Do you share the view that next year’s elections in Russia and Armenia will stop the negotiating process on Karabakh for several months at least?
Armenia and all three OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries enter an election period next year. Certainly, this will significantly restrict diplomatic activity in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
In Armenia, the parliamentary elections in May next year will be a litmus test for Serzh Sargsyan's hold on power and a major rehearsal ahead of the presidential elections in February 2013. Given his weak domestic credibility, it is unlikely that Sargsyan will risk making any bold political moves towards a compromise with Azerbaijan before the election cycle in Armenia ends and the domestic political situation stabilizes.
At the same time, presidential elections next year in Russia (in March), France (in April) and the US (in November) together with the re-emerging global financial crisis and the ongoing developments in the Middle East and Arab world risk further distracting international attention away from the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.
When diplomacy does not work, there is always a greater risk of escalation. While we should recognize that a breakthrough in the peace process is unlikely in the coming few months, it is important that Armenia and Azerbaijan use this time-out in the peace talks not for further escalation but more actively to prepare their public to accept a framework agreement on basic principles, which would later serve as a basis for more in-depth negotiations on a comprehensive peace agreement.
The Kazan meeting in June failed to bring about an agreement on basic principles, but at the very least the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents underlined in their joint statement the need to create proper conditions for the approval of the basic principles. And now, although the negotiation process itself is stalled, both sides are engaged in active public diplomacy. As you know, there have recently been some reciprocal high-level visits by Armenian and Azerbaijani officials to Baku and Yerevan respectively to attend various multilateral events (usually under the CIS umbrella).
An Armenian team recently competed in the World Boxing Championships in Baku. Azerbaijan now actively supports people-to-people meetings with the participation of Karabakh Armenians and Karabakh Azeris. Such a meeting was scheduled for late November in Berlin, though the Karabakh Armenians did not turn up. Azerbaijan's supreme cleric, Allahshukur Pashazade, visited Yerevan last week following Armenian Catholicos Garegin II's visit to Baku last year.
All these activities are aimed at preparing the societies for peace and they also demonstrate that in spite of the stalled negotiation process, Azerbaijan shows good will and is interested in using all opportunities for a peaceful resolution.
But for these confidence-building activities to be sustainable and effective, it is very important that they serve as building blocks for a political breakthrough in the peace talks once the election cycle is over, and are not misused by the Armenian side to gain time and further entrench the status quo of occupation.
In his address to a recent international conference in Yerevan, Serzh Sargsyan implied that his country does not sit idly by, watching Azerbaijan strengthen its military power with oil revenue. Does this mean that not only do economic accomplishments fail to persuade Armenia, they also strengthen its resolve to keep Karabakh?
In his speech, Sargsyan simply restated the usual propagandistic arguments about Azerbaijan's militarization and its alleged violation of the CFE Treaty ceilings. But for any informed observer, it is clear that the level of Armenia's militarization in per capita terms is greater than Azerbaijan's. Moreover, Armenia itself violates the CFE Treaty by stationing a large part of its troops in Azerbaijan's occupied territories, out of bounds of CFE Treaty inspection. Today's Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh was even called by the Crisis Group the most militarized society in the world. So, such accusatory rhetoric coming from Yerevan is nothing more than an attempt to justify Yerevan's intransigence in the peace talks.
Perhaps, Sargsyan's speech should also be viewed in the context of the upcoming elections in Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue will feature prominently in these elections and, as was the case before, both the pro-government and pro-opposition camps will try to use the issue and present themselves as better at guarding perceived Armenian national interests on Nagorno-Karabakh. Certainly, there will be greater temptation to use more hardline rhetoric to manipulate public sentiments and score extra points in the process.
As I mentioned earlier, even though there is little, if any, chance of a breakthrough in the talks during the election cycle in Armenia, this time-out should be used to prepare the societies for peace, including toning down the rhetoric that comes from both sides. So, it is a challenge for the Armenian political establishment to remain cool in their rhetoric towards Azerbaijan and prepare the ground for a compromise resolution while conducting their election campaign.
It is said that a significant part of the Armenian public favour peace with Azerbaijan and even the return of the occupied lands for the sake of stability and well-being. Do these people have any chances of coming to power? Is it possible to negotiate with Armenia at a time when people who were directly involved in the occupation of Karabakh hold power in the country?
Today, unfortunately, there is no major political force in Armenia, which is ready to accept Armenian withdrawal from the occupied Azerbaijani territories without making the withdrawal conditional on the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh or its unification with Armenia. Even the major opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan can hardly be called a "dove", and in fact has actively obstructed the peace process by airing exaggerated accusations of Sargsyan's imminent "sell-out" of Karabakh and frightening the Armenian public with an alleged "Dayton scenario" in the peace process.
The political dividends Ter-Petrosyan gained from such scare-tactics were questionable, but their negative effect was obvious. A more hardline view, supported by the Dashnaks, the Heritage Party and the like rejects withdrawal from any of the occupied territories, arguing that land acquired by blood cannot be given back.
The moderate voices in Armenia are largely marginalized. The persecution of an Armenian civil and human rights activist Georgi Vanyan, who is one of the few people in Armenia to courageously speak against the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories, is a case in point. He and members of his team were denied a venue, insulted and threatened with physical violence only because they wanted to organize a screening of several Azerbaijani films in Yerevan and called the event "Azerbaijani Film Festival in Armenia".
Ironically, peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be made, if at all, not between the moderates, but between pragmatic political forces. After all, the security and well-being of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples depend on their finding a common language and modus vivendi in the South Caucasus.
Recalling EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s recent visit to the region, I have to ask: is the European Union sincere in its statements that it is ready to help Baku and Yerevan negotiate?
The unresolved nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict represents a danger for EU interests in the region. A new war would create huge instability near the EU's eastern borders, with huge humanitarian and political consequences spreading beyond the boundaries of the South Caucasus. It would also put at risk energy projects running from the Caspian to the EU, thus seriously undermining the EU's efforts to diversify its energy supply routes. So, the EU is genuine in its interest in making a positive contribute to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
But the EU does not yet have a clear strategy on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Neither do Armenia and Azerbaijan have a consensus over the nature of its possible involvement. Since the EU is not a mediator, its role in the official peace process is limited. The EU supports a number of projects aimed at building confidence between Armenians and Azeris.
I think that as long as there is no political agreement over Nagorno-Karabakh the EU role will be limited. But once there is an agreement, the EU will be widely viewed as one of the most preferred guarantors, which could send peace-keepers and offer a major financial plan for rehabilitation of the conflict zone.
Meanwhile, before that scenario comes to fruition, the EU should increase its political support for the ongoing peace process by being more vocal on the unacceptability of the status quo of occupation and the need to come to an agreement on the basic principles. It should also increase its support for Track Two efforts aimed at building peace constituencies in Armenian and Azerbaijani society.