COULD FRANCE PLAY KEY KARABAKH ROLE?
By Kenan Guluzade

Institute for War and Peace Reporting IWPR
CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 602
August 4, 2011
UK

Latest Russian-sponsored effort to resolve conflict comes to naught,
but some wonder whether Paris is set to replace Moscow as lead
mediator.

Hopes were so high before the late June's meeting of the Azerbaijan
and Armenian presidents that their failure to make progress in a deal
over Nagorny Karabakh plunged many observers into depression.

Now the worst of the mood has passed, it is worth asking why we had
such hopes in the first place and, more importantly, whether our
despair is justified.

The meeting was chaired by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and he,
along with fellow-mediators France and the United States, had suggested
an agreement was near.

Observers wondered whether Medvedev might force Baku and Yerevan to
accept the outlines of a peace deal.

No such thing happened. The meeting produced only a vague statement
about their willingness to meet again. It seems strange now that we
did not ask why Moscow would expend so much effort to secure a deal.

For centuries, it has played off the nations of the Caucasus against
each other.

Why should it scrap "divide and rule" in favour of "make peace and
make friends"? If anyone did ask this question, they were normally
satisfied with explaining it away by recourse to Medvedev's character:
that he wanted to go down in history as a peacemaker.

It also seems strange that we did not stop to wonder why we were
so hopeful about the two countries finalising the basic principles
underlying the peace process, as the three mediators put it. Even
before the meeting, those basic principles did not appear close to
finalisation at all.

The first version of the principles, which was put forward by the
mediators in November 2007, had been approved by Azerbaijan, but
was rejected by Armenia. A second version was prepared, therefore,
and has been approved by Armenia, but not by Azerbaijan.

We know the basic components of the principles - the return of
the territory around Karabakh to Azerbaijan, the awarding of an
interim status to Karabakh itself, a guarantee of security and
self-determination, the creation of a corridor between Armenia and
Karabakh, the resolution of Karabakh's final status by means of a
referendum, the return of all refugees to their former homes, an
international security guarantee.

But, according to various participants, there are between seven and
15 other conditions that have not been published, and that appears
to be where the disagreement lies.

For now, therefore, we are stuck with the status quo: Armenian enforces
control Karabakh and the surrounding territory; hundreds of thousands
of refugees live in limbo; Armenia and Azerbaijan have no diplomatic
relations.

The Armenians appear to think this situation plays into their hands,
since the longer they control Karabakh, the harder it will be to take
it away from them.

The Azeris, however, also think the situation plays into their
hands, since they think they are economically and demographically
outperforming their neighbours, so the longer the wait, the better
their chances of winning any subsequent conflict.

But there will not be a war. Russia's role is crucial here, since
neither Yerevan nor Baku can be sure that Russia will not intervene
against them. Azerbaijan also has close economic ties with several
western countries, which it would not want to risk losing.

Russia has not given up on the process. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
met his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandyan in Moscow last week,
then he visited Baku and Yerevan to meet top officials. Azeri foreign
minister Elmar Mameduarov is expected to visit Moscow, while Lavrov
will visit Washington for talks with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But the letter he brought to Baku and Yerevan contained Medvedev's
last proposal for the peace deal. In both capitals, he said that
Medvedev expected replies soon, and Russian newspapers have reported
that the Kremlin is close to abandoning the process if the replies
are unsatisfactory.

That is why comments in early July by French foreign minister Alain
Juppe, that he had "extra" proposals to make to Armenia and Azerbaijan,
were particularly interesting. Azerbaijan's foreign minister has
already met him, and you have to wonder if France might not be set
to replace Russia in its lead mediating role.

And, in fact, France has a strong record in the South Caucasus,
and it could well prove to be a good intermediary. Firstly, it was
Nicolas Sarkozy who stepped in to mediate between Moscow and Tbilisi
to seal a ceasefire in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Secondly, although the Cold War ended two decades ago, America and
Russia often need an intermediary themselves. So, perhaps France could
not only mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but between the other
mediators: and that might be what is needed to finally secure a deal.

Kenan Guluzade is a regular IWPR contributor.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views
of IWPR.