Nagorno-Karabakh: Diplomatic Push Needed to Halt Spread of Conflict

A member of the Armenia-backed army on patrol in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. April 8, 2016. (Ria Novosti/Sputnik/AP)

Tensions remain high in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after the Armenian government last week gave a green light for the country’s Parliament to vote on recognizing the region’s independence. Fighting broke out in the region in early April, killing well over 100 people in the space of four days and reigniting a once “frozen” conflict that has been ongoing for almost three decades. A diplomatic push is urgently needed to help defuse tensions, particularly with the risk of Russia and Turkey being drawn further into the fighting.

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan territory but has a majority Armenian population. A war between the two countries over the region from 1988-1994 claimed 30,000 lives and displaced a million people, mostly Azerbaijanis in territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that remain under the control of ethnic Armenian forces. While a ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994, tensions have persisted, including regular exchanges of fire. The recent fighting is by far the worst since the 1994 ceasefire.

Since 1994, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group has been leading international negotiations with the goal of finding a lasting and peaceful solution to the conflict. This goal has yet to been achieved; on the contrary, there is a real risk of further and more serious military confrontation.

Azerbaijan, which has long profited from high oil and gas revenues that have enabled it to build up its military, is currently experiencing an economic downturn due to sharply falling commodity prices and a decline in the value of the national currency, the manat. This situation led to protests and unrest in Azerbaijan in January of this year. Mobilizing the population over Nagorno-Karabakh could thus help increase popular support for the regime during difficult economic times. The stalemate in negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh has led to a considerable amount of frustration in the capital, Baku.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that a number of key players with broader geopolitical interests in the region could be drawn into the conflict. Russia profits from instability in the South Caucasus. Firstly, it delivers arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Instability in the region also threatens oil and gas supplies from Azerbaijan to Europe. This in turn makes Moscow look like the better option for Europe’s natural gas. Russia is also competing with Turkey over local influence. Relations between Moscow and Ankara have deteriorated sharply since the shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkey along the Syrian-Turkish border last November. Turkey has traditionally been an ally of Azerbaijan with close cultural and linguistic ties. Ankara is also a staunch supporter of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. By contrast, Russia has been a guarantor of Armenia’s military security since the breakup of the Soviet Union and operates a military base in the country.

Hence, further fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh could eventually draw Turkey and Russia into a proxy war. On the other hand, some analysts believe the increased Russian military presence in Armenia is mainly a way for Moscow to deter NATO expansion. They question whether Moscow would really come to the help of Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, Russia has military alliance obligations to Armenia via the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which only apply to the territory of the Republic of Armenia but not to the disputed region.

Another player that should not be forgotten is Iran, whose main interest is in developing transportation corridors via Azerbaijan and Armenia towards Russia.  With the recent lifting of economic sanctions, Tehran is looking for new economic opportunities.

In light of the possibility for a renewed and more serious military confrontation and the risk that this could draw other players into the conflict, a strong diplomatic push by the international community, especially the OSCE, is needed. So how can this be done?

First, Germany, which is currently chairing the OSCE and is also part of the OSCE Minsk Group in its own right, should take the initiative and invite the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan for talks to Berlin. It is a necessary step to help the parties reduce tensions and regain trust. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier could also engage in shuttle diplomacy between Baku, the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh capital, Stepanakert. Steinmeier will also have the opportunity to discuss the conflict at upcoming international talks in Vienna on May 16-18th, though these are mostly focused on Syria and Libya.

Second, fresh thinking on the activities and composition of the Minsk Group (currently consisting of Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as a rotating OSCE Troika) and its co-chairs (the United States, Russia, and France) should be initiated. This is necessary in order to avoid the impression that the Minsk Group is doing little to help break the stalemate. One way of affecting change would be to allow certain Minsk Group countries to become more active in the process. New members could also be added; Switzerland, which has vast mediation experience, is one possibility.

Third, serious work should go into stabilizing the situation on the ground. With the help of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chair, Poland’s Andrzej Kasprzyk, more effort should go into establishing confidence-building measures and people-to-people contacts on the ground in the coming months.

Finally, serious work should go into establishing a mechanism to investigate ceasefire violations along the Line of Contact between the opposing forces.

Decisive diplomatic initiatives and on-the-ground measures are necessary in order to help the parties reduce tensions. There is no guarantee that Moscow alone will be able to stop the fighting before it spirals out of control.

Stephanie Liechtenstein is Web Editor and Editorial Board Member of the journal Security and Human Rights, where a version of this article originally appeared. She previously held several positions at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

For more information on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, see the recent International Peace Institute report Chained to the Caucasus: Peacemaking in Karabakh, 1987-2012