The Soviet collapse in 1991 may have been a bloodless event, but it did trigger a bloody war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Armenian-majority enclave in south-western Azerbaijan. In that war, Russia backed Armenia, and Armenia supported its ethnic counterparts in Nagorno Karabakh, until all the Azeris were forcibly evicted from the enclave, close to 20 per cent Azeri territory was occupied by Armenia, over one million Azeris became refugees in their own country, and more than 30,000 people, mostly Azeris, were killed. The war ended in 1994, with a ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia mediated by Russia.
During the war and in its aftermath, the UN Security Council passed several resolutions condemning the Armenian occupation of Azeri territory, and the international community had refused to recognize the de facto Armenian administration in Nagorno Karabakh. In 1997, the Minsk Group of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe—which is co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France—started to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan to amicably settle the dispute. However, each time, its efforts in this regard were sabotaged by Armenia, with Russian instigation.
However, since November 2008, Presidents Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan have started to discuss the dispute, and, on January 27, they at least agreed on a preamble to an agreement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a meeting at Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s resort at Sochi. The two leaders reportedly agreed to forward their own suggestions for alterations to the so-called Madrid principles, a set of proposals for a political solution to the 20-year conflict prepared by the Minsk Group. The principles, adopted in late 2007, envisage returning territories occupied by Armenian troops that lie outside Karabakh proper to Azerbaijan but leaving a corridor linking Armenia with the disputed province on Azeri soil. The plan stipulates that the status for Nagorno-Karabakh would be determined in a referendum that refugees should be allowed to return and that an international peacekeeping force be deployed.
Russia has in recent years stepped up its own mediation efforts in the seemingly intractable conflict, and Sargsyan and Aliyev pledged that their countries would step up efforts to find a peaceful solution over Nagorno-Karabakh in a five-point declaration reached at a meeting with Medvedev in November 2008. Last year, the two presidents met for talks six times, including two rounds with Medvedev. Recent years have also seen Russia militarily assert itself in South Caucasus. In August 2008, it forcibly separated Abkhazian and South Assetian region from Georgia. Simultaneously, the Russian outlook towards the region is increasingly becoming pragmatic. Moscow recently signed energy agreements with both Azerbaijan and Turkey. In early January, Russian state energy giant Gazprom announced plans to quadruple the amount of gas that it buys from Azerbaijan in 2011, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to spur efforts to build the $2.5 billion Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline in Turkey.
Barring Russia’s aggressive conduct in Georgia, the pragmatic shift in its policy towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a good omen. For Russia, successor to the former Soviet Union and the most powerful player in the region, what it calls as “near abroad”, can be either a major source of trouble or a principal cause of peace. The only reluctant state can be Armenia, due to the enormous public support in the country for the Armenian population residing in Nagorno-Karabakh. Back in 1997, when the Madrid plan was announced, and the then Armenian president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, had tried to encourage Nagorno-Karabakh to enter into talks, he was forced to resign amid cries of betrayal by the Armenian people.
Given that, bringing Armenian government and public on broad for an amicable settlement of Nagorno Karabakh will be crucial, so will be forcing the enclave’s occupying Armenian majority to agree to such an internationally-mediated and bilaterally-negotiated Azeri-Armenian formula. Last year’s rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, mediated in person by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, may help transform Armenia’s hitherto jingoist outlook into one of pragmatism, bringing Yerevan out of the self-imposed economic isolation.
Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan has reaped the benefits of its Caspian hydrocarbon riches and strategic location, by supplying oil and gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey, especially through the Baku-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline. It has become a hub for oil and gas supplies to the region and beyond, including a pipeline project to China. The Russians have understood that their interest lies not in creating hurdles in the international quest for exploiting the untapped hydrocarbon resources of the region, but being a part of it.
Having said this, still the biggest challenge remains as far as resolution of the most important conflict of South Caucasus, that of Nagorno-Karabakh, is concerned. And it is to ensure that the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of Azerbaijan is restored as soon as possible, and that a country that emerged out of the Soviet communist demise as an independent secular Muslim republic is no more a hostage of historically-rooted militaristic Armenian nationalism.
The enclave is a part and parcel of Azerbaijan. It is from where the Azeri history, art and culture begins. Over the last three centuries, the region’s demography was reshaped under a conscious ‘divide and rule’ policy of Russia’s Czarist regime, and its communist successor. In the 1920, the region was declared autonomous with the Republic of Azerbaijan. It was upon Moscow’s instigation that violence began in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988. One of the last acts of the Soviets was to undertake a military assault on Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan ten years ago. Naturally, therefore, as soon as the Soviet Union broke apart, war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991. The rest of the story is told above.
One final promising point pertains to a rather flexible stance adopted by the Azeri leadership towards the Nagorno Karabakh dispute: despite the fact that Armenians killed thousands of Azeris during the war in early 90s, evicted a million of them from their homes and hearths, occupied a major chunk of Azerbaijan’s sovereign and integral area, besides occupying Nagorno Karabakh and illegally declaring it as an independent state, President Aliyev is willing to reconcile with the country’s Armenian majority, ready to give them maximum autonomy and even a land corridor with Armenia—but with just one precondition: that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty will not be compromised. That’s a morally and legally justifiable stand, to say the least.
The commentary is based on the author’s talk at a seminar on Kashmir and Nagorno Karabakh: Festering Disputes, organized by the Society for Asian Civilizations Pakistan at Preston University, Islamabad, on February 5, 2010.
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