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From Freeze to Deep Freeze

by Ara Tadevosyan

3 January 2005

A decade after a cease-fire was signed, the chances of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan are, if anything, becoming more remote.

Another year has passed and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh remains frozen, with no war but also no peace, and with no economic ties between Armenia and, on the other side, Azerbaijan or Turkey.

But this was not quite an ordinary year of suspended motion. May marked the 10th anniversary of the cease-fire that ended the conflict between the Azeris and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. More importantly, for the first time, the Armenian government has not been dealing with Heidar Aliev, but with his son, Ilham. Year nine of the cease-fire—2003–had been a write-off, with presidential and parliamentary elections in Armenia and, in October, the presidential elections in Azerbaijan that brought Ilham to power. Year 10 marked the start of a new era.

Optimists believed that, once in the president’s seat, Ilham Aliev might quickly push for a resolution in order to stabilize the overall level of security in the region as, in 2005, Azerbaijan is due to start pumping oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey. Pessimists pointed instead to the domestic challenges faced by a young leader, arguing that any compromise would weaken his public legitimacy and his position in ruling circles. International mediators chose to set out an optimistic schedule of high-level meetings. But the pessimists have proved right. The peace process has in fact gone backward even according to members of the mediation group, a collection of U.S., Russian, and French diplomats working under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and known as the Minsk Group.


In fact, the peace process has been going backward since 2001, when the two countries appeared on the verge of a breakthrough. Heidar Aliev, already ailing, appeared close to accepting the notion that the de facto status of Nagorno-Karabakh—as an ethnic-Armenian region with no ties to Azerbaijan–would become permanent. But then the talks collapsed.

The Armenians partly blame Aliev Sr.’s ill health. He feared he might not be well enough to implement the agreements, believes Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. But they have also blamed Aliev’s son and successor, Ilham. In January, Oskanian claimed that Heidar Aliev “believed he had the necessary moral right to settle the conflict” but “Ilham Aliev realizes his own weakness.” What the talks foundered on, in his view, was the unwillingness of Heidar Aliev’s close entourage, including Ilham, to compromise. In other words, in Armenian eyes Ilham is guilty not just of being unwilling to use the Key West talks as the basis for continued negotiations, but also of preventing a landmark treaty at Key West.

Such assertions clearly did not help create an atmosphere conducive to a breakthrough this year. Nor did Ilham Aliev’s February declaration, “I am not in favor of making compromises” or that of his then-foreign minister, Vilayat Guliev, who said that Azerbaijan had the right to begin negotiations “from scratch.”

Baku now insists that Armenia give back seven Azeri-populated districts of Azerbaijan seized during the war before it will discuss the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. For its part, Armenia insists that any withdrawal must be agreed on at the same time as a final status for the region. Yerevan has also put in the foreground an issue that had seemed to be settled: the role of Nagorno-Karabakh leaders in talks. Over the years, the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh has become a bilateral discussion between Yerevan and Baku. That approach dates to 1998 when Robert Kocharian moved from his post as president of Nagorno-Karabakh to the presidency of Armenia. But this year Kocharian has cited the absence of Nagorno-Karabakh leaders as one of two problems preventing a resolution. (The other is Azerbaijan’s alleged unwillingness to cooperate in reaching a settlement.)

The talks now seem to be moving in circles. Russia’s former first deputy foreign minister, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, has said, “All possible variants of a settlement have already been on the agenda of the negotiating process,” and, “Now the initial positions of the sides in the Karabakh conflict differ much more than two to three years ago.”


Behind Aliev’s declaration against compromise seems to be a belief that the status quo suits the Armenians. Azerbaijan pins part of the blame on the mediators. In May, Aliev accused the OSCE of “just observing” talks. And in November, Azerbaijan went beyond the framework of OSCE talks and put a motion before the United Nations to condemn the “transfer of settlers” from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh “to artificially create a new demographic situation in those territories.” France criticized the move as negative and Russia as unhelpful.

Armenia had warned that a UN vote in favor of the Azeri motion would spell the end of the latest phase of diplomatic efforts, a series of meetings between the Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers known as the “Prague process.” In the end, the UN General Assembly put off a vote until an unspecified later date.

Armenia itself has had some critical words for the OSCE Minsk Group, claiming that it had failed to react adequately to the “killing” of the Key West agreement by Azerbaijan. But Kocharian has described the Minsk Group as “the optimal format” for discussion, adding that “the problem lies in the parties to the conflict and not in the mediators”—which, judging by other comments he has made, means Azerbaijan.

And, overall, Armenia seems satisfied both with the mediators’ efforts and the international environment. In some key relationships, the year has been positive for Armenia. At one point, in January, there appeared to be the possibility of a breakthrough in relations with Turkey, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government might reopen its border with Armenia if Yerevan reciprocated “friendly initiatives” by Ankara. By April, the Azeris and Turks were back to publicly declaring their unity on the Karabakh issue. That followed a statement by Aliev in March that a settlement would be “impossible” if Turkey were to reopen its border with Armenia. Still, Turkey’s initial statements cannot be wiped off the record, and EU leaders commitment to start accession talks with Turkey in October 2005 may put Ankara under increasing pressure to do as the European Parliament has called for—to improve relations with Armenia and end its blockade.

Most importantly, Armenia’s key bilateral relationship, with Russia, remained solid. Azerbaijan, perhaps partly because of its disillusionment with the Minsk Group, took a number of steps that amounted to a clear bid for greater favor from Russia. It allowed Russia to build a radar station in the country (despite enacting a law banning military bases in the country) and, unlike Georgia, it has been standoffish in its military relationships with NATO and the United States. In August, Baku called on Moscow to make a greater effort on its own to broker a deal. But within a matter of days Russian President Vladimir Putin met Kocharian for the sixth time in 12 months, and Armenian and Russian troops had held joint military exercises.

(Russia has a pact with Armenia promising military support for Armenia if it is attacked, it has a military base in Armenia, and it patrols Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. It also controls almost all of Armenia’s energy system.)

Azerbaijan enjoyed greater success with Iran, for the first time winning Iran’s support for its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh. But, at the same time, Armenia entered talks to build a pipeline to Iran.

To Armenian eyes, the international climate therefore seems acceptable, possibly even working in its favor. Armenian negotiators have little reason, therefore, to offer more compromises than they did at Key West.

And it has few domestic reasons to push for change. Kocharian has three and a half years left in his presidency, and, although the governing coalition is in trouble, the opposition is weak, with no leader like Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko or Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili and no clear vision of how to resolve the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. Kocharian also faces little pressure from the Armenian public. Armenians are not afraid of a new war, and, by and large, they are happy with the status quo because as least the most important issue is practically resolved: Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh are free, feel reasonably secure, and are de facto united with Armenia.

And the risks for Kocharian of being too bold were highlighted in late 1997, when then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian accepted a proposal under which Armenia would cede occupied territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh and only then discuss the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The next year, he was forced out of office as a direct consequence. Kocharian’s lack of room for maneuver was made clear in a June poll by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies that showed that only 2.5 percent of the population believes the Armenian authorities can resolve the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Just 1 percent believes the captured territories should be returned to Azerbaijan. Politically, Kocharian therefore has nothing to gain and plenty to lose by making a major concession.

Meanwhile, the apparent failure of its overtures to Moscow and Ankara’s openness to think the previously unthinkable—to end the blockade—show just how difficult it is for Azerbaijan to change the status quo.


The bottom line for Armenia is a position stated in private by Armenian diplomats–that Key West was a Rubicon, even though no treaty was signed. The preliminary understanding (as they put it) was that Azerbaijan would cede sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia would leave the occupied territories, and Azerbaijan might be granted a secure corridor linking Azerbaijan to Nakchichevan, an exclave of Azeri territory within Armenia. Azerbaijan denies a framework deal was agreed to, though the U.S. negotiator has said they were “incredibly close” to one. But having received such an offer (as it believes), Yerevan is now unlikely to discuss anything like “broad autonomy” for Karabakh inside Azerbaijan—and Armenian diplomats believe that is well-understood by the mediators.

Judging by their comments about Aliev Sr., diplomats in Yerevan are waiting for Ilham Aliev to become politically strong enough to be able to reach an agreement about Karabakh. Aliev himself seems to be waiting for Azerbaijan to become stronger but for different ends. In February, he said, “Justice is with us, and time will work for us,” arguing that “assessing the countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] in terms of economic potential, you will see that we are in a better position.” In July, Aliev promised that Azerbaijan “would liberate its occupied territories at any cost”; oil may be what makes that cost more affordable.

In the meantime, Ilham Aliev has begun to liken his policy to a cold war with Armenia. In November, he said, “We are carrying on a cold war successfully. Our propaganda activity in international organizations has grown considerably. I am sure that this will allow us to achieve what we want.”

Events of the past year, then, suggest that, after the failure of the Key West talks, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are willing to wait a long time for a resolution, each in the belief that time is on its side. That is not a view shared by the U.S. co-chairman of the Minsk Group, Steven Mann. Speaking in the autumn, he said, “We tell the two governments: time is not on your side. It will be worse both for Armenia and Azerbaijan. Regional development is passing Armenia by. Pipelines, roads, railways are being built, and Armenia is missing the advantages it could get from economic integration with the whole region. The country is paying a high cost for the army it has to keep.”

That prompted Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to say, “Armenia cannot be frightened or troubled by statements that it is standing apart from regional oil and gas and transportation projects. Nagorno-Karabakh is priceless and is not a subject for bargaining. That’s why we do not accept the argument that, in defending its interests, Armenia is missing an opportunity to take part in big regional projects.”

For Azerbaijan, too, Nagorno-Karabakh remains priceless. So no break in the ice of this frozen conflict seems likely soon.

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