A different narrative for the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict

We take issue with Svante E. Cornell’s characterization of the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artaskh in Armenian) conflict in his June 10 op-ed “Why America must step up its role in resolving Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.”

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan speaks to media during a news conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, June 18. Letter writers Vilen Khlgatyan and Armen Sahakyan write: 'A number of targeted public relations stunts have attempted to present Azerbaijan as a model partner for the West. However, Azerbaijan’s allegiance to the Western international order is dubious.'

With the recent developments happening in and around Ukraine, Svante E. Cornell’s June 10 op-ed “Why America must step up its role in resolving Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict” attempts to compare the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) conflict with Crimea. This attempted comparison disregards important historical, geographic, legal, and political differences that exist between the two conflicts.

The Artsakh conflict has deep historical and legal roots with various junctures along the way. The most recent phase of the conflict began in February of 1988, when the citizens of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) began peaceful demonstrations to once again petition the Soviet authorities in Moscow for re-unification of NKAO with the Armenian SSR. Tensions rose rapidly after the anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani cities of Baku (the capital), Sumgait, Kirovabad, and Maragha, among others. Tensions spilled eventually turned into a full-scale war that lasted until 1994.

Shortly after the Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement (signed by the representatives of Azerbaijan, Artsakh, and Armenia) came into force in 1994, the OSCE Minsk Group began its operations with the task of mediating the conflict. France, Russia, and the United States are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group and work hand-in-hand attempting to help the parties to the conflict reach a lasting peace agreement.

Moscow’s role (both under the USSR and the Russian Federation) in the Artsakh conflict mediation is usually overemphasized. At the same time, the genuine desire of the people of Artsakh Republic to live in a state and society of their own choosing is often disregarded. Although Russia has been active in the Artsakh peace process, their motivation is not nearly as nefarious as Dr. Cornell claims.

During the Artsakh-Azerbaijan war, Baku recruited Afghan mujahideen and Chechen insurgents to fight on its side, many of whom would end up in Russia’s North Caucasus region in pursuit of jihad, thus presenting a direct national security threat to Russia. Given its geographic proximity and Russia’s own problems in its North Caucasus region, Moscow could not and cannot disregard the Artsakh peace process.

The US has also been active in the mediation process of the Artsakh conflict within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship, which is the only agreed upon international format for the peace talks. One notable example was the US-organized talks in Key West in the summer of 2001, which was the closest the parties had ever come to reaching a peace deal since the ceasefire agreement seven years earlier.

A number of targeted public relations stunts have attempted to present Azerbaijan as a model partner for the West. However, Azerbaijan’s allegiance to the Western international order is dubious, especially when it comes to democratic norms, rule of law, and respect for human rights. In recent times, experienced analysts of the South Caucasus and government officials, such as Richard Kauzlarich, Thomas De Waal, Eric Rubin, and others have criticized Azerbaijan’s faulty human rights track record, its attempt to lead on both the West and Russia, and its waning importance as a US ally.

Recent examples of Baku’s crackdown on critics both foreign and domestic include: criticism of the US ambassador to Baku, Richard Morningstar; criticism of OSCE Minsk Group US co-chairman James Warlick; and government jailings of and crackdowns on representatives of the National Democratic Institute, Radio Free Europe, and other organizations operating in Azerbaijan, etc.

Human Right Watch periodically reports on egregious arrests of bloggers and journalists, including the recent airport detainment of prominent human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband. Another example is the extradition of Rauf Mirkadirov, a Turkey-based Azerbaijani journalist, who, due to his critical stance against the Baku regime, is now potentially facing a life-imprisonment based on questionable espionage charges.

Another factor that presents a challenge to the premise that Azerbaijan is a reliable Western ally is its recent major arms acquisitions from Russia, valued at $4 billion. Moreover, the geopolitical significance of the country is blown out of proportion. For instance its gas supplies to Europe are negligible in the larger picture (only 2 percent of EU demand) and could not replace Russia’s volumes. And within the context of improving relations between the West and Iran, Azerbaijan’s role will likely shrink further. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the recent shale gas revolution, and the general pivot to Asia add additional reasons why the South Caucasus will lose its strategic significance for the US and the West in general.

A related aspect of Azerbaijan’s PR campaign has been to conflate the Artsakh conflict with the separate issue of Armenia-Turkey bilateral relations. This is yet another attempt at misdirection that some observers have tried to make. Turkey and Azerbaijan are separate states, with different ethnic identities, divergent strains of Islam, and do not have identical national interests. It took Azerbaijani threats of raising the price of natural gas it supplies to Turkey as well as a fierce public diplomacy campaign to rally support among Turks for their “little brother” Azerbaijan in order to place Turkey’s peace protocols with Armenia in limbo.

Several events, including the pardon and promotion of the axe-murderer Ramil Safarov, the destruction of Armenian cultural sites in Azerbaijan, the declaration by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev that “Armenians of the world” are the number one enemy of Azerbaijan, the regular cross border sniper shootings on civilian populations, and many other incidents are not properly condemned by the US and other OSCE Minsk Group co-chair states.

Convincing Baku to remove the snipers from the line of contact (to which they do not agree) and to establish an international monitoring system for ceasefire violations (both of which Armenia and Artsakh have repeatedly agreed to) would be a positive step forward, and the US can spearhead those initiatives within the Minsk Group co-chairmanship framework. Reinstatement of the Artsakh Republic representation at the negotiations table is also imperative, as no durable peace is possible without the involvement of the people affected the most.

The US needs to play an active role in the mediation process, together with the other co-chair countries. But a final agreement to end the Artsakh conflict cannot be imposed from the outside and needs to be reached by the three parties themselves exclusively through peaceful means. 

Vilen Khlgatyan is vice-chairman of Political Developments Research Center (PDRC), a virtual think tank based in Yerevan, Armenia.

Armen Sahakyan is executive director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis (ERA) Institute (Washington, D.C. branch) and an analyst of Eurasian Affairs at PDRC. He previously served as an adviser to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Armenia to the UN in New York. 

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