Around 6am on September 27 intensive fighting, featuring large-caliber weapons, mortar launchers and artillery, erupted along the line of contact between Azerbaijan and its separatist territories controlled by Armenia and its satellite, self-proclaimed “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”. Both sides would later declare the adversary responsible for breaking the ceasefire. Severe shelling of the Azerbaijani villages close to the frontline resulted in a number of casualties among civilian Azerbaijani population.
The response of Azerbaijani forces grew into a large-scale offensive which is undoubtedly the most intense episode of fighting since the 1994 ceasefire and is widely called a full-fledged war. All experts now agree upon, is that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, one of the most protracted ones in the world, has entered a qualitatively new phase and absolutely new solutions must be offered to make a new peace process possible.
Outside observers often find it difficult to understand why the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has been so intractable and resisted peaceful resolution. There is a complex combination of several complicating factors: exclusive and radical version of nationalism preached by the Armenian side; the absence of local mechanisms of civil representation and dispute resolution which could help establish a dialogue between the two communities; the factor of Russia which has capitalized on the hostile status-quo to entrench the dependence of both Azerbaijan and Armenia for its security guarantees.
All these factors have formed a rock-solid perception in the mind of the both peoples and national elites that the conflict has no viable or acceptable resolution. But maybe most importantly, the ultimate culprit has been the blatant disengagement of the international community from the genuine peace process.
Given both a very adverse dynamic on the ground, as well as the destructive role played by Russia, the only viable hope for a breakthrough has always rested with a pro-active and principled position of the larger international community regarding the issue. However, this hope would never come to fruition.
Back in 1992, when the conflict was still in the phase of expansion, the OSCE established a special body in order to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia and help them in finding a solution. From the place of its first gathering, it was dubbed the Minsk Group. 28 years later, it still has to show any tangible success to include in its resume. Even the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which unfortunately remained the single most successful episode in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations, was largely mediated by Russia.
Since then, the Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, U.S. and France, has become known for one particular skill: muddling through and avoiding any meaningful and innovative ideas. In fact, since the 2000’s the only mission of the group was to monitor the situation along the contact line, which in the absence of permanent international observers could have hardly exert any influence on the parties.
The figure of Andrzej Kasprzyk, who has unchangingly served as the OSCE Special Representative in the Minsk Group for 23 years, has become a staple of anecdotes. His frequent visits and grudgingly similar statements became an increasingly irritating factor in the environment of rising tensions and growing sense of unfairness of the status-quo in Baku. In his article written as far back as 1996, a U.S. Special Representative for Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations John Maresca pointed out to the perennial weaknesses of the Minsk Group, which was kept too low-key in its status, represented little political will of the countries which were supposed to stand behind it, and was constantly ridiculed and pushed back by high-level Russian authorities. However, its format and mandate have remained unchanged ever since.
The relative calm that reigned in the conflict zone between 1994 and 2014 was often presented as the success of diplomacy, which completely ignored the fact that this calm mainly had to do with the unwillingness of the both parties to risk renewal of hostilities as well as the specificities of unipolar global order which posed very hard obstacles to the use of power.
As soon as this order started to give cracks after the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the whole balance of power shifted and it suddenly turned out that large-scale violence in Nagorno-Karabakh is possible and the Minsk Group is badly equipped to prevent it. Given the growing polarisation in the world between major centers of power, the fact that three co-chairs of the Group have retained miraculous unanimity on the peace process, attests not to its success but rather the careless and superficial attitude of the international community as big countries simply didn’t bother to clash over such an “unimportant” matter.
This development has strong parallels with the quagmire that is gradually sinking another Minsk process- the one that was convened to resolve the Donbass conflict. The reaction of the three co-chair countries to the current escalation exemplifies the reasons why it cannot be an efficient tool: Russia provides huge amounts of arms supplies to Armenia and then prefers to do nothing except for expressing its “deep concern”, while France openly endorses Yerevan by promising to prevent the restoration of Azerbaijani territorial integrity by force (without offering means to do it peacefully), and U.S. seems not to be in the least bothered.
The United Nations have been no better in finding the way out of this impasse. The Security Council was seemingly very active during the most intensive phase of the war in 1993 and issued four resolutions (N 822, 853, 874 and 884) which emphasized commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and called for the withdrawal of Armenian paramilitary forces from Kalbajar, Aghdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Gubadly and Zangilan regions. However, these benign declarations would not materialize. The Nagorno-Karabakh problem never found its Dayton: the global powers simply decided to freeze the conflict until better times, which, as it is clear now, would never come.
The international community’s lukewarm efforts to resolve the conflicts in the South Caucasus, perceived as a deep backwater, represented an obvious contrast to its active position on the Yugoslavian wars, which were unfolding in the immediate vicinity of the West. In the above-mentioned article, Ambassador Maresca openly claims that the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process was left by the West to Russia as a consolatory prize, as it took the biggest one- Yugoslavia. These double standards left a lasting scar on the societies and political elites of Azerbaijan and Armenia and put significant obstacles to their normal development.
In Azerbaijan, this attitude instilled a conviction of the profound injustice of the world order, as well as its inability to be inclusive and serve the most pressing needs of small nations. It has been widely perceived that calls for peace and reconciliation without putting any pressure on Armenia to make necessary compromises- liberate at least seven adjacent districts around Karabakh and start the process of the return of IDP’s to their homeland- merely disguised the cynical worldview where conflicts and suffering which did not immediately harm big powers, don’t really matter.
In Armenia, getting away unpunished after having gained three times more territories than initially planned and having committed a number of war crimes, created a growing sense of “justice by force”, the normalisation of the conflict outcomes by the mere fact that the world makes no tangible efforts to resolve it. These feelings among Armenians gradually led to the triumph of the maximalist position that they have no need to compromise at all. This “double movement” in the conflicting countries narrowed down the negotiation space until in the 2010’s it was no more possible for Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders to find common language.
As British expert Tom de Waal writes, the last round of substantial negotiations with the potential to come to an ultimate solution took place in Key West in 2001, when Azerbaijan was still represented by the previous President Heydar Aliyev. In almost 20 years since then, the peace process got less and less substantive, and after the 2012 Sochi meetings between the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia it wouldn’t be paid even lip service (excluding the short-lived period of false hopes in 2018). That’s why in his first statements after the escalation of violence Azerbaijani President Aliyev emphasized the ultimate failure of old formats which have utterly discredited themselves.
Hence, the fierce fighting that has erupted in the conflict zone is primarily an outcome of the chronic mismanagement of the peace process. It has further demonstrated the deep hypocrisies and contradictions that the beneficiaries of the current world order have long tried to sweep under the carpet. Abstract and toothless calls for peace in the situation when the status-quo is deeply skewed in favour of one party at the expense of the other, in fact encourage the aggressor which can pose as peace-loving for the mere reason that it has already gained everything it wanted, by force- and at the same time alienate the losing side whose calls for restorative justice can be easily presented as aggressive.
Promotion of ultra-pacifism in such a situation legitimizes post-factum the use of force and “the right of force”. Although some politicians and experts used to warn for many years that this approach is unsustainable, only now the international community starts to recognize the risks it bears. So, in order to prevent the conflict from further escalating, and prevent other “boiling” conflicts from such unfortunate developments, interested parties must urgently deploy qualitatively better efforts than they have done for the 26 years that passed, and stop engaging in self-deception by confusing the lack of war with peace and equating parties which are in an inherently unbalanced position.
*Murad Muradov is Co-founder and Deputy Director of Topchubashov Center, Baku-based think tank. An alumnus of the London School of Economics (2015), Murad covers European politics, politics of identity and nationality and international political economy.