On 29 March, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev are expected to hold a meeting in Vienna to focus on the Mountainous Karabakh conflict. This is going to be the fourth bilateral meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev and the second this year, the first being at the World Economic Summit in Davos. After the announcement earlier this month by the OSCE Minsk Group, the international body mediating a settlement to the conflict, that the two leaders have agreed to meet once again it is not surprising that the upcoming summit will be in Austria, where the OSCE headquarters is located.
After his meeting with Mr Aliyev in Davos, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan blamed the Azerbaijani side for not being ready to make mutual compromises and still not ruling out a military option to the settlement. He also stated that the Mountainous Karabakh republic should participate in the talks as a party to the conflict. Mr Pashinyan argued that he cannot speak on behalf of the Karabakh Armenians and their participation as a third party in the talks is necessary. In response, Mr Aliyev blamed Armenia for not being constructive in talks and denounced Mr Pashinyan’s proposal for the participation of the Armenians of Mountainous Karabakh in talks as an “attempt to block the negotiating process”. The Azerbaijani authorities consider changing the format of talks unacceptable and a means to prolong the conflict by avoiding talks. On the other hand, Mr Pashinyan defended his calls to include the separatist entity in the talks by saying that it should be interpreted as an invitation for “dialogue with Baku”.
Ahead of the leaders’ talks tension is rising on the front line separating Armenian and Azerbaijani troops. A couple of weeks ago, Mr Pashinyan flew to Stepanakert in Mountainous Karabakh to hold a joint meeting of the national security councils of Armenia and Mountainous Karabakh. Immediately after the meeting Azerbaijan started military drills near the front line, which can be described as a manoeuvre to appease the domestic audience. The government had come under pressure after the Armenian PM flew to Khojali airport in occupied Karabakh, despite President Aliyev’s past comments that he would shot down any Armenian plane or helicopter landing at the airport.
It would be naïve to expect that the upcoming Vienna summit will make a breakthrough in reaching a peaceful settlement to the conflict. There are several reasons to make this prediction. None of the sides is willing to make major concessions due to strong domestic factors opposed to the terms for peace. However, by making some changes to the format and establishing direct talks without a mediator both countries could take a significant step toward easing the tensions and assuaging the perception of domestic audiences.
DIRECT COMMUNICATIONS WITHOUT PRECONDITIONS
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan should start direct talks through establishing direct communications between the two countries. If carefully studied, the roots of the conflict go back to 1918, when Armenia and Azerbaijan contested the region and military confrontation occurred on a daily basis. The British Task Force in the Caucasus eventually deterred the sides from further bloodshed until the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan in 1920. Even at that time the conflict could not be solved by the third parties, namely the Allied countries. It was promised that the Paris Conference would solve the issue and the region would be governed by an Azerbaijani appointed governor-general. So direct talks in Yerevan and Baku between the representatives of both countries should be considered and adopted. That would also help the two sides to change the public perception that both peoples cannot live together and will remain enemies forever. Only through direct talks can Armenia and Azerbaijan reach a mutual understanding on solving the problem.
Another important factor would be allowing the two peoples of Mountainous Karabakh to participate in negotiations through special representatives. The Azerbaijani representative could be the head of the Karabakh Azerbaijani community, who is appointed by the president of Azerbaijan, or a special representative of the government who should be approved by all the political parties in Azerbaijan. So, instead of refusing to allow Karabakh Armenians to participate in talks, Azerbaijan could present a format for their participation, taking into consideration that Armenia and Karabakh Armenians should not be taken as a homogenous political entity. Certainly, they agree on lots of things related to the status of Karabakh Armenians, but that does not mean that there is no disagreement.
Another important factor would be the establishment of backchannels or unofficial representation in both republics. Although both Armenia and Azerbaijan were in a war situation during 1918-1920, they did not cut diplomatic ties and had official representation in both capitals.
Another important point is to prepare the Armenian community to withdraw from the seven occupied districts around the Mountainous Karabakh region. That would be a significant step in achieving peace. In return, the Azerbaijani government should guarantee security to the Karabakh Armenians and further negotiations should proceed on the status of the region.
But all this requires political will from both governments and people-to-people relations. The international community, namely Europe, the USA and other countries, should help to finance projects for people-to-people relations in order to overcome the public perception among the Armenian and Azerbaijani people.
A major shortcoming of achieving all this is the undemocratic nature of the ruling system in Azerbaijan. The Aliyev regime’s legitimacy is questionable and they have failed to reconcile the people of Azerbaijan to rule by a single family. Unless there is a truly democratically elected government, it is hard to imagine that any of these moves might take place.