Karabakh prepares for war and hopes for peace: 25 years of fragile truce

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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the cease-fire agreement in the Karabakh conflict zone. Exactly a quarter of a century ago, on May 12, 1994, the first Karabakh war of 1991-1994 was terminated with a trilateral and indefinite document. The signatures of the agreement, which is still in force, were put by the representatives of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan – who at that time held the posts of defense ministers. Among the signatories of the document was Serzh Sargsyan , from 2008 to 2018, who was at the highest state post in Armenia.

The agreement is tripartite, but over the past time, Artsakh (the Armenian historical name of Nagorno-Karabakh) has not only been recognized by any of the UN member states, but has not become a full party to the negotiations on the Karabakh settlement. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, proclaimed in September 1991 and adopting a declaration of independence in January 1992, has not yet been de jure recognized even by Armenia. When Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency, the Armenian authorities argued that if such recognition was achieved, the negotiation process with Azerbaijan under the auspices of the institution of the three OSCE Minsk Group (MG) OSCE co-chairs (Russia, USA and France) established in 1997 would be foiled and Baku would have free hands to withdraw from the 1994 agreement and the subsequent renewal of the war. However, a reservation was made

Nothing of the kind happened at the end of the “four-day war” (April 2–5, 2016). Moreover, only nowadays, and only at the level of individual politicians and representatives of the Armenian expert community, are attempts being made to “deduce” the authorities of the two republics at least to conclude a “big treaty”, which would, in particular, state the principle of mutual military assistance in the event of another large-scale escalation of a protracted conflict in the region.

How many Armenian and Azeri soldiers and civilians have died in the past 25 years as a result of countless small and large violations of the “silence regime”, there is no reliable statistics. Meanwhile, the lives of young guys on the front line on both front lines continue to end, the last few months of relative calm with the onset of spring again changed to the usual rhythm of almost everyday disruption of an agreement 25 years ago. At the same time, over the past time, the conflict zone has de facto spread to the border regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the Nakhijevan section of their direct territorial contact.

There was no breakthrough in the negotiations after 1994, and there is no way to expect in the foreseeable future. The so-called Madrid principles of settlement, which are in different variations on the negotiating table from the beginning of zero, due to certain objective and subjective circumstances, neither Yerevan, nor Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh), or Baku are satisfied. Two of the three parties to the conflict (Armenia and Azerbaijan), in fact, engaged in and continue to engage in imitation of negotiations, the only concrete result of which is an oral agreement each time to continue diplomatic contacts and meetings at the highest political level of the peace process itself. Thus, Azerbaijan is increasing its “military muscles”, preparing for a Blitzkrieg in Karabakh, even with the understanding that the effect of surprise.

In turn, Armenia and Artsakh continue to hope to consolidate the reality “on the ground”, withdraw troops from the “security belt” around Nagorno-Karabakh (the first condition of the “Madrid principles” of the settlement) are not going to. As a quarter of a century ago, the sides are not ready for crucial decisions at the negotiating table. So, everything goes to the next military confrontation, bringing new misfortunes to the peoples of the three republics.

Imitation of negotiations is a cover for military preparations. A political decision is not visible, because it implies mutual concessions to which the parties are not ready. The concept of “compromise”, which is the cornerstone of a political solution to any interstate conflict, is identified in Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan with the defeat and surrender of its own positions on the military and diplomatic fronts. Each of the parties has a number of its own motives, reasons and reasons for treating political compromise with extreme prejudice. At the same time, they are united by the following approach: let the next war better mark the new configuration of forces in the Karabakh conflict, than we will give up something and agree on something after the meetings of the leaders and the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan under the auspices of the OSCE MG co-chairs.

Azerbaijan, headed by Ilham Aliyev, is aware that for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from all or even a smaller part of the seven regions under the control of the enemy around Nagorno-Karabakh, they will have to agree to some intermediate status of Artsakh and a subsequent referendum on its final political status.

In turn, the price of territorial concessions to Azerbaijani counterparts for Yerevan and Stepanakert remains critically high in domestic politics. And there, and there, any power, even with its current high rating, which Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has in Armenia , will inevitably face the most serious challenges. There are a dozen of internal Armenian forces that can come out in a united front against the “compromising and capitulary policy” of the authorities, put its highest representatives on their signature under the relevant documents at the negotiating table.

Behind all this lies the obvious attitude of the parties to the conflict to minimize their own responsibility for political decisions. The war in this case is the “best way” to put everything in its place. Another question is that large-scale hostilities carry an order of magnitude more uncertainty than predictability, elements of control over the situation invariably at some point give way to randomness. War is always a step into the unknown. However, the degree of hostility, mutual distrust and suspicion between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides is so great that they are willing to take more risks in the war than at the negotiating table. And this is a special tragedy of the moment, military-political drama of an inevitably looming new showdown on the battlefield.

The 1994 agreement as a whole continues to be respected, it is not “dead”, if only because of the fact that not one of the three signatures has been withdrawn under it. But there is no reason for an optimistic view of the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict. This imposes a special mission on the great powers, continuing their mediation mission in the format of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship. First of all – to Russia. Completely eliminate the risks of a new war, of course, no one has been given. However, the word and the cause of Moscow remains the most important factor holding back the “hot heads” from rash decisions. The armistice agreement was reached 25 years ago with the decisive diplomatic contribution of Russia. It preserves hope for peace, even if it remains fragile for years to come.

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EA Daily, translated by and for FRN –

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