For the tenth time during his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev met with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to settle the frozen conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The meeting, which took place yesterday in Sochi, once again failed to secure a breakthrough in the negotiations. As Russia turns inward to focus on recent political protests and Medvedev plans a speedy exit from the limelight, there is still no end in sight to what he has called possibly the only conflict in the post-Soviet space that can be settled today.
The trio’s winter meetings have become something of a tradition, noted Medvedev, who spoke to the press this weekend when he took a break from the negotiations to go skiing. There were low expectations for the talks, especially after the group failed to achieve a breakthrough in a highly anticipated meeting in Kazan last year. A joint statement released by the parties simply reported both sides’ “readiness to speed up the development of agreements on the main principles, including all previous work,” reported RIA Novosti.
Nagorno-Karabakh has remained in a perpetual state between conflict and peace since the end of a six-year civil war in 1994 prompted by the breakup of the Soviet Union and a territorial dispute between neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia. A ceasefire for the separatist region that nominally belongs to Azerbaijan was negotiated by the OSCE in 1994, but since then the decision of how to stamp out low-level violence and find a lasting solution for Karabakh’s political future has led to a series of dead ends.
> Nagorno-Karabakh Map
An OSCE devised road map, the Madrid Principles, appeared to be the best chance for a lasting peace in the region. The agreement, which would quickly demilitarize Nagorno-Karabakh, ensure a right of return to refugees from the war and eventually lead to a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh’s political status, seemed to be gaining strength, but both Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have refused to make key concessions. Those include when a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh’s political status would take place, and whether that would include only the region or all of Azerbaijan, as well as an agreement on a military withdrawal from two of the seven Karabakh regions that are considered strategically important for Armenian security.
Meanwhile in Nagorno-Karabakh, a low-level conflict continues as sniper exchanges occasionally kill Azerbaijani regulars, separatist fighters, and local residents as well; exchanges of fire take place on an almost daily basis, according to local reports. While there are few casualties, the incidents show the shaky nature of the ceasefire along the border.
Azerbaijan’s willingness to compromise remains the key question, but Sergei Minasyan, the head of the political research for the Institute of the Caucasus, said that the border had been “comparatively quiet” since the beginning of the new year. “The government of Azerbaijan for the last two years has threatened war the next day. Yet no war took place and the sides have become accustomed to the situation. I think that even in Azerbaijan, which is not very satisfied with the status quo, it is understood that the use of the front line as a lever in the negotiations is already part of a past era,” he said.
Yet Azerbaijan has far from abandoned a “position of strength,” said Sergei Markedonov, a Caucasus expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writing on Politcom.ru. He quoted the Azerbaijani president Aliyev as having said earlier this year: “If anyone believes that the main topic of the discussion is the prevention of war, then I do not agree with this opinion. Nobody wants war… but that doesn’t mean that the negotiations will be pushed off to the side, and that all efforts will be spent on the prevention of war. That simply does not happen.” At least in domestic politics, Aliyev must continue to show a very strong position and avoid looking like he might appease Armenia. “In this way, the president of Azerbaijan showed that the goal of the negotiation process is not compromise, but a discussion from the position of strength,” Markedonov concluded.
Despite the modest success of this round of negotiations, other experts did note a silver lining. Alexander Markarov, who heads the Armenian department of the CIS Institute, noted that both sides remain more or less committed to guiding documents like the Madrid Principles, which the OSCE continues to tout as the best framework for a possible agreement.
The question now is whether Aliyev and Sargsyan can overcome their differences without Russia to bring them together. While the recent protests in Russian cities will certainly divert Russia’s attention further away from Karabakh conflict, Medvedev’s time is also up; his successor will not likely have the same patience for endless meetings that bear few results. “The meeting at Sochi looks like Medvedev’s farewell to his colleagues… the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents understand the meaninglessness of the meeting, but could not refuse,” said Elkhan Shakhinolgu, the head of research at the Atlas think-tank, reported Nezavisimaya Gazeta