ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN: BEHIND THE RHETORIC

Institute for War and Peace Reporting, UK
IWPR Caucasus Reporting, #689
May 30 2013

Virtual discussion brings experts together to discuss impasse of
talks, and possible ways forward.

By IWPR - Caucasus

IWPR's offices in Yerevan and Baku provided a rare opportunity for
open Armenian-Azerbaijani debate when they hosted a joint discussion
on the issues behind the hostile relationship between the two states.

Nijat Melikov, head of social affairs at the Zerkalo newspaper and
spokesman for the REAL (Republican Alternative) movement, went on
Skype to link up with IWPR's Yerevan office, which hosted Stepan
Grigoryan, a political analyst who heads the board of the Centre for
Globalisation and Regional Cooperation,

The discussion was moderated by journalist Arshaluys Mgdesyan.

Grigoryan and Melikov began by discussing the current state of
negotiations on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, which ended in 1994
with a truce but no political settlement. The protracted talks process
is being mediated by the OSCE's Minsk Group, chaired by Russia, the
United States and France.

As well as diplomacy, Melikov and Stepanyan looked at the upsurge in
frictions on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Over many
years, sporadic shooting incidents have generally been a feature of
the "line of control" around Karabakh, but more recently there have
been casualties further to the north, on the state border.

They also touched on the case of Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani soldier
who killed an Armenian studying on the same course as him and was
jailed in Hungary. Extradited to Azerbaijan last autumn, he was
swiftly pardoned and accorded a hero's welcome. (IWPR reported on the
case here). The incident worsened the country's already poor
relationship with Armenia.

Following are excerpts from their remarks:

TALKS AT A STANDSTILL

Stepan Grigoryan: The reality is that there hasn't been a meeting
between the Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents in the last year. Even
our foreign ministers haven't meting recently. You'll be aware that
there was an attempt to get the foreign ministers to meet in Paris,
but actually they met the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, but not each
other. So the general picture seems to be that the talks process is at
an impasse.

Recently the central issues of the Karabakh conflict have been
evolving, expanding, and shifting to a different plane.

Previously we'd have been talking about ceasefire violations along the
line of contact, shootings, snipers and people killed - it was largely
about the line of contact between the Azerbaijan army and the Karabakh
self-defence forces. Now we're hearing more about what's going on in
Noyemberyan district [border area in Armenia], about Khojali
[Azerbaijani civilians killed in 1992 during Karabakh conflict], about
Sumgait [1988 killings of Armenian civilians in town near Baku], the
Safarov case, and the current issue around Stepanakert airport [which
Karabakh authorities plan to reopen; opposed by Baku]. In other words,
we're hearing more about these things than about anything directly
connected with a resolution to the Karabakh conflict.

And the Madrid Principles [new framework for Karabakh talks devised in
2007] have been entirely forgotten over the last six months. As you're
aware this was a foundation document that didn't offer a solution but
was nevertheless something around which there were official
negotiations, disputes, disagreement and agreement.

There have always been a lot of historical references - we Armenians
and Azerbaijanis are very fond of citing history. But now everything
is about history, genocides and so on.

I have to say openly that this creates a very difficult environment;
it increases the level of pessimism. I recall being in Baku in
December 2010 for a major conference on the European Union and the
South Caucasus. There was a degree of optimism there.

Now its much harder to say anything optimistic. Terms like
"compromise" and "concession" have almost become swearwords for the
Armenian public - I don't know about Azerbaijan - and I try to use
them with care, or not at all.

Nijat Melikov: On the issue of why the talks have reached an impasse -
that was only to be expected. It's the continuation of a trend that's
been evolving over the last 20 years, in which there is some kind of
talks process, there are proposals on the table, and there are some
basic principles that at least make negotiations a possibility. But
all this - international law, the various proposals and conditions -
are stuck in a dead end.

In reality it isn't about agreeing principles; often it's about how
ready the public is to accept any kind of compromise, and how it would
receive them. Also, there's the question of the quality of the
political elites that have conducted these negotiations over all this
time.

It isn't clear how to take things forward, what process nto pursue in
these negotiations. The OSCE Minsk Group and the countries involved in
it [Russia, US and France] play a significant role but to many people
that process has looked like a sham over many years. There's long been
a public perception that it's a pretend process; that it's talks about
talks.

Grigoryan: That point about the quality of the elite is excellent.... I
don't just mean the political elite but all the rest, from the
historians to the academics and technocrats. The logic they apply is
most often drawn from the communist way of thinking - that everything
should be resolved by force.

Unfortunately, the elite is being replaced only slowly, so many of the
people at the top in this country and in yours belong to the old
elites. They aren't inclined to heed or react to changing realities.

On the positive side, there are the analysts and NGOs.

DOES ANYONE WANT PEACE?

Melikov: Sometimes one asks oneself who is actually interested in
resolving the dispute. I mean the parties to the conflict, the
international mediators and the regional geopolitical actors. How
interested are Armenia, Azerbaijan or the Minsk Group members?

Grigoryan: I think it's worth examining the role of external factors.

Take Russia - it may be playing a positive role at the moment, in the
sense that it doesn't want war in the region. But at the same time, it
doesn't have a massive interest in seeing a rapid resolution to the
Karabakh conflict. If that were to happen, both Armenia and Azerbaijan
would become a lot more independent.And it's obvious which way we'd
turn. Our two nations are sensible and they want a decent life, and
they'd achieve that by moving towards Europe.

I've been quite surprised by the American position recently. In
2005-06 you'll recall that they wanted a rapid resolution. When you
meet Americans these days and ask them what they see happening on
Karabakh, they just look away. It's very close to the Russian
position.

BORDER CLASHES

Arshaluys Mgdesyan: I'd like to turn to a more down-to-earth question.

In this specific sector, Noyemberyan and Tavush [Armenian districts
adjoining Azerbaijan], there are clashes, shootings and fatalities.

Who has an interest in that happening? Who benefits?

Melikov: First one should probably ask who is provoking these shooting
incidents. The Azerbaijani side will say the Armenians are provoking
it, while the Armenians will say no, it's the Azerbaijanis. It all
comes down to how possible it is to monitor the situation . and again
we have to ask what the OSCE Minsk Group and other international
organisations are doing. It all comes down to "who started it?", every
time.

Grigoryan: Why is this [tension] reflected in shootings in
Noyemberyan, in other words on the border between Armenia and
Azerbaijan rather than just around Karabakh?

When the media here report that the Azerbaijanis have committed 355
ceasefire violations, I always look at the Azerbaijani media and they
report that the Armenians have committed 355 violations. I believe the
truth lies somewhere in between. We violate the ceasefire, and you
violate it too.

But why is it happening there [on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border]? I
don't have an answer. I honestly don't understand how the Noyemberyan
clashes benefit either us or the Azerbaijanis.

Grigoryan: There's a stereotypical and fairly widespread view that the
status quo is to Armenia's advantage but not to Azerbaijan's. So the
Azerbaijani government launches initiatives in international
organisations, or tries to move discussion of the Karabakh issue
beyond the Minsk Group to other institutions like the United Nations.

I think this is true in a sense. It seems to me that Azerbaijan fears
that the Minsk Group process isn't working, so it constantly tries to
raise the Karabakh issue with other institutions, the UN or the
Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

There's also a view that for the same reason, Azerbaijan refuses to
withdraw its snipers from the line of control.

Moroever, in Armenia there's a very strong stereotypical view that the
status quo is to our advantage. I take a different view. But I often
encounter this view when people ask me why I'm proposing some
initiative to make rapid progress or offer compromises, when they
believe we should just wait and see what happens.

I understand the logic of the Azerbaijani position. It's that if
everything carries on by the force of inertia, everyone will forget
about the Karabakh conflict, especially in the context of events in
Syria and Egypt - regional states with immense influence. So there's a
concern to keep raising the issue and keep on reminding people about
it.

The dominant logic in Armenia, and one that I think has grown even
stronger, is equally understandable - why take sudden steps? Let's
just wait and see.

Yet I don't believe it's in our strategic interests or in those of
Azerbaijan and Georgia to leave this issue unresolved.

CONTRADICTORY DOMESTIC DYNAMICS

Melikov: Certain sections of the Azerbaijani public often take the
view that the authorities use the Karabakh issue as a political and
moral instrument for drumming up domestic political support. They
suspect that efforts to raise the issue in the international arena are
a PR exercise to cover up domestic problems with human rights and
freedom of speech.

Grigoryan: What's interesting is that the opposition in Armenia takes
a harder line on Karabakh than the government does. At least publicly,
the government says it's prepared to engage in negotiations. The
opposition comes along, in the shape of its main figure at the moment,
Raffi Hovhannesyan, and says no, we just have to recognise Karabakh as
independent.

THE SAFAROV CASE

Grigoryan: I stopped using the word "compromise" after the Safarov
case. I don't want to go into it or rake it up again. It's a really
sad story.

Afterwards, it really became hard to suggest to Armenians [in
Karabakh] that they might agree to live under Azerbaijani rule. That's
a very hard argument to make, believe me.

There are some events that qualitatively change the situation. I can't
think of another event that has cause so much stress in our society as
the Safarov case. You understand the gist of it - "if you kill an
Armenian you're a hero", crudely speaking. At one stroke, it
undermined anyone inclined towards democracy and compromise.

Melikov: I wouldn't say society was totally divided on the issue. Of
course most people saw him if not as a hero, then as a positive
figure. But among the more active section of society [NGOs] it was
hotly disputed and there wasn't a homogenous view....Everyone had their
own opinion. There wasn't a blanket view that Safarov was a national
hero for Azerbaijan.

WHAT NOW?

Melikov: The public must come to the view that in order to resolve the
Karabakh conflict, war is not a necessary evil; and that peace is the
essential good for which we must strive.

The argument needs to be made that Azerbaijan and Armenia do not need
to have conflicting interests in any solution to the Karabakh problem
. Of course that will be difficult to achieve, since it will initially
appear that their interests have nothing in common and are completely
opposed.

Grigoryan: What might we consider doing? One idea that we've discussed
several times, as have some of our Azerbaijan partners is to jointly
call for the snipers to be withdrawn, without going on about who's to
blame.

As public figures, we would propose withdrawing the snipers. It would
reduce the number of fatalities. Every death is a step further away
from a solution.

http://iwpr.net/report-news/armenia-azerbaijan-behind-rhetoric