Paris talks would yield significant progress, let alone a breakthrough, in resolving the conflict. But by the same token, neither was it widely expected that Azerbaijan would soften its negotiating position, as it did with regard to confidence-building measures.
That shift in the Azerbaijani rhetoric was, moreover, just one of several reasons why the meeting between the two presidents -- their third within the past three months -- may herald a new phase in the ongoing international effort to mediate a political solution that would at least partially satisfy all three parties to the conflict.
The Paris talks took place at the initiative of French President Francois Hollande, and represented a further attempt by France and the United States, in response to the summit convened in Sochi in August by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to reassert the importance of the Minsk Group (which is jointly co-chaired by France, the United States, and Russia) as the sole diplomatic mechanism for mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The Sochi meeting was the first between Aliyev and Sarkisian since November 2013, when the Minsk Group mediated talks in Vienna. Although no formal protocol was signed, the Sochi summit did result in the cessation of exchanges of fire along the Line of Contact separating the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces that had claimed at least 20 lives in the preceding weeks.
At the same time, President Putin as host took the opportunity to stress the "special and particularly close" rapport between himself and his interlocutors. All three were born and came to maturity in the final decades of the Soviet Union. Russian commentator Sergei Markedonov has made the point that Putin enjoys good personal relations with both Aliyev and Sarkisian.
Back To 'Basics'
In response to Putin's exercise in unilateral diplomacy outside the framework of the Minsk Group, a meeting was hurriedly organized on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales between Aliyev and Sarkisian, neither of whom had originally planned to attend. (Unlike neighboring Georgia, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan aspires to NATO membership.)
The Newport meeting between the two presidents was mediated personally by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a break with the traditional U.S. practice of not engaging senior officials at such a high level with no likelihood of tangible results.
In light of the failure of the conflict sides to iron out their differences with regard to the Madrid Principles for resolving the conflict that have been under discussion since 2007, the Paris talks reportedly focused instead on "basics." That concept comprises keeping the faltering peace process alive, and continuing efforts, including confidence-building measures, intended to prevent a new flare-up of fighting along the Line of Contact.
That latter objective is all the more pressing given that over the past three years, frustrated by international mediators' perceived unwillingness to strong-arm Yerevan into unconditionally withdrawing from seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces seized control of in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan has launched more frequent and more audacious efforts to infiltrate territory currently controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh's forces. That more assertive stance has fuelled apprehension among the international community that threat misperception and tactical miscalculation could result in a small local exchange of fire spiraling out of control and triggering a full-scale "war by accident."
The Minsk Group co-chairmen have repeatedly appealed to the conflict sides to reduce the risk of such a conflagration by withdrawing snipers from the front line, which Baku has consistently refused to do. In Paris, however, President Aliyev did agree as a confidence-building measure to "proceed with the exchange of data on missing persons in the conflict under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross."
Granted, such an exchange of data is unlikely to have a major impact on the ground. But it still represents a softening of the Azerbaijani position: speaking in Baku five months ago, Aliyev commented that "we keep hearing from the mediating countries about confidence-building measures.... The best confidence-building measure is the withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces from Azerbaijani lands. There can be no other confidence-building measure."
In contrast to the co-chairs' focus on confidence-building measures, Hollande told Aliyev and Sarkisian that the status quo was unacceptable, and appealed to them to demonstrate the political will necessary to prepare their respective populations for the signing of a peace agreement. In that context, Hollande suggested beginning work on drafting a framework treaty, even though points of difference reportedly remain with regard to the Basic, or Madrid Principles, the broad guidelines that have been under discussion since 2006.
That proposal is likely to find favor with Azerbaijan, whose Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov affirmed in March that Baku is ready to sign such a framework document. But drafting it would create problems for Armenia insofar as there is an unwritten understanding among Minsk Group members that representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh (who do not at present participate directly in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations) should be involved in that process. James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair, repeated in May that the unrecognized republic should be involved in the ongoing peace talks.
The Karabakh Armenians, however, take a far tougher stance than their counterparts in Yerevan with regard to some of the Madrid Principles, especially the proposed withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven occupied districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to Nagorno-Karabakh. De facto Prime Minister Ara Harutiunian went so far as to dismiss the Madrid Principles as "unacceptable to us." He argued that "the liberated territories" that used to be populated by Azerbaijanis are vital for the region's security and economic development.
What Does Russia Want?
The primary and most immediate threat to either finalizing the Madrid Principles or drafting a full-fledged agreement is, however, uncertainty and suspicion over Russia's intentions in the South Caucasus in the wake of its annexation of Crimea. Not only does Moscow have little real incentive to push for a breakthrough in the peace process; its interests may be better served by either maintaining the current status quo or by exploiting an expansion of tension.
Furthermore, the current pressure Moscow is exerting on the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia to sign a new Treaty on Union Relations and Integration may herald a more assertive Russian policy toward its southern neighbors.
Granted, Russia currently has no leverage over Nagorno-Karabakh comparable to that it can bring to bear on Abkhazia or South Ossetia. But deliberately provoking a resumption of full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could provide such leverage, albeit at horrendous cost to the entire region.
Alternatively, Russia may either downgrade its participation in the Minsk Group mediation process to the level of collusion, rather than cooperation, or even, as veteran U.S. analyst Paul Goble has suggested, make a concerted effort to exclude France and the United States from that process in order to become the chief intermediary between Yerevan and Baku. That, Goble writes, would give Moscow the whip hand in determining outcomes, and simultaneously reinforce Putin's vision that Russia can and must be the dominant power in the post-Soviet space, and that other countries must not interfere there.
-- Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian