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Armenia's choice in Nagorno-Karabakh: peaceful resolution or another war with Azerbaijan?
December 7, 2011 19:00PM
By George Niculescu,
In the aftermath of the failed summit hosted by the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev between his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts, held in Kazan (Russia) on 24 June 2011, with a view to agreeing on a peaceful settlement of the "frozen conflict" in Nagorno-Karabakh, it seems that the future of South Caucasus might be threatened by the specter of a new war. Although the agreement expected from the Kazan summit was politically backed by a previous US-French-Russian summit in Deauville (France) on 26 May 2011, the two conflicting parties have eventually turned it down, placing under a big question mark the whole notion of pursuing international negotiations on Karabakh. Reportedly, a senior official in the Kremlin, reflecting president's Medvedev's frustration with the outcome of the Kazan summit, had declared: "Unless Armenia and Azerbaijan display a readiness soon to solve the accumulated problems, we will consider this mediating mission over" (Kommersant, 27 June 2011).
An ambiguous declaration of president Serzh Sarksyan on 23 July 2011, at a meeting with Armenian youth, hinting to the fact that the current status of Karabakh as part of Armenia is final, and that the settling of the Western Armenian border (with Turkey) would be an issue to be solved in the future by the younger generation, might have given another powerful strike to the failing peace process. Unfortunately, but maybe not completely unexpectedly, this declaration was made just before the visit of the Turkish Prime-Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Baku (27-28 July 2011) triggering strong anti-Armenian reactions from the Turkish prime-minister and the Azerbaijani president. The two political leaders, closing ranks among their countries, reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining the conditionality of opening the Turkish-Armenian border by significant progress in negotiations over Karabakh, thereby thwarting recent efforts by the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, to persuade Turkish leaders to act in the opposite direction.
Since the previous war with Azerbaijan, Armenia has strived to maintain the status quo in the South Caucasus, and in particular in Karabakh. It has pursued a strategy relying on countering Azerbaijan by effectively supporting Armenian Karabakh forces outside the national territory (in seven Azerbaijani districts situated between Armenian internationally recognized borders and the Armenians inhabited Karabakh), relying on Russia to counter a potential Turkish threat. Armenia has likewise aimed to cultivate Western support, on the one hand, to balance Azerbaijani strides to get closer to the West, and, on the other hand, to lock Russia in.
Major changes over the last few years deeply affected the effectiveness of this strategy: 1)Georgian war of 2008 has proven that the Western regional commitment and role are very limited; 2)Russia and Turkey have drawn closer to one another, sharing common regional interests; 3)Western (read mainly US) influence on Turkey's regional policies was strongly eroded; 4)Azerbaijan's military power has grown exponentially fuelled by huge oil revenues, while Turkish military support to Azerbaijan cannot be ruled out either; 5)Armenian Diaspora's economic support to the homeland, on which Armenian prosperity to a large extent relies, has significantly decreased due to the ongoing global crisis. Under these circumstances, maintaining the status quo in the South Caucasus peacefully has become hardly feasible for Yerevan.
A number of factors are making the outbreak of a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ever likelier, including: the clear deadlock of negotiations on Karabakh after the Kazan summit; the growing Azerbaijani unrest about peacefully liberating the districts occupied by Karabakh Armenian troops; the tightening of the Turkish-Azerbaijani pressure on Armenia (potentially on Moscow too, although in different ways); the Russian president's exasperation with the irreconcilable positions of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides, and a potential interest of Russian hard liners in a military conflict around Karabakh which would be cutting the Azerbaijani pipelines crossing the South Caucasus towards Europe, boosting competing Russian energy projects; the current Western preoccupation with finding solutions to its own problems stemming from the global economic crisis, and the re-focus of its political attention to the developments in the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Arab spring.
In this new strategic context, one could not exclude either a Turkish-Russian deal on the South Caucasus, which would pay lip service to Armenian interests in Karabakh, nor the fact that Yerevan would be abandoned by the West (in fact. by the US), whose regional role in the South Caucasus is downsizing anyway.
The Armenian potential response in case either of these nightmare scenarios would turn into reality (in the context of a military effort by Azerbaijan to re-conquer its districts adjacent to Karabakh), might involve negotiating with Azerbaijan on a defensive footing or engaging in asymmetric warfare against Azerbaijan. Both options might look much less attractive for Armenia than urgently sending the right signals that it is prepared to make a credible offer to break the current deadlock of negotiations on Karabakh under the aegis of OSCE’s Minsk Group.