The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Obstacles to Resolution

27 November 2014

Olivia Christian argues that geopolitical interests are being favoured over civilian human rights, preventing the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Twice this year, delegations from HART have visited Nagorno-Karabakh to gather information for aid and advocacy. Findings suggested a marked increase in tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a result of the ‘no war, no peace’ mentality, and consequently the urgency with which peace negotiations need to be reinvigorated. The conflict in the area has largely been overshadowed by the events in Ukraine, but on the 27th October a conference on “The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Standpoint of International Law“, (which involved both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, but excluded the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities) was held in Bursa in Turkey, the latest in a long series of meetings between the leaders to explore a peaceful solution. Any progress at all in resolving the intractable political issues has proved elusive so far; given this latest meeting in the effort to find a way forward, it might be timely to re-visit the origins of the conflict and the difficulties involved in resolving it.

Ever since tensions flared up again in summer of this year, the future of Nagorno-Karabakh (and indeed the stability of the whole South Caucasus region) has looked increasingly uncertain. Horror stories about the living conditions of several hundred thousand refugees, as well as allegations from both sides regarding human rights violations has left the international community, not least Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens, searching for answers that simply aren’t available. The recommended focus of aid organisations that are operating in Nagorno-Karabakh, such as HART and Saferworld, is to work towards peace with civilians affected by the hostility. However, the ambivalent way in which this episode of the conflict has been received by the international community presents a number of obstacles to the peace process that are transcendent of local communities. Simply put, terms such as ‘political gain’, ‘geopolitical interest’ and ‘direct and indirect actors’ suggest that resolving such a multidimensional conflict may not simply be a matter of putting historical differences aside over a handshake in front of the cameras.

International Reluctance

Organisations and political representatives from surrounding countries have criticised international giants such as the U.S and Europe for their lack of public interest in finding a solution to the conflict. There is the argument that the conflict has simply been side-lined in favour of its highly visible Central European counterpart in Ukraine. Other sources suggest America’s dependence on Azerbaijan’s extensive oil supply prevent it from getting more involved in a way that would alienate the Azerbaijan government. But it is not only Washington that is open to the accusation of investing little time in finding a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh atrocities – much closer to home, Russia has adopted a notably ambiguous stance towards a conflict in its periphery, whose origins can be traced back to Gorbachev’s policies of the late 1980s. Similarly, perhaps this has something to do with a strong allegiance with Armenia, which, over the course of 20-odd years, has proved to be a reliable customer to Russia’s lucrative arms industry. Furthermore, as recently as May this year reports have uncovered evidence of the superpower collaborating with Azerbaijan over arms deals. Unsurprisingly, Russia has been labelled a “negative force” behind the conflict – it would simply not be in its economic interest for tensions to dissipate.

Domestic Reluctance

The indifference to finding a solution does not manifest itself solely in the actions of the international community. Both political parties of Armenia and Azerbaijan have maintained a low profile over the last few months, only really surfacing to accuse the other of breaching regulation laid down by a series of fragile and outdated legislative initiatives of the early-mid 1990s. While Azerbaijan satisfies the procedural aspect of efforts to resolve the conflict by appearing to engage in negotiations with Armenia, behind closed doors it is busy investing a lot of time and money into upgrading its military arsenal in the event that a military take-over of Nagorno-Karabakh is instigated. In the meantime, under these conditions Armenia enjoys economically beneficial relations with Russia as well as a security guarantee. Both countries are unwilling to cooperate with the West to reach an agreement, as the events of Ukraine have left little faith in Europe’s reconciliatory powers.

Inefficient Mediation

The nations’ unwillingness to cooperate effectively has had a knock-on effect on the progress made by the main mediation body, the Minsk Group (a sub-set of the OSCE) to resolve the issue. However, the Minsk Group, comprising Russia, France and the U.S, is no stranger to these kinds of struggles. Since 1992, when the Group was appointed on behalf of the OSCE to manage negotiations about the Nagorno conflict, its weak proposals and lack of initiative have come under attack by several significant politicians, including Turkish Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek. Perhaps it is no surprise that the trio, with conflict self-interests, are failing to engage the necessary parties and advocate a sustainable peace process in the region. So far, its major accolade stems from managing to dissuade Azerbaijan from a military take-over of Nagorno-Karabakh.

However, as previously discussed, it remains to be seen if this was effective negotiation at work, or if Azerbaijan is simply biding its time as it gathers arms. One thing is for sure; if the Minsk Group is to be any part of Nagorno-Karabakh’s future, major policy reforms are strongly advisable.

Concluding Remarks

But let us not underestimate the potential power of the Minsk Group (or, indeed, any relevant mediation group) to shift the focus of power between conflict actors. Recently there have been calls from within the international community (namely the Parliament Speakers Council of Navara’s statement on the 7th November) for the Minsk Group to include the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh in any decision-making about the region’s future. From reports we can deduce that this situation suffers from a distinct lack of communication between main actors (Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh), and perhaps too much among regional superpowers (Russia, Iran, U.S, and Turkey), at the expense of the living conditions of thousands of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabakh citizens. It seems this conflict will have difficulty reaching a peaceful outcome as long as geo-political gains are indirectly favoured over civilian human rights.

Please click here to read HART’s most recent visit report. 

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