How third parties’ neutrality protracts the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict

30 September 2020 – 17:15

By Farid Shafiyev

The so-called “balanced approach” under which Armenia and Azerbaijan take equal blame for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has only perpetuated and protracted the antagonism, writes Farid Shafiyev.

Dr. Farid Shafiyev is Chairman of the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations and Adjunct Lecturer at ADA University, Azerbaijan. He holds a Ph.D. from Carleton University and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School of Government, as well as a Bachelor of Law and Diploma in History from Baku State University. He is the author of “Resettling the Borderlands: State Relocations and Ethnic Conflict in the South Caucasus” by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2018), numerous articles, and op-eds.

Ever since the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan turned into full-fledged war after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, international mediators, policy makers and experts have pondered how to resolve it. Classic theories of peace negotiations focus on the necessity of maintaining neutrality between the conflicting parties for the success of the mediation. Subsequently, the road map of the peace process should understand the causes of the conflict and embrace the grievances and goals of the conflicting parties. However, as I argue here, the so-called ‘balanced’ approach, in some instances, acts only to protract conflict and serves the interest of the party that is content with the current status quo.

When the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out, both republics were still part of the Soviet Union. The slogan of the Armenian nationalists, miatsum, about the unification of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan with Armenia, first voiced in February 1988, met with sympathy in Western media. This movement was presented by the Armenian ethnic lobby as a liberation struggle from the yoke of a Stalinist arrangement made for the sake of a Muslim republic to subjugate the Christian Armenian population that had suffered historically at the hands of the Turks. The truth was far from these well-worn clichés, but they hit the target, as the public in the West was overwhelmed by centuries-old stereotypes. For Western policy makers, the idea of the rearrangement of the Soviet borders brought a flavor of the destruction of the communist monster.

What evolved on the ground was a bitter and bloody war, full of massacres, expulsions and occupation. American scholar Thomas Ambrosio termed this process ‘the permissive international regime’ that allowed Armenia to occupy this part of the Azerbaijan’s territory.

Most Western experts in the field repeated the few available ‘historical’ facts without making their own archival study. Therefore, stories tilted in favor of the Armenian narrative. The first man to break this one-sided story was American journalist Thomas Goltz, a flamboyant adventurer whom the Armenian lobby in Washington, DC, tried to portray as an agent of oil interests. Cliché-making continued as other experts in the field were dubbed agents of the oil autocracy or accused of ‘caviar diplomacy.’ Nevertheless, the well-documented facts and eloquently articulated arguments, especially from international legal perspectives (in 1993 the UN Security Council reaffirmed Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and demanded the withdrawal of all occupational forces), found their way into academia and the media, though they remained limited to a narrow circle of experts.

A new tone was given to the research by British journalist Thomas de Waal in his book Black Garden (2001), which unveiled the truth of the Kafan and Khojaly massacres, and others. However, the fundamental principle of his approach was to find a ‘balance’: In such a complicated and bloody conflict, both sides should be responsible. For example, Kafan was countered by a discussion of the Sumgayit pogroms. This approach was continued by other experts, including in the recent book Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of Rivalry by British scholar Laurence Broers. The Great Armenia project (the recreation of a partly mythical country between three seas) was compared to Great Azerbaijan, even though, in terms of scale and impact, they were not comparable.

International NGOs dealing with conflict resolution, such as Conciliation Resources and the International Crisis Group, took a similar approach. Their peacemaking efforts were directed at the dialogue, and therefore the real developments on the ground were of secondary importance. These and other NGOs made the ‘balanced approach’ the sacred cow of the peacemaking process.

In the meantime, the fate of almost one million refugees from Azerbaijan’s occupied territories remained uncertain as Armenia solidified the results of military control. Armenia began resettling foreigners in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, extracting the natural resources, and destroying the cultural heritage. Those narratives were countered immediately by accounts of Azerbaijan’s misdeeds: the destruction of Armenian-cross tombstones (khachkars), the murder of an Armenian officer by Azerbaijani serviceman Ramil Safarov, and others. It was a propaganda war, and well-managed by the Armenian lobby in Western countries.

However, so-called ‘neutral’ experts in the relevant fields also played a role in perpetuating the occupation of Azerbaijani territories. In particular, the Western academic press and mass media tended to disregard many Azerbaijani claims in favor of Armenian ones. A few recent incidents, which the author of this article has encountered, reconfirm the biases of the Western media. Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a piece about the Armenian khachkars, but refused to take a look at the many destroyed or defaced Azerbaijani mosques in the occupied territories. The Vienna-based International Institute of Peace published unconditionally an Armenian author but made extensive comments on an article by Azerbaijani authors. The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs published, but then retracted, an article authored by an Azerbaijani expert. Reputable journal Foreign Policy, which in its writers’ guidelines basically discourages any submissions on the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict, ran a piece written by a Yerevan-based journalist presenting a one-sided report on the recent Tovuz clashes in July.

In many discussions with Western media outlets, the buzzword ‘balanced,’ or, precisely, the lack of balance, plays suspiciously against Azerbaijan. Even the agnostic nature of the author of this piece forces consideration of religious and other cultural biases when it comes to the Western coverage of the conflict. However, what is more problematic for Western societies, to the detriment to their own interests, is the shrinking space of academic freedom versus well-organized and xenophobic lobby groups such as the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). Ironically, the motto of Washington Post – ‘democracy dies in the darkness’ – is endangered in Washington by not only by state lobbyists, but also by so-called public advocates.

As for international mediators, the negotiations that began in 1992 proceeded against the background of the complex geopolitical rivalries in the post-Cold War era, which made the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict appear less significant than those in the Middle East or the Balkans. Finally, in 1997, three powerful actors – Russia, France and the United States – formed the Co-Chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group to deal with the negotiations. Coincidentally, all three countries host large Armenian communities. The principle flaw of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs was the departure from the UN Security Council resolutions towards a new formula that hinges on the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which Armenia would eventually like to annex, though Yerevan put forward the intermediate goal of self-determination for local Armenians.

After several attempts to find a successful formula, the Co-Chairs, with the initial consent of Armenia and Azerbaijan, unveiled the so-called Madrid Principles in 2007, further updated in 2009. The Madrid Principles stipulated a phased approach to the peace process; this involved the de-occupation of Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of refugees, and the opening of communication and transportation links, but left moot the question of the status of occupied Nagorno-Karabakh until the final stage. The philosophy of the peacemakers was to create a long enough period for restoring confidence and beginning reconciliation in order to resolve the territorial dispute. Since then, instead of the implementation of practical steps, Armenia has insisted on some premediated modalities of the final status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Armenian lobby groups, including the ANCA, denounced the plan that the US State Department had put so much effort into developing, and Russian Armenians worked clandestinely through an ethnic network in the government, even though official Moscow made probably the greatest effort among the three Co-Chairs to find a solution. However, at the end of the day, the Co-Chairs, probably with the exception of Russia, have shown no urgency for resolving the conflict simmering in their geopolitical backyard.

When Azerbaijan repeatedly, in 2005 and 2010, appealed to the Co-Chairs with regard to the illegal activities in the occupied territories, including the resettlement process, they replied by issuing ‘balanced’ statements. Moreover, in 2010, the Co-Chairs decided not to publish the official results of their field mission on illegal resettlement, justifying this on the basis that it would be detrimental to the peace process. In contrast with this ‘balanced approach,’ official Yerevan has for all these years been working towards solidifying the results of the occupation, hoping that, sooner or later, official recognition will arrive. Moreover, while 2019 was the most peaceful year on the line of contact between the two armies, the Armenian leadership declared a new miatsum (unification) with Nagorno-Karabakh and, in 2020, laid a territorial claim towards Turkey as Armenian nationalists revived discussions about the centuries-dead Treaty of Sèvres.

As a result, the balanced approach of mediators and international experts has perpetuated and protracted the conflict, which last erupted in July 2020. Moscow may believe that the frozen status of the conflict serves its purpose of control over both republics, but the result is that there is significant discontent in Armenia and Azerbaijan about the Russian role in the region. While Armenian lobby groups rejoice over their successful campaigns in Washington or Paris, the population size of Armenia is shrinking and its economy remains isolated and dependent on Moscow’s life support. The ‘Velvet Revolution’ that brought current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power effectively ended in July 2020 as he reaffirmed Armenia’s political–military allegiance with Russia, in return for military support.

History has been repeated; in 1918–20, when three South Caucasian republics became independent after the collapse of the Russian Empire, an Armenian military campaign against Azerbaijan weakened both countries and the Bolsheviks later subjugated them. The first prime minister of independent Armenia, Hovhannes Katchaznouni (1918–19) later exclaimed: ‘A vast state was being organized and demanded – a great Armenia from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, from the mountains of Karabakh to the Arabian Desert. Where did that imperial, amazing demand emanate?’ The similar campaign launched in February 1988 destroyed the possibility of the peaceful development of the South Caucasus and the union of two peoples bound by geography, culture, and history.

The winners of this conflict are the forces outside of the region – geopolitical actors, weapons salesmen, state and ethnic lobbyists, and grant-seeking international experts. After twenty-six years of ceasefire and negotiations, the ‘balanced approach’ has led to a dead end. BBC HARDtalk anchor Steven Sackur, in an interview with Armenia’s Prime Minister, emphasized that the current provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric manifest an intention to dismantle the negotiation process and secure the annexation of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories. It is likely that international mediators and peacemakers are now reflecting on ‘balancing’ these facts – or, more precisely, inventing mischievous behaviors on the part of Baku.

As for Azerbaijan, both its government and public have realized the dead end to the negotiation process. The resulting frustration was visible during the mass rally in Baku on 14 July, when the public demanded decisive military action to liberate the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Even if the military option is not the solution under the current circumstances, many believe that the balance will change in the future.

In 1993, during discussions at the UN Security Council on the consequences of the occupation of the Kelbajar region of Azerbaijan, Mr. Olhaye, the representative for the small state of Djibouti, openly stated that ‘we all know only too well that the truth is that this is a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan,’ and expressed hope that, in the near future, the Security Council would be in a position ‘to call a spade a spade.’ In fact, legally, it took twenty-three years until, in 2015, the European Court on Human Rights, in its decision on Chiragov v. Armenia, explicitly determined that the government of Armenia exercises effective control of the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan. It is now time to call a spade a spade – and act accordingly.