A recent speech by Russian politician and former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has again provoked active debate on social networks. At first glance, the speeches by various leaders about about the status of Nagorno Karabakh, or NK, from Azerbaijani President Aliyev to Pashinyan, Putin, Lavrov, Matvienko and Medvedev are completely different. But if you look closely, they all say the same thing, only in different words. As a region, Nagorno-Karabakh has a total area of 4,400 square kilometres (1,699 sq mi) ranging from the steppes of the Kura lowland to oak and beech-forested mountains – over half over 900 meters above sea level – to sprawling peaks with alpine meadows. It also boasts numerous mineral springs as well as vineyards, fruit orchards and mulberry groves.
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If we put all the speeches together, we can build a coherent picture of the agreement on the status that was reached on 9 November 2020, but about which there is not a single word in the trilateral statement. If you are not satisfied with what the propagandists on both sides are saying, then here is my input regarding what the politicians are saying and what they are remaining silent about.
Ilham Aliyev (President of Azerbaijan): “The status [agreement] has gone to hell, failed, scattered to smithereens. It is not and will not be. As long as I am president, it will not. ” Aliyev’s reference to “while he is still president” is interesting. Why did he say that? If we take into account the words of other politicians, maybe this reservation is needed. Perhaps the issue of status can be considered in the future, with the future leaders of Azerbaijan.
Vladimir Putin (President of Russia): “The final status of Karabakh has not been settled, we agreed that we will maintain the status quo today, the current situation. What will happen next…will have to be decided in the future or by future leaders, future participants in this process, but in my opinion, if conditions are created for a normal life, for the restoration of relations, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between people at the everyday level, especially in the conflict zone then it will create conditions for determining the status of Karabakh.”
There are already similarities with Aliyev’s speech. First, Putin mentioned “future leaders.” Second, he sets “restoration of relations in the conflict zone” between Azerbaijanis and Armenians as a condition for determining the status. Third, it is clear that the question of status is about the “distant future”. Fourth, he has emphasized that the issue needs to be resolved only “in negotiations”.
Sergey Lavrov (Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs): “We proceed from the assumption that this status will now be determined depending on what actions we should all take to help restore ethno-confessional harmony in Nagorno-Karabakh, as it was for many years until it began during the collapse The war ended in the Soviet Union, which ended in very disastrous consequences, which we are only now unraveling.”
This is what he said two and a half months ago. He adds: “The status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the problem of status is so contradictory, if we take the positions of Yerevan and Baku, therefore it was decided by the three leaders to bypass this issue and leave it for the future, this, among other things, should be dealt witsh by the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group (LINK), they have now resumed their contacts with the parties, they are going to go to the region once again, but the issues of status will be resolved the easier, the sooner on earth the assurances that were voiced both from Baku and Yerevan that the main thing now is to establish the daily life of all communities are fulfilled, ethnic and religious who coexisted in Karabakh and must restore their peaceful good-neighbourly coexistence.”
So, Lavrov, like Putin, makes the condition for determining the status of Nagorno-Karabakh the “restoration of relations.” According to Lavrov, it is necessary to restore ethno-confessional harmony, notably good-neighbourly co-existence between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. He also mentions “the future”, but adds an additional factor, the “OSCE Minsk Group” as being part of “negotiations”. Does this mean that Russia intends to resolve all issues by leaving it up to the Minsk Group? If so, why?
Valentina Matvienko, Senator from St Petersburg and Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council:
“The status of Nagorno-Karabakh is out of brackets, this requires additional negotiations, and we certainly count on the efforts of the OSCE, and the President of France, and the President of the United States, and other states that are involved in the process of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, there is still a lot of hard work left.”
Matvienko also mentions the OSCE Minsk Group and stresses that the issue should be resolved “in negotiations”. Her qualification “hard work” can, if desired, be assessed as a synonym for the “distant future”.
Nikol Pashinyan, Prime Minister of Armenia: “There are still many issues that need to be resolved. One of these issues is the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and of course, Armenia is ready to continue negotiations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship.”
This, too, is an interesting statement, plus also notes the need for “negotiations” and the “OSCE Minsk Group”.
Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council: “The issue of status has not really been resolved, but it cannot be discussed now, because any electrification of this field of discussion around status leads to the emergence of a powerful discharge. It is impossible to do this now. Moreover, the positions of the parties here are very different and even within Armenia there are discussions on this topic, I remind you that Armenia did not recognize the independence of Karabakh, this is often forgotten, but in fact this is so, so the question of status is better to be postponed to future period.”
In fact, Medvedev’s speech only focuses on one aspect: “the distant future.”
To sum up, what matters then is the concept of everything being “in the distant future”. This suggests that the future leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, after the restoration of good-neighbourly relations between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Karabakh, will resolve the issue of status in Karabakh through negotiations coordinated by the OSCE Minsk Group.” Sounds fantastic? The only thing missing is “in a distant, distant Galaxy”.
Let’s consider these separately.
Azerbaijan and Armenia embrace extreme positions regarding NK’s status. But it is impossible to enter negotiations from such positions. If Azerbaijan’s is that NK has “no status”, then what is there to talk about? Naturally, Armenia will not accept this. In turn, Azerbaijan will not agree to negotiations, given Armenia’s position of “NK independence”. Before the latest war, Armenia had offered seven regions in exchange for “independence”. Azerbaijan, however, did not agree and the negotiations led nowhere. Today, with these seven regions and almost half of the former NKAO are under Azerbaijani control, Armenia simply has nothing to offer in the negotiation process.
Hence, the beginning of the negotiation process implies the actual refusal by both sides based on their extreme positions. Thus, any negotiations can only be conducted regarding the level of autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh, or of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
From Aliyev’s point of view, “there is no status and there is nothing to negotiate about the status, the Karabakh conflict is resolved.” As an experienced negotiator, he does not give up his position just like that; in the event of a serious necessary compromise, it may yield only one position, notably “cultural autonomy”. Yet nobody will give up such a position just like that. That is why Polad Bulbuloglu, the Azerbaijan ambassador to Russia, received a “rebuff” when he hinted at cultural autonomy. The fact that he — out of inexperience — blurted out too much, shows what the Azerbaijani authorities are really counting on, namely maintaining their position of strength in the negotiations.
But Pashinyan, who was in the extreme rightist position, has already made a step to the left. This is precisely why Pashinyan’s speech is interesting: he agreed to the negotiation process. Officially that means little, but the fact that he has already taken this step to the left, while Aliyev is refusing to take a step to the right, improves Azerbaijan’s position in the event of future negotiations. We know the rules of bargaining, and we understand that the later you start to concede, the better – usually – the final result.
It is important to understand that everyone who talks about status negotiations, whether Russians, Europeans or Americans, know this approach to the negotiation process. Pashinyan, is fully aware of this.
“Restoration of relations in Karabakh” between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
This thesis complements the previous one. If it is about independence, then the restoration of relations is not necessary to determine status. Armenians would gain independence and live as they have over the past 25 years.
The restoration of ethno-confessional harmony and good-neighbousrly relations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities is necessary if the matter concerns the status of Armenians residing within Azerbaijan. Someone may object that “in the case of Azerbaijanis living in an independent NKR, ethno-confessional consent is also needed”. However, given the current situation, NKR with an Armenian-Azerbaijani population cannot stand.
Therefore, the fact that both Putin and Lavrov emphasize the need for good-neighbourly relations between Azerbaijanis and Armenians says only that they consider the status of NK exclusively within Azerbaijan.
“Distant future” and “future leaders”.
Aliyev’s position is clear. For the moment, he does not need the negotiation process. Azerbaijan never agreed to independence, but has constantly offered “the highest status of autonomy”. Therefore, Aliyev is counting on something else, notably real “on the ground” changes. In this case, we are not talking about military operations, but rather the restoration of Nagorno-Karabakh and the settlement of its cities and villages by its Azerbaijani population. The moment one hundred thousand Azerbaijanis live in Shusha, and another hundred thousand in neighbouring villages and settlements, such as Hadrut, then the alignment at the negotiations will be completely different.
In reality, Azerbaijan has the potential to re-settle up to half a million of its people. Earlier, when there was talk about a referendum, the Armenian side could regulate the number of Azerbaijanis participating, since there were no Azerbaijanis in NK. Hence, the settlement would take place under the control of Armenians.
This has now changed. The territory is under the control of Azerbaijan, with any settlement depending on Aliyev. With a repositioned population in favour of Azerbaijanis, Aliyev can then propose a referendum in the negotiation process. Possible attempts by the Armenians to reduce negotiations only to territory controlled by the peacekeepers, and where the Armenian population remains in the majority, would thus be countered by Aliyev arguing that the entire previous 20-year negotiation process was about the territory of NKAO.
As a result, Aliyev does not need negotiations “here and now”. He plans to change the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh to the extent that the opposite side will have no arguments in any negotiations. By apparently agreeing to the “distant future” and “future leaders” Aliyev will have time to recover and settle. “Good neighbourly relations” can only help him.
Pashinyan’s position is far more complicated. On the one hand, Pashinyan fully understands that time is playing into Aliyev’s hands. Given the domestic political situation in Armenia, Pashinyan also knows that if he now enters into negotiations and hypothetically works out some kind of autonomy status, even a very good one, it will not be appreciated in Armenia. On the contrary, he will once again be accused of treason.
Therefore, Pashinyan will not take drastic steps. On 11 January 2021, he “complained” in Moscow that the status issue had not been resolved, and yet during the negotiations he failed to raise the issue “bluntly”. While Pashinyan may have no trump cards to force Aliyev to negotiate “here and now”, such a position is not necessary. He will continue to “complain” about Aliyev to the international community, but without any harsh steps.
For Putin, there is no need for a “here and now” status of NK. The current status quo lends Russia a lot of trump cards in terms of influence over both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Moreover, it is already clear that he is considering a return to the pre-conflict state of 1987 and only requires time to “establish good-neighbourly relations between Azerbaijanis and Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh”.
Based on all this, no one will force the issue of Karabakh’s status. On the contrary, at least two parties (Azerbaijan and Russia) will slow it down. Medvedev’s speech only confirms this.
The OSCE Minsk Group.
Russia prefers to “rule” Transcaucasia by itself. So why would Putin suddenly cede the reins of government to the Minsk Group on such an important issue? The question of status will not be resolved in the near future. On the contrary, we face the constant postponement of negotiations and the problems that we have witnessed over the past 20 years. Russia is pushing this issue to the Minsk Group only because it will highlight its success in resolving the problems of the South Caucasus and the impotence of Western leaders. “Russia is successfully conducting peacekeeping, resolving issues of economic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the Minsk Group is wasting time around the status without any progress.”
This is the picture that Russia Today will broadcast.
- Talk about “status” can be safely ignored. The current status quo will remain in place for the next 10 years. Various politicians will speak out about this, but conversations will remain conversations. We can expect no major changes.
- There is a consensus among those who speak about the need for negotiations on the status, yet neither the Azerbaijanis nor Armenians will like this.
- The Russian leadership is not lying, but it is not talking. This is because of its need to preserve a neutral image — coupled with the fact that frank statements might cause unnecessary turbulence, primarily in Armenia and among the Armenian population of NK, for which the Russian peacekeepers are now responsible.
- The statements of Russian politicians, such as Putin, Lavrov, Matvienko and Medvedev do not contradict each other; they complement each other.
- The longer it takes, the more time — and opportunity — Azerbaijan will have to change the status quo – once again, primarily through the settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Based on all the above, we can draw the following conclusions: The NK problem is already 30 years old. It will not be solved in 44 days. For the moment, perhaps 80 per cent has been resolved; the remaining 20 per cent will have to be solved with work, patience and a high level of competence. And every Azerbaijani has the opportunity to make his own contribution to the restoration of cities and villages in NK, and to the settlement of NK. This alone will provide a complete solution.
Question: The current status of Nagorno-Karabakh, i.e. the current status quo, what is it?
Answer: Nagorno-Karabakh is an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, part of which is controlled by Azerbaijan, and part is the “zone of responsibility” of the Russian peacekeepers. The Armenian population of NK is actually self-governing, but every day the Russian peacekeepers acquire more and more control over the spheres of activity of their zone of responsibility.
Question: Can Russia or Armenia, in turn, try to change the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Answer: Armenia is actually deprived of resources and opportunities. Russia can, but monitoring the activities of Russian peacekeepers does not reveal differences from what Russian officials declare. For example, some time ago a video was circulated where Russian peacekeepers talk with Armenian residents of NK, who wanted to get the opportunity to travel along the shorter road to Armenia, through the Kelbajar region.
The Russian peacekeeper convinced the Armenians in sufficient detail that they needed to communicate with the Azerbaijanis directly, that it was time to establish normal relations, because they would have to live together. This correlates with the speeches of Putin and Lavrov about the need for “good-neighbourly relations” and suggests that the same directive is being given to the Russian peacekeepers. It is unlikely that the Russian officer was carrying a gag in that dialogue. Therefore, there is no reason to suspect Putin of deceiving Aliyev, Erdogan and the public.
Question: When will the Azerbaijani flag fly in Khankendi and the Armenian population will receive Azerbaijani passports? When will Azerbaijan take control of the current “zone of responsibility” of the Russian peacekeepers?
Answer: Only after the settlement of Azerbaijanis in Shusha and other cities and villages of NK, the complete restoration of their infrastructure, the establishment of economic cooperation, and a decrease in the level of mutual intolerance. These are necessary preconditions. It will also depend on the foreign policy situation and relations with Russia at that moment in time (Putin is not eternal).
Question: Why did Azerbaijan agree to Russian peacekeepers? Wouldn’t it be better for it to completely liberate the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabakh?
Answer: The Azerbaijani leadership recorded a unique achievement — to successfully carry out a large-scale, long-term military operation on the borders of Europe, liberate significant territories, including Shusha, and escape not only sanctions, but even condemnation by the leaders of the US and European countries and large international organizations (despite all efforts by the Armenian Diaspora and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Moreover, following the results of the war, it was possible to liberate three large areas without a shot, obtain a corridor to Nakhichevan and achieve formal consolidation / recognition of the results of the war, both by the enemy and by the OSCE Minsk Group (Joint statement of the heads of delegations of the countries – co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (December 3, 2020)).
If Azerbaijan did not accept the surrender and continued military operations in order to liberate Khankendi from the Armenian troops, this would be regarded as carrying out ethnic cleansing. The last leaderto carry out ethnic cleansing in Europe was Milosevic, and it ended badly for Serbia. Azerbaijan, for its part, has achieved its maximum result. Six months ago, it would have proven impossible even to dream of such an outcome.
Chingiz Saidov is a Azerbaijani-Swiss 3rd year Law student at the University of Edinburgh. Chingiz is interested in politics, in particular post-Soviet, as well as the Middle East. Originally from the tumultuous Caucusus region, Chingiz is especially concerned by regional security issues. This is his first contribution to Youth Writes.