With Multilateral Efforts Bypassed in Nagorno-Karabakh, OSCE Struggles to Find Role

Russian peacekeepers guard the entrance of a church after the transfer of the Kalbajar region in Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan's control. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Heavy fighting in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus—the worst since the early 1990s—has taken thousands of lives. Many more have been wounded and more than 100,000 have been displaced. The full-scale war was only halted on November 10 after a Russian-brokered ceasefire came into effect.

The mountainous region, which lies within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders, has been run by ethnic Armenians since 1994 and has a majority Armenian population. The recent war was by far the worst fighting in the region since the early 1990s. During it Azerbaijan retook much of the land around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had lost during the war from 1992–1994. Those pieces of land were considered a buffer zone by Armenia, but over the years the government allowed ethnic Armenians to settle there. They now had to flee while Azerbaijan retook those territories, including the strategically positioned town of Shusha, from which the region’s capital of Stepanakert could have been captured easily.

After the Russia-brokered ceasefire came into effect, Moscow began deploying 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to the disputed territory. Under the ceasefire deal, Azerbaijan will be allowed to keep the territories it recaptured and Armenia is asked to give up large pieces of territory around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had occupied since the 1992–1994 war. Armenia will also turn over the so-called Lachin region, that includes the main road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Under the deal, that road should remain open and be protected by Russian peacekeepers. Stepanakert will remain under control of the Armenian-backed government.

The territorial concessions led to outrage in Armenia, with protesters taking to the streets in Armenia’s capital Yerevan and angry mobs storming government buildings, including the prime minister’s official residence and the parliament.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia announced news of the deal in a Facebook post, calling it “incredibly painful both for me and for our people.” He said he decided to agree to the ceasefire after “an in-depth analysis of the military situation,” a clear reference to the seizure of the strategically-located town of Shusha by the Azerbaijani side.

In Azerbaijan, the deal was hailed as a victory and crowds took to the streets to celebrate the agreement. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan said the agreement was of “historic importance,” and amounted to a “capitulation” by Armenia.

The war over Nagorno-Karabakh has wider geopolitical implications with Russia and Turkey both having strategic interests in the region. Russia has a defense pact with Armenia and operates a military base there. Turkey has traditionally supported Azerbaijan and has close cultural and linguistic ties. Russia has also supplied modern weapons to both sides, but with income from oil and gas, Azerbaijan managed to achieve military superiority within the past few years. In addition, the deployment to the region of as many as 1,000 Syrian fighters working for a private Turkish security company—as first reported in The Guardian— confirmed Turkey’s involvement in the region.

The ceasefire deal thus confirmed geopolitical realities and further strengthened Russian influence in the region, with Turkey also having a foot in the door, while sidelining the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Answering media questions on November 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin, referring to the fast developments on the battlefield and the capture of the strategic town of Shusha, explained the sidelining of the OSCE in the following way: “It was a matter of hours. Stepanakert could have been taken and they could have continued to move on. To be honest, it was in Armenia’s interests to immediately cease hostilities. There was no time for holding additional consultations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group. This would have been simply unrealistic.”

The OSCE has spearheaded international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since 1992. The so-called OSCE Minsk Group that Putin referred to (consisting of Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the OSCE Troika) is co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France, and has been in charge of negotiating a peaceful settlement.

In 1992, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) called for an international conference in the Belarusian capital Minsk to settle the conflict. But the conference was never held. Instead, the Minsk Group was created with a co-chairmanship to ensure a multilateral framework.

In this context, it is important to note that large parts of the recent truce are actually based on what has been negotiated within the OSCE framework for many years. Under this plan, Armenia would have had to give up the territories it occupied and captured during the 1992–1994 war (with the exception of the Lachin corridor), with the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined at a later stage by a referendum and after the return of displaced persons.

But the facts on the ground have now been changed with Azerbaijan recapturing those territories and increasing its leverage on the negotiating table. One open question is to what degree the Azerbaijani government will be willing to provide autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh, as President Aliyev recently ruled out a referendum. Another more important question is what can be done now to reinvigorate the role of the OSCE and help achieve a final settlement?

First, it will be crucial for the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs to visit the South Caucasus (travel has been prevented lately by the coronavirus pandemic) and consult with the conflict parties. Thereafter it will be crucial to convene a meeting again on the highest level. The US, France, and Russia should use their respective political influence and pressure to get the sides to solving the conflict on the negotiating table instead of the battlefield. All other members of the Minsk Group should get involved more actively in this process. A personal meeting on the margins of this week’s OSCE Ministerial Council meeting will not be possible, because the meeting will take place in a virtual format due to the pandemic.

Once the new US administration takes office in January 2021, it would therefore make sense to convene a meeting between Putin, Emmanuel Macron, and US president-elect Joseph Biden together with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

This will be necessary since the Moscow-brokered truce leaves open the question of a final status of those parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that will continue to be administered by Armenian authorities. As incoming OSCE Chair in 2021, Sweden could also play a role by hosting the parties in Stockholm and also make use of its long-term engagement as member of the OSCE Minsk Group.

Second, a rushed decision to dissolve the High-Level Planning Group (HLPG) of the Minsk Group should be avoided. The HLPG was mandated to devise a plan for a “multinational OSCE peacekeeping force.” The conclusion that the HLPG is not needed anymore because of Russian peacekeepers is misleading.

Havening Russian peacekeepers bogged down in Nagorno-Karabakh in the long-term will cost money for Russia that it may not have, or may not want to spend. Moscow may actually realize that it may be better off working with a wider coalition.

Originally, an OSCE-led multinational peacekeeping force was meant to underpin an eventual political agreement. With the many lessons-learned and the expertise that the OSCE collected from the deployment of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine in 2014, establishing a multinational civilian OSCE-led monitoring mission in Nagorno-Karabakh in the future could be a goal.

In the meantime, renewed efforts should go into increasing confidence between the parties and also between people on the ground. With the help of the personal representative of the OSCE Chair, Poland’s Andrzej Kasprzyk, focus should be placed on facilitating an exchange of detainees, prisoners of war, and the remains of those killed during the recent fighting, in close cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Ambassador Kasprzyk’s work has been undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic since the spring and should now be given renewed impetus. His expertise could be of particular value for any upcoming engagement of the wider international community, with various United Nations agencies likely to play an active role.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should become an international priority again and the OSCE should become the primary forum for achieving a permanent peace and final status. The advantage of a multilateral solution is to strengthen the sense of fairness and accountability, instead of having two powers carving up the region.

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a diplomatic correspondent and freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria.