Notes From Hairenik

The head honchos of Armenia and Azerbaijan, President Robert Kocharian and President Ilham Aliyev, respectively, are gearing up to resume talks regarding how to peacefully resolve the Karabagh conflict. Apparently Russia, the US, and France want this problem resolved so that things can start normalizing, if that’s even possible, in the Caucasus region. The talks are supposedly going to be held in Bucharest from June 4-6, “on the sidelines of a high-level forum of Black Sea states that is scheduled to take place,” according to a recent article published by The Jamestown Foundation.

Basically both countries are again going to discuss the same peace deal proposed when talks were held in Paris last February. The deal on the table at the time and purportedly still remains there is for Armenia to withdraw troops from five of seven currently occupied regions immediately, the gradual withdrawal of troops from the region of Kelbajar, allowing Azeri refugees to return to their native homes in and around Karabagh, and holding a referendum in Karabagh 10-15 years from now whereby the people there will determine whether they want to be unified with Armenia. Lachin would remain under Armenian control.

But Aliyev already walked away from that proposed deal. He has since, and even before those talks, repeatedly made public statements that Karabagh will never be relinquished by Azerbaijan (even though they effectively lost control of it in 1991 when Karabagh self-declared itself as an independent republic) and that they will use any means necessary to win back control. But many view this stance as being a lot of blown hot air. For one thing, if Azerbaijan was so keen on getting back Karabagh it would have resumed war a long time ago. The argument is that the country is stalling until it rebuilds its military forces to have some muscle against Armenia—this year Azerbaijan is supposedly going to spend $650 million towards this effort.

If anything, Azerbaijan should no longer be shown the proposal for Karabagh citizens having the right to hold a referendum to determine their future in 10-15 years—it should be held immediately after a deal is signed. Armenia was already and still is willing to make significant compromises to secure peace, including the willingness to give up control of Kelbajar, which I have argued in previous posts is a key strategic region located to the north of Lachin that is presently joining Armenia to Karabagh. That alone is a major sacrifice for peace. To wait around for another 10 years or more to hold a status-deciding referendum is ludicrous, as it should be pretty obvious to the world community by now how the people of Karabagh feel. Karabagh is already effectively under Armenia’s control—this is quite obvious. Its leaders have been repeatedly turned down the right to act as players in the peace negotiations. Another dead giveaway is the fact that all motor vehicles driven in Karabagh are registered with Armenian plates. The country for the most part is also I would argue wholly dependent socio-economically on its big brother. So why wait? Let the people hold a referendum as soon as the deal is signed.

However, the argument against holding an immediate referendum is that the two peoples in conflict need to start building mutual trust. This will take a very long time to happen anyway for obvious reasons, a lot longer than 10 years, so postponing the referendum is meaningless. The other argument is that economic integration needs to develop first to build such trust. When it comes to Armenians having the chance to make money, and fast at that, let’s not worry about who trusts who. Armenians and Azeris are already trading along the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, and produce from Armenia’s foe is being sold in domestic markets—I was offered pomegranates grown in Azerbaijan by a vendor last year when visiting the open market of Vanadzor. The trust is already there if trade is being conducted. Do I need to mention Armenia’s lucrative trade dealings with Turkey, although both countries have zero diplomatic ties? When money is being exchanged, opponents become buddies rather quickly.

Even hardliners on this issue, notably the ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, an Armenian political organization with a huge base of supporters outside of Armenia that had a significant role to play in the Karabagh war, is already facing the music. Whereas the ARF was unwilling for Armenia to return nearly all the occupied territories, never mind accepting the proposed trade route between Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan through the Armenian border town of Meghri (an idea that didn’t seem too bad in retrospect, although at the time I was opposed to it, thinking it was “suicide” for Armenia) in the negotiated peace deal in 1991, now the organization is ready to go along with holding the future referendum, which means it is most likely agreeing with the rest of the proposals. The ARF holds several seats of power, with control of several ministries and its membership part of a pro-Kocharian coalition. If the ARF wants to hold on to its power, it has to do virtually anything the Kocharian administration decides upon; thus the organization is relinquishing its hold of its fundamental ideals regarding Karabagh, let alone Armenia, since its policies ideologically contradict those of Kocharian. The Jamestown Foundation article written by Emil Danielyan states that “The Yerevan daily Aravot quoted on May 27 Armen Rustamian, an [ARF] leader who heads the Armenian parliament’s foreign relations committe[e], as saying that the referendum option is “not unfavorable for Armenia and Karabakh.” So there you go.

The peoples of both sides do not want war to resume, this should be fairly clear to everyone. Nationalists on both sides of the border talk a lot of trash—Azeris in my experience being a little too aggressive—nevertheless I would argue that the overwhelming majority of citizens in both countries want this conflict resolved immediately. Azerbaijan can start making even more money in trade than is currently flowing in with the sale of oil. Economic integration in the region will strengthen virtually overnight I would guess.

People want to make money—time to sign a deal. It’s very simple. But let there be at least an immediate referendum regarding the status of Karabagh. It makes no sense to postpone it, as none of the arguments I have heard are really convincing. Let’s see what happens. But judging from the past, I don’t believe any headway will be made regarding this issue next week.

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Anonymous Onnik Krikorian said...
The argument about holding a referendum in 10-15 years is simply that it is unlikely that Aliyev could survive such a deal now. Actually, it's not certain if either leader could survive the deal that's on the table now, but that's another matter, I guess.

Anyway, one other detail of the deal is that we think that Karabakh will be recognized as a protectorate of Armenia which would enable the Republic to build up its forces there legally and not clandestinely as well as provide some kind of guarantee regarding the holding of the referendum.

Armenia is ready to sign such a deal so therefore it's no surprise that no more concessions are expected from Azerbaijan. Indeed, if anything, Azerbaijan would like more -- including keeping Karabakh within Azerbaijan. No surprise then that the deal is pretty much the same, and that pressure is being applied on Aliyev and not Kocharian to accept it.

But if he doesn't, then what? The isolation of Armenia in the region which can only increase in time with devastating consequences, the Armenian economy destroyed over the years as the state budget struggles to keep anywhere close to increasing Azerbaijani military expenditure?


Anyway, I don't believe that Azerbaijan is in the position to start a war now. However, it could be within a matter of years, and this time the Russians won't be involved as they were last time. Regardless, Armenia will have to increase its defense budget to keep in pace with Azerbaijan and it won't be able to do that for long.

That's also what Azerbaijan is hoping for. An arms race in the South Caucasus will not only make a new war more likely, but it will certainly cripple Armenia economy.