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Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008

Russian President Dimitri Medvedev’s visit to Armenia this week was a clear example of just how Moscow’s desire for influence in the region can be nice, as well as nasty.

Whilst in Yerevan, Medvedev expressed his hope that a trilateral meeting would take place in Moscow at some point soon, involving the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan – he refused to reveal any more details. The proposal, such as it is, was seen by some as an insidious attempt by the Kremlin to sideline the OSCE’s Minsk Group (of which Russia, the US and France are co-chairs), which is formally in charge of the Karabakh peace process, and take charge of the negotiations itself. There is a touch of paranoia in this attitude: America hosted a similar get-together at Key West in Florida in 2001. The presidents also met in Paris in 2006. And President Sarkisian of Armenia declared that the format of the negotiations would follow the Madrid Principles, agreed by the Minsk Group in 2007.

The difference between this and previous efforts is in timing, and tone. President Medvedev stated that the August war in Georgia illustrated “that any complex issue must be resolved on the basis of international principles and on the basis of negotiations. There is no other way to get a positive result in such cases.” Given that Russian forces were responsible (at least in part) for the intensity of the conflict, and that the Kremlin explicitly renounced the ‘international principle’ of territorial integrity for Georgia, this sounds at best disingenuous, at worst a veiled threat.

Baku’s reaction was unsurprisingly cautious. President Ilham Aliyev used his inauguration speech on October 24th, after his re-election earlier this month, to issue a strong affirmation of Azerbaijan’s stance. “Territorial integrity of Azerbaijan has never been and will never be a subject of the negotiations. . . Nagorno Karabakh will not be independent. Azerbaijan will never recognize it”, he said. Geopolitically, he may feel that the pressure is on to negotiate, although not to concede ground (as his inauguration speech made plain). The flurry of international attention to the conflict in recent weeks, and on President Aliyev’s re-election, has not been roundly welcomed in Baku. Turkey’s ‘football diplomacy’ in September and its moves to thaw relations with Armenia were greeted coolly by President Aliyev. The Russian proposal will probably get a similar reaction – he will undoubtedly attend, but will not compromise. Moscow has been notably flexible on its attitudes towards Karabakh recently, depending on its audience: in Baku, much talk is made of territorial integrity; in Yerevan, a peaceful, mutually acceptable solution is stressed. This has certainly given President Aliyev grounds to be wary of Russian mediation.

Armenia has welcomed Russia’s proposals, perhaps not surprisingly. President Medvedev’s visit was a clear signal that any attempts by Azerbaijan to retake Karabakh by force will not be welcome in the Kremlin. It also offered the prospect of closer security ties; President Medvedev said that Russia was looking to cooperate more closely with Armenia in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a security body of some ex-Soviet states (Azerbaijan is not a member). More generally, Armenia has gained the edge over Azerbaijan in the recent diplomatic tussles – although this is not likely to last – in large part because of Turkey’s new willingness to compromise.

Ankara’s proposal for a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, like Moscow’s, has been viewed as an attempt to hedge out the Minsk Group and boost Turkey’s diplomatic credentials, possibly by cooperating with Russia to enforce regional solutions to regional problems. But if the Stability Platform itself has been greeted coolly in Washington, Turkey’s bilateral diplomacy with Armenia has not. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried stressed that the process of reconciliation should “not stop there”. The French Minsk Group representative, Bernard Fassier, also insisted that he welcomed Turkish efforts. Turkey is, after all, a member of the Minsk Group and it is evident to the co-chairs that Ankara’s involvement is going to be necessary. One should, therefore, draw a distinction between the response to the Stability Platform – which has not been entirely positive – and the response to the bilateral diplomacy, which has been a lot more upbeat. Besides, there is no evidence to suggest that the Stability Platform has made it beyond a blueprint so far, which will suit the West just fine. It may never do so. Bitter distrust between Russia and Georgia is one obstacle. The elephant in the room, Iran’s status, is another. Tehran is currently being treated like a dubious neighbour whom no-one really wants to invite to the party, but whom no-one wants to antagonize by ignoring.

So the Minsk Group is unlikely to be sidelined any time soon. It is the only format which both parties have expressed at least some satisfaction with, and which has, over the years, built up a body of technical expertise and knowledge on Karabakh. However, the OSCE is going to need all the help it can get if it wants to fulfil Mr. Fried’s optimistic prediction that a solution can be found by the end of the year. Any attempts to advance the peace process, whether they come from the co-chairs collectively or from outside sources, should be welcomed. For although the chances of war have declined sharply in the aftermath of the South Ossetian war, the situation remains dangerous and unmonitored. On October 23rd it was revealed that an Azerbaijani soldier was captured by Armenian forces earlier in the month, and is still being held. And two days later, Armenia allegedly began conducting military exercises in the occupied territories. The peace process still has a long way to go.

"Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008" | 1 comment | Search Discussion
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by Teymur on Thu Oct 30, 2008 9:20 pm
Seems to me Moscow is just imitating activity and wont do much for Azerbaijan. August events have shown that EU is good in dealing with Moscow. We need them to get involved into Karabakh settlement process. Unfortunately so far EU has not shown much interest to Azerbaijan's problems. They lack a clear strategic approach when it comes to Azerbaijan, no serious direct business ties, no stance on Nabucco. Maybe Azerbaijan should make a step towards EU.

Hopefully Aliev will realize that with impotent OSCE MG and Russia just imitating activity EU seems the best hope to solve this puzzle.


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