The Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh officially lies within the territory of Azerbaijan. However, occupying Armenian forces have made its status uncertain since the official end of the war in 1994. Negotiations mediated by foreign powers have made modest progress, but observers worry it is not fast enough. With Armenia still occupying a total of 16% of Azerbaijani land, the current state of the south Caucasus is untenable.
Both sides have shown little willingness to compromise; indeed, both seem far fonder of provocation. Azerbaijan is pouring 5% of its GDP ($3 billion per year) into its army while its president, Ilham Aliev, regularly alludes to a reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia, meanwhile, has refused to withdraw from the territory. Added up, the military posturing and hard-line attitudes taken by both countries produce a potentially lethal mix.
Hope remains, however, that the conflict could reach a peaceful end. A 2007 protocol known as the Madrid Principles saw three foreign powers – Russia, the United States and France – work with the two foes to draft a set of objectives to help bring the conflict to a close. The idea is that Armenia withdraw from all Azerbaijani regions outside Nagorno-Karabakh, and that the disputed territory itself gain “interim status”, giving it some international legitimacy but stopping short of full independence.
The framework set by the Madrid Principles is clear enough, but if a long-term resolution is ever to be met, drastic democratic reforms are necessary in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Currently, both states are under semi-authoritarian rule where basic democratic rights are regularly repressed. Azerbaijan is ranked 134th in Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, tied with the failed state of Zimbabwe. Without robust democratic mechanisms in place, leaders in both countries are held unaccountable for even their most irresponsible provocations.
Democratic deficit and ethnic strife between Armenians and Azerbaijanis are not the only factors at play. Each of the foreign actors in Nagorno-Karabakh also has major strategic interests in the south Caucasus region, which often conflict. Russia salivates at the economic opportunities in the oil-rich region, while neighboring Turkey also seeks to maximize its influence. Non-Russian gas and oil pipelines have the US and the EU eager stabilize the region, and the south Caucasus is critical as a supply route for the Western effort in Afghanistan.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, recently sat with his counterparts, Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliev, for the fifth set of trilateral talks that observers hope will coax the two sides closer to a permanent peace. The mediated dialog between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a sign of positive progress. But for all the deal-making behind closed doors, both leaders continue their bellicose rhetoric in public, with the effect of reinforcing hard-line popular attitudes at home.
With both sides still maintaining troop presence along the disputed border, experts are understandably skeptical about the prospects of a lasting peace. The situation is so volatile that, instead of risking a weaker position by making concessions for a peace deal, both Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to prefer the limbo of the status quo.
Before any action along the lines of the Madrid Principles can be taken, a thorough analysis must be made of the risks and rewards of a movement towards a deal. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan must make significant democratic reforms and crack down on corruption. The conflicting interests of Russia, Turkey, the US and the EU in the region must also be taken into account. Any movement towards a lasting peace carries risks, but further inaction will only prolong this frozen conflict until it inevitably reignites.
Orkhan Gafarli is a researcher at the Kafkassam think tank.