Background of Hostilities
The conflict dates back to February 1988, while both republics were part of the Soviet Union, when Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous oblast (NK) and in Armenia started mass rallies for the incorporation of this part of Azerbaijan into Armenia,[i] appealing to central authorities in Moscow to meet their demands. Since the change of borders of union republics was the prerogative of the union republics, the Soviet authorities rejected the claim, citing unconstitutionality and stating that “perestroika does not mean change of borders”. Further violence was the only means for attracting attention, since the rebellious side had no solid economic and political arguments for its claims.
The separation demands were accompanied by violence in the region. Local groups and experienced Armenian militant and terrorist groups allegedly from the Middle East[ii] initiated terror and violence against Azerbaijani civilians and government agencies, intimidating the local Armenian population and blocking any contacts with other parts of Azerbaijan. They spread enmity and hostility, smashing cars, organizing mob assaults, abducting people and terrorizing local people, including Armenians loyal to Azerbaijan.[iii] By the break up of the Soviet Union, the area was a centre of military training for Armenian, local and diaspora dominated militants, including the ASALA terrorist organization (the military wing of the diaspora based Dashnak party).[iv] Local radical elements, partly financed by the diaspora, took the initiative and formed local self-proclaimed executive organs and armed forces.
An ethnic cleansing campaign of the Azerbaijani population of NK was launched in late September 1991 and by early May 1992, by capturing Shusa and Lachin, the entire Azerbaijani populated areas in NK had been burned, looted and the population expelled from their native lands. Soviet (then Russian) tanks, armoured vehicles and officers stationed in the regional capital Stepanakert were part of this process,[v] accompanied by brutal atrocities in Azerbaijani villages which culminated in the town of Khojali,[vi] where up to 640 people were massacred by the local Armenian militants with the support the 366th Motor Rifle Regiment of the Russian Federation.[vii] The Khojali massacre is still the main traumatic factor in the psychology of Azerbaijanians and consequently in conflict resolution efforts. The core of the Armenian armed forces constituted career soviet officers and weapons “captured”[viii] from the bases in NK.[ix]
The expulsion of Azerbaijanis was a planned policy of Armenian radical groups in an effort to secure non-Azerbaijani NK as a first step in further extraction of this land from Azerbaijan[x]. In March 1993 Armenian forces advanced into the areas beyond NK, capturing Kelbejer district, which led to the greater involvement of the United Nations. In June 1993, taking advantage of the political turmoil in Azerbaijan, Armenian forces launched a wide scale military offensive, capturing six other regions of Azerbaijan and causing hundreds of thousand of refugees, burning and looting occupied areas. The occupied areas beyond NK are twice the size of NK itself and are equal to half of Armenia. All residents of the occupied areas (around 700,000) were driven out of their homes and the occupied areas are heavily militarized. 120 km of Azerbaijani international borders with Iran and more than that with Armenia is still out of Azerbaijani control. The UN Security Council adopted four resolutions demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal of occupying forces but did not take decisive steps for implementing them.
The OSCE was involved in Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict resolution in early 1992 after the Khojali massacre and on 24 March 1992 decided to convene a conference in Minsk[xi] in an effort to settle the problems facing the conflicting parties. OSCE involvement was welcomed by Azerbaijan at that time since the OSCE principles and mediation guaranteed Azerbaijani sovereign rights and precluded any unilateral mediation which was unpopular in Azerbaijan.
For the Armenian side, the OSCE was considered undesirable due to the principle of inviolability of borders and excluded Armenia’s territorial claims in any form. Initially the chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk group was rotated by states like Italy, Finland and Sweden but later Russia took permanent chairmanship at the Budapest summit of the OSCE in December 1994, where the decision was made to send multilateral peacekeeping forces to the area.[xii] The OSCE Lisbon summit in December 1996 put forward principles for NK conflict resolution which stipulated a high degree of autonomy within the Azerbaijan republic.[xiii] In 1997 co-chairmanship was set up comprising the USA, France and Russia.
The OSCE co-chairmen proposed two peace plans[xiv] in 1997 known as the ‘package’ and ‘staged’ plans, which envisaged greater autonomy for NK and diminishing Azerbaijani sovereignty over the region, both of them accepted by Azerbaijan. Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan accepted the second plan, trying to foster peace and cooperation with both Azerbaijan and Turkey, but was forced to resign as a result of the power ministries and the current president R Kocharyan disrupting peace efforts. A third plan called “common state” was proposed in late 1998,[xv] fundamentally different from the Bosnian common state plan, and was rejected by Azerbaijan as it aimed at division of Azerbaijan into two independent states.
The stalemate continued until 1999 when then Azerbaijani president H Aliyev initiated the Geneva meeting with Armenian president Kocharyan, trying to make a deal without distancing OSCE from the process. This one to one meting yielded some hope domestically and internationally by the autumn of 1999, but later the shootings in the Armenian parliament produced a power vacuum in Armenia and the peace process again stalled until Russian president V Putin’s visit to Baku in January 2001. President Putin’s efforts in coordination with French President J Chirac stimulated the Paris meetings in February and March 2001, allegedly with territorial exchange between Azerbaijan and Armenia and deep decentralization as the content of the negotiations, which were kept confidential.
To push forward the Paris talks the US government initiated the Key West meeting in the United States involving conflict resolution experts rich in ideas and possible options for resolution, but failed to produce agreement. The widely speculated Key West “agreement” or “principles” mentioned by the Armenian side have been confirmed neither by mediators nor with the Azerbaijani side. The situation stalled.
End of Prague process
So-called Prague process started with the fact finding meeting of newly appointed Azerbaijani foreign Minister Elmar Mammedyarov with his Armenian counterpart in Prague on 16 April 2004 and after the meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in Warsaw on 28 April they directed their foreign ministers for continuation of the dialogue now called the “Prague process”.[xvi]
They wanted to push forward an interim deal which would reduce tension between the two sides, and “create a possibility for negotiations to go forward in a freer atmosphere to find some sort of compromise”.[xvii]
Before the start of the dialogue both sides tried to express their confronting positions again: “Azerbaijan will not agree neither to the independent state status of NK or to NK being part of Armenia. New proposals of the OSCE Minsk group for the settlement of the conflict must be based on these principles,” said the Azerbaijani foreign minister.[xviii] “Azerbaijan is ready to grant the highest possible status of autonomy to NK as national minorities have in various parts of the world,” said Ilham Aliyev in his interview to Turkish “Hurriyyet”.[xix]
“The Nagorno Karabakh problem can be resolved only by the self determination of NK people. This can be achieved by unification of Armenia and NK and by the recognition of the world community and Azerbaijan. There is no other way,” said Armenian Foreign Minister V Oskanyan before the start of the Prague meeting.[xx]
After the June 22,2004 meeting of foreign ministers the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen formulated both sides’ approaches into one single formula which, as was disclosed by Russian Co-chairman Yuri Merzlayakov, aimed to reconcile the opposing strategies of Armenia and Azerbaijan on ending the conflict. He said a synthesis of a “step-by-step” settlement of the conflict pushed by Azerbaijan and a single “package” accord demanded by the Armenian side was the only realistic way of breaking the decade-long deadlock in the peace process. “The co-chairs are now trying to propose a variant of the settlement which would literally allow us to synthesize incompatible proposals, namely, those twoapproaches,” Merzlyakov said.[xxi]
First round of Prague process culminated in Warsaw in May 15, 2005 by meeting of I. Aliytev and R. Kocaryan with expectations but the sides had confronted themselves after the meeting. “They have agreed to give up all the regions, but they are thinking when they should do this, Mamedyarov said in Warsaw.[xxii] . “Although small, the progress reached at the meeting is within our settlement ideas. This progress does not concern a return to Azerbaijan of occupied territories, but rather concern the most important issue for Armenia – the status of Nagorno Karabakh,” Oskanyan said.[xxiii]
The situation has been actually frozen until after the November 6, 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. In pre-election period there has numerously been sounded the possibility of referendum in Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijani officials without elaborating full details insisting only that the referendum can take place only after the return of NK Azerbaijani population to their homes.
The Azerbaijani opposition political forces and independent experts believed that there was some kind of agreement between Azerbaijani regime and OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairmen countries regarding their plan in return of their tacit accord to falsified elections in Azerbaijan. After the parliamentary elections the change of tone in the top leadership regarding to referendum has strengthened those arguments.
The negotiations have been resumed during13th OSCE Ministerial Council in Ljubljana on December 6, 2005 between Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers which followed co-chairs visit to the region for the preparation of Paris meeting between I. Aliyev and R. Kocrayan. Despite the high hope and optimistic mood from co-chairs and international organizations the two day negotiations have yielded no results. According to Foreign Minister Elmar Memmedyarov “seven of the nine issues discussed during the meeting have been agreed, only the issues about “the return of the refugees” and “the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan” have not been agreed. Azerbaijan will not make territorial compromise”, he said which meant absolutely no advances were made[xxiv]. .
Failure of Rambouillet negotiations has radicalized both Azerbaijani and Armenian societies and Co- chairs tried to save the process and concentrated their efforts to organize new meeting between the two leaders which finally took place in Bucharest in early June, 2006[xxv]. The two days talks had made no progress toward the settlement and apparently the disappointment of the co-chairs has led to the disclosure of more details of the discussed principles to the public during the Vienna June 22, 2006, meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council where they stated that “they have reached the limits of their creativity in the identification, formulation, and finalization of these principles. We do not believe additional alternatives advanced by the mediators through additional meetings with the sides will produce a different result”[xxvi].
This was the first time that the Minsk group mediators disclosed their peace plan which was kept in confidentiality during the whole period of negotiations. In their statement the co-chairs urged both leaders to accept the proposal which they believe “are fair, balanced and workable” which may serve as basic for settlement agreement. The proposed plan has vague language leaving many key essential elements for the parties to negotiate. But the tone of language is not favorable to Azerbaijan and has pressure to accept the results of military aggression and the language of document is based on military realties on the ground. The plan is fitting purely to the rules of military solution and serves for legalizing of Armenian military advantages. The proposed plan had a key element for Armenian side which could enable them to hold population vote in NK proper with the purpose of final separation from Azerbaijan.
The plan envisaged the withdrawal of Armenian troops from five occupied regions beyond NK and leaving under Armenian control two other regions that of Lachin and Kelbejar until the determination of final status of NK. Before that referendum the sides take obligation “ to renounce the use or threat of use of force, and international and bilateral security guarantees and assurances would be put in place” such as demilitarizing of formerly occupied areas, deployment of peacekeeping forces[xxvii].
Besides the issue of referendum the plan has some uncertainties which are of key elements for solution such as interim status before the referendum, the fate of huge armed forces deployed in NK and occupied areas.
The plan says that a referendum or population vote would be agreed, at an unspecified future date, to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh. But the failure of negotiations indicates that Armenian side tries the agenda of referendum be negotiated in advance so that they would be in know what would be the final status of NK. Such position questions the whole negotiation process derailing from the track pursued during the Prague process and again putting forward the determination of the status favorable for Armenian side. For this purpose the occupied areas are being used as a trump card for legalizing military acquisition.
Azerbaijani leadership making mixed statements expressing its readiness for referendum of the whole population in NK that of both Armenian and Azerbaijani at same time rejecting any referendum which may lead to secessions of NK from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan at different levels expressed its will to grant high degree of self rule for NK region within Azerbaijani statehood. “The Azerbaijani side reaffirms its readiness to grant the highest level of autonomy to Nagorny Karabakh within the framework of the Azerbaijani constitution and Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territorial integrity. Such a constitutional approach is the only way possible to achieve a lasting settlement[xxviii].
Armenian side claims that “a disagreement that has emerged in the negotiations has noting to do with the referendum [on Karabakh’s status] – this issue has been already agreed by the presidents. The disagreement has to do with consistency of eliminating consequences of the military conflict”. Armenia considers that principles put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, are in fact a solid basis for continuing the negotiations, and we are ready to hold negotiations with Azerbaijan on this basis” said in a statement of foreign ministry[xxix].
The overall picture is that during the past 10 years Azerbaijani side led by Heydar Aliyev had made numerous concessions on the negotiating table and as well as in his public statements. Within these years the policy has been shifted from cultural autonomy to the highest degree of self rule for NK and that has encouraged Armenian side for more advantages and in fact for full separation of this land from the rest of Azerbaijan. Military control of a large area and absence of any punishment or sanctions from outside world has doubled their stance and encouraged them for military solution. From this perspective determination of the status for Armenian side means that they must receive the agreed, written agreement from Azerbaijan that “ the end product” of the process will be a referendum for full separation from Azerbaijan and only after such interim agreement there could be possibility of withdrawal from occupied other Azerbaijani regions with international security guarantees. In addition to it is Armenian intention to retain the two regions of Lacin and Kelbejer until the day of “recognition” of NK out of Azerbaijan.
Armenia demands to grant interim status to NK which should not be under Azerbaijani sovereignty until the referendum is held having its own international relations and keeping military forces in NK and in other two occupied regions of Azerbaijan. Internationally within that period the communications between Azerbaijan and Armenia should be opened and diplomatic, economic relations between Armenia and Turkey should be established.
The plan has increased the public anger in Azerbaijan about all three countries for their biased position losing hope for peaceful resolution. The public view was that if the final result is the separation of NK from Azerbaijan then why the Azerbaijani people have suffered for this land for the past 17 years?. Did we need any OSCE mediation efforts if at the end we had to cede this territory to Armenia? These questions and disappointment by the Co-chairmen countries have radicalized the society towards the settlement and was expressed in the highest level for liberation of the occupied lands by any way including through the war.
The meetings of foreign ministers seemed to have some autonomous character distinct from previous years’ negotiations. Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanyan once acknowledged that he was more optimistic on the course of his negotiations with the Azerbaijani foreign minister than with Kocharyan. The two foreign ministers have formulated a framework which was not disclosed for the public but supported by OSCE Minsk group. The OSCE foreign ministers early December, 2004 meeting in Sofia urged the heads of state of both countries to follow the framework formulated by the foreign ministers, which has caused surprise since the foreign ministers themselves could not act independently.
Azerbaijan came to terms that the conflict should be settled stage-by-stage, which in fact is right from a conflict resolution approach and the existence of deep hostility between the sides; while the Armenian side insisted on accepting the package solution where the status of NK will be determined first within a comprehensive peace settlement. The course of negotiations has shown that the sides have been trying to combine both arguments and elements of settlement into a wider phased one. Azerbaijan is negotiating in the first stage the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the areas beyond NK itself, which would allow the return of refugees to their homes in return for opening communication, establishing bilateral relations with Armenia and engaging in economic development in NK. The final status of the region could be decided within the context of trust and cooperation without any hostile environment.
There is a general view in Azerbaijan that within the territorial integrity and state security of Azerbaijan there can be granted a self rule for the entire population of NK. The local entity may enjoy full right of administrative independence except for major functions of central government and state, such as military-security issues and foreign policy functions. Demilitarization of the area, free movement and economic development should be basic elements of a comprehensive peace agreement.
The Armenian side excluded any final status of NK as part of Azerbaijan, referring to horizontal relations with Azerbaijani government, which is considered unacceptable by Azerbaijan on the ground that such a solution would lead to the division of Azerbaijan into two states. Azerbaijan argues that the horizontal relations can not be excluded, except the powers for preserving the unity of the state. But the proposed recent plan on referendum for defining the final status may totally exclude having horizontal relations and could lead if accepted to dismemberment of Azerbaijani republic. Armenian claims to have Lachin which is beyond the NK to be annexed into her control and to have the same status as NK would have so that to annex the region totally to Armenia.
Azerbaijani policy for the past ten years of the ceasefire regime has been focused on getting international recognition of Armenia as an aggressor state and in this way pressuring Armenia to leave the occupied areas. Azerbaijan hoped for similar actions towards Armenia to those taken by the international community in former Yugoslavia, but the geographical remoteness of the Caucasus and Russia’s heavy presence in the region has always caused doubts for similar involvement. Blaming international organizations and great powers, the Azerbaijani ruling regime has done little to strengthen its army, economy and democratic institutions for gaining successful negotiating positions. On the contrary, corruption of governmental structures, monopoly over resources, non-transparency, rigged elections; violence against political opponents and establishing authoritarian systems and consequently the worst form of dynastic succession has weakened international support and sometimes caused ignorance of its vital problem.
Azerbaijan managed to isolate Armenia from regional transport and energy projects, but failed to make visible economic progress, resulting in unemployment and emigration of millions of Azerbaijanis to Russia and Western Europe.
Within the past ten years of the ceasefire regime the whole philosophy and approaches in Armenia were based on the results of military gains, hoping that by maintaining the status quo for more years they may achieve the desirable outcome in a changed environment. The old thinking, absence of vision for the future of the region, propaganda of hatred, lack of pluralistic debate on peace with Azerbaijan, authoritarianism, former warlords’ rule of the country is the major elements of stalemate from the Armenian side.
In words both countries expressed their commitment to peaceful resolution, but neither side embraced the rules of peaceful settlement in terms of changing the atmosphere of hatred and enmity dictated by mistrust and absence of clear vision for the future relations of the two nations.
Azerbaijan believed that cooperation and the end of enmity would lead to strengthening the Armenian side and the toughening of their position. Armenia believed that the end of enmity and propaganda of hatred would slow the nationalist agenda and weaken their arguments to keep the occupied territories.
Armenia by its lobby groups in the United States and France and being in military alliance with Russia has managed to oppose the creation of any international coalition against Armenia so far. The monopoly of the OSCE Minsk group has also played an essential role for localizing the situation and preventing international reflection on the ethnic cleansing and military occupation. PACE and EU involvement has produced hope that the current status quo will not be maintained for long but there is no consistency from their sides partially obstructed by OSCE Minsk Group mediators.
On the mediation efforts of the OSCE Minsk group, there should be noted that co-chair countries have in fact taken into monopoly the whole issues of settlement, isolating the other 13 Minsk group countries. Intervention by the Council of Europe, EU and the UN General Assembly has faced similar opposition from Minsk group co-chairmen.
Armenia accepts the OSCE Minsk group as the best format for negotiations as the past 13 years mediation history have shown it has become an “island” isolated from the international community, which restricts and prevents any international involvement, serving indirectly to continue the stalemate and hiding the consequences of Armenian military aggression. From the other side, the Minsk group chairmen have always tried to diminish their role in the settlement process, reiterating that their only mandate is to act as a mediator. Azerbaijan was desperate to involve various international organizations into the case in an effort to free her from the burden of occupation.
Although there was no official displeasure about the composition of the Minsk group co-chairmen, there is distrust of the mediating team among Azerbaijani society since the co-chair countries lean directly and indirectly towards Armenia. Azerbaijan believed that Russia played a pivotal military and diplomatic role in supporting the Armenian occupation. Russia still re-equips and rearms the Armenian army with modern weapons and is in military alliance; it has a military base in Armenia. There is consensus in Azerbaijani society that such a position is only encouraging Armenia, and the armament of one side is not compatible with mediation efforts.
United States, being co-chairmen, had also been perceived by the Azerbaijani public for years as biased since the US government had Restriction 907 imposed by US Congress on Azerbaijan which was in force until 2002. Armenia is the second largest recipient of US aid in the world. But the United States is trying to involve the regional states into Euro-Atlantic structures to change the regional landscape and push for settlement based on democracy and cooperation, which is hopeful. Azerbaijanis could not trust French mediation watching France’s president embrace R Kocharyan who Azerbaijanis consider war criminal and awarding a high medal to this man, who led the occupation and destruction of part of Azerbaijan committing war crimes. From Azerbaijani perspective R. Kocaryan has nothing different from Bosnian Serb leader, wanted war criminal R. Karadcic for his atrocities when he headed NK separatist forces in the early 1990s, for Khojali massacres and for destruction and burning of thousands of Azerbaijani regions. The Azerbaijani public is much more supportive of having Turkey as co-chair, at least to create some balance.
In the current circumstances part of the peace process should be establishing an International War Crimes Tribunal for the Caucasus, bringing to justice the leaders of ethnic cleansing and war crimes perpetrated in occupied areas. That could be a driving force for swift settlement and for reconciliation of the people in the region. The Yugoslavian option clearly showed the effectiveness of such tribunals for reconciliation and justice.
Author: Elkhan Mehtiyev
[i]Sovetskiy Karabakh, 21 February 1988, Stepanakert, Azerbaijan.
[iiKrasnaya Zvezda, 31 July 1990, Moscow.
[iii]Heyat, 2 August 1991, Baku.
[iv]Washington Post, 5 April 1993; Philip Marsden in The Times (London), Weekend Review, 12 March 2005.
[v]Komsomolskaya Pravda, 22 December 1991, Moscow.
[vi]“Karabag”, 28 February 1992.
[vii]Heyat, Baku, 24 February 1993, “Report of commission on Khojali”.
[viii]Statement of Defence Ministry, 8 April 1992; Heyat, 14 April 1992.
[ix]Krasnaya Zvezda, 22 December 1991, Moscow.
[x]Washington Post, 5 April 1993.
[xi]‘Finland as a mediator in the Karabakh Conflict’, publication of MFA, Helsinki, 1997.
[xii]Materials of OSCE Budapest summit. Office of archives of Azerbaijani president.
[xiii]Statement of OSCE Chairman in Office, 3 December 1996, Lisbon.
[xiv]Azerbaijan, 21 February 2001, Baku.
[xvi]Halg gazeti, 29 April 2004, Baku.
[xvii]AFP, 24 May 2004.
[xviii]Baku Today, 13 April 2004.
[xix]Yerevan, 10 April 2004, Arminfo.
[xx]525 gazet, 15 April 2004, Baku.
[xxi]525 gazet, 25 June 2004, N 121.
[xxii]“Armenia to give up occupied Azeri territories – Azeri Foreign Minister”, Agence France Presse, Baku, 16 May 2005.
[xxiii]“Armenia insists on Nagorno Karabakh self-determination” Itar-Tass, Yerevan, 20 May 2005.
[xxv]Associated Press, Yerevan, Armenia June 6, 2006
[xxvi]ArmInfo news agency, Yerevan, Armenia June 28, 2006
[xxvii]See ArmInfo news agency, Yerevan, Armenia June 28, 2006
[xxviii]Azeri-Press Agency (in Azerbaijani), Baku, Azerbaijan June 27, 2006
[xxix]Arminfo news agency (in Russian), Yerevan, Armenia, June 27, 2006