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Nagorno-Karabakh and the Crimea Principle

By Russia’s logic, who has the right to decide the fate of the disputed region?

by Mina Muradova 30 May 2014

First it was Georgia, then Ukraine. Those wondering where Moscow will land next as it throws its weight around have been nervously eyeing Moldova as it prepares to sign an association pact with the EU.


But might it be Azerbaijan?


Given that the Kremlin’s method in Crimea was to soften the ground and then stage an independence referendum, both Moldova and Azerbaijan feel particularly vulnerable. Both countries have breakaway territories in which Russia has arguably played a destabilizing role.


In Azerbaijan, a referendum on the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been on the table for years, but the difficulty lies in how and when it would be held.


Aivazovsky/Wikimedia Commons


“Among the many often confusing points that Putin recently made, he said that only people residing in a region have the right to determine their future, … only those individuals living in Crimea have the right to vote,” Richard Kauzlarich, the U.S. ambassador in Baku from 1994 to 1997, told Radio Azadliq in March. “What kind of precedent does this present for Nagorno-Karabakh?”


Nagorno-Karabakh lies within the territory of Azerbaijan but is populated primarily by ethnic Armenians. The two sides fought over the territory in the early 1990s. Since then, an oft-broken cease-fire has been in place. If a vote were held today, there would be few Azeris in the territory to cast a ballot.


“Russia has explicitly established a principle that Nagorno-Karabakh authorities could use to hold their own referendum for either independence or union with Armenia,” Kauzlarich said.


Arastun Orujlu, chairman of East-West Research Center in Baku, said the Crimea referendum set a “dangerous” precedent.


“Stimulation of separatism in Crimea serves as a grave threat to all post-Soviet countries where territorial disputes exist,” he said.


As have many other observers, Orujlu contends the Kremlin is not interested in solving the conflict, which gives it leverage with Armenia and Azerbaijan.


Russia sells arms to both sides, despite its involvement in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as part of an international team. While Azerbaijan, thanks to its rich oil and gas resources, is less economically dependent on Russia than is Armenia, Baku walks a fine line with the great powers and tries not to anger its northern neighbor.  


“The problem is that in Baku [the authorities] think that any cooperation with Western institutions, especially with NATO, with the EU, will provoke Russia to put more pressure on Azerbaijan,” Orujlu said. “But that is overestimated, just a perception due to the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy and rhetoric. That approach effectively nourishes the delusion that the key to the resolution is not in the hands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis but elsewhere.


“Now it’s time for the West, including the United States, to thwart Russia’s plans and give a security guarantee to Western allies like Azerbaijan and Georgia,” he said.


Political analyst Vafa Guluzade agreed, saying Azerbaijan should openly move toward NATO and “even allow a NATO base in the country.”                    


The growing threat to the region’s stability seems to have spurred the United States to change its calculus on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, told a U.S. Senate committee in April that the United States is worried about the renewal of “separatist efforts.”


“Russia’s actions in Ukraine fundamentally change the security landscape of Eastern and Central Europe,” Nuland said. “We are also concerned about the pressure this crisis is putting on Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other neighbors of Ukraine.”  


Nuland said U.S. political and economic support to the region would be stepped up, for an indefinite period.


Secretary of State John Kerry intends to visit Azerbaijan in the next few months, but the date has not yet been fixed.


Another sign of increasing American seriousness about the conflict was a recent speech by James Warlick, the U.S. representative to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. In addition to urging the combatants to come back to the table, he called for more resolution from the mediators.


The speech was significant not just for its content, but for the fact that it was a statement from the United States alone, independent of Russia and France, with which it co-chairs the Minsk Group, as the mediation effort is known.


“It was a nuanced and discreet challenge, but a challenge nonetheless,” said Thomas de Waal, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War.


The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the first territorial dispute to erupt as the Soviet Union collapsed. The region proclaimed its independence in September 1991, but it has not been recognized by any country, including Armenia.


Russia armed both sides and helped turn a local dispute into a war. The conflict displaced more than 800,000 people and killed up to 30,000, with more than 4,000 recognized as disappeared.


For 20 years Azerbaijan’s government has tried to keep Karabakh on the international community’s agenda, but there has been a lack of energy and movement on the issue. The parties to the conflict often blame the mediators for their own failure to make progress in resolving the dispute, while taking no genuine steps toward peace.


The Crimean crisis has rather hardened positions in Yerevan and Baku.


Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, immediately after the referendum in Crimea to voice his support for the vote, implicitly underscoring his stance that Karabakh Armenians have a right to secede by referendum.


Armenian soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994. Photo by Armdesant/Wikimedia Commons.


At the same time, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev stepped up the inflammatory rhetoric by saying that not just Karabakh but also parts of Armenia were “ancient Azerbaijani land.”


“Our military budget is twice the entire state budget of Armenia. The military budget and readiness will play a key role in the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Aliev said during the Navruz holiday in March.


A Russia-mediated cease fire signed in 1994 did not stop the shooting, with both sides regularly breaching the agreement. According to the Doktrina Center, a Baku think tank that researches military issues, more than 600 combat-related deaths and more than 700 wounded have been registered in Azerbaijan’s armed forces since the truce was signed. In addition, mine explosions have killed 120 soldiers and injured 200.


Nor has the conflict ended for civilians living along the front line: more than 30 have been killed and twice as many wounded over last 20 years, according to Doktrina figures.


In his speech, Warlick said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the Minsk Group is a part, must have a stronger presence on the ground if the violence is to be curbed. International monitors, he said, currently “have neither the mandate nor the resources to put a stop to the frequent casualties, or even to identify responsibility.”


The ambassador used the provocative phrase “occupied territories” to describe the seven Azerbaijani regions around Nagorno-Karabakh that are under Armenian control and stressed that they should be returned to Baku’s authority.


At the same time, Warlick said, Nagorno-Karabakh should be granted an interim status – neither territory nor state – and the area linking the region with Armenia should be limited to a corridor, not the entire district now controlled by Armenia.


Warlick reiterated a plan for Nagorno-Karabakh that was drawn up in 2007, in which those displaced by the conflict are allowed to return home, international peacekeepers are brought in, and “a mutually agreed and legally binding” referendum on the region’s future is held.


Presidents Sargsyan and Aliev last met in November, and Warlick urged them to do so again soon and “take advantage of this window of opportunity when peace is possible.”


France has not been far behind. During a mid-May visit to the region, French President Francois Hollande offered to organize a meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. He has received no public response yet.


“If [Armenia and Azerbaijan] had more strategic vision, they could see the Crimea crisis as an opportunity to reach out to each other and try to resolve their differences over Karabakh together, rather than allow themselves to be manipulated by a new agenda set by outside powers,” de Waal said.

Guluzade, however, is skeptical of this renewed attention from the West. A foreign policy adviser to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev who witnessed the early negotiation process and signing of 1994 cease-fire, Guluzade dismissed Western officials’ recent statements about resolving the conflict. These days, he said, the West is more interested in Azerbaijan’s abundant reserves of natural gas as a way to weaken Russia’s grip on the European market.


”The sole way to solve the Karabakh issue is to curb Russia’s behavior in the region, not to stand aside and watch how Moscow manipulates Armenia, which is a de facto Russian province,” Guluzade said.


Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and hosts a Russian military base in the northwestern city of Gyumri.


Last year the Armenian government pulled out of trade and association talks with the EU and announced it would join Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. Russia owns most of Armenia’s critical infrastructure, is the leading foreign investor, and is home to one of the largest communities of diaspora Armenians.


Richard Morningstar, outgoing U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, said his country would “do our best” under current circumstances.


“Yeah, we care about energy, but we are not going to see any Azerbaijani oil or gas. But we do think it’s important as a counter to Russian monopolization in some places,” he told Radio Azadliq. “If we just didn’t care and walked away, I don’t think that would be very helpful either. There has to be some kind of balance.”


Morningstar said if the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan finally decided on a settlement, he doubts if even Russia could stop it.


“They [Russia] could threaten military force, but it would be difficult to do,” he said. “I think that if the two presidents were to work together to try to reach a settlement, that it would test the Russians’ resolve as to whether or not that would take place.”

Mina Muradova is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist in Baku.
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