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Margins narrowed, gist augmented: Baku’s red lines and Yerevan’s hopes

22 April 2022 11:30 (UTC+04:00)
Margins narrowed, gist augmented: Baku’s red lines and Yerevan’s hopes

By Orkhan Amashov

After the 2020 ceasefire deal, Baku has successfully managed to take the subject of the Karabakh Armenians off the negotiation table. Originally, the mandate to address the issue was vested with the OSCE Minsk Group, which is no longer capable of activity, and is currently being dismantled or rather disintegrated. The trilateral formats mediated by Moscow and Brussels are mostly focused on the Azerbaijani-Armenian interstate peace agenda, at least, for now.

Prior to the Second Karabakh War, Yerevan fancied itself as a guarantor of Karabakh Armenians. Upon the signing of the 2020 ceasefire deal that ended the campaign, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's government was no longer in a position to entertain this idea.

Baku always viewed the then-ongoing conflict from the prism of its territorial integrity, and distinguished the Armenian inhabitants of the region from the illegal separatist entity based there.

The former have always been viewed as Azerbaijani citizens, and in that sense, relations with them is an internal issue for Baku. Whereas the illegal entity based in Khankandi, by virtue of its genesis, is the intrusive element, and thus must be dispelled.

Now we have the situation in which Baku is firmly and unequivocally of the opinion that the conflict is over, and the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process has, in a sense, moved into the domain of interstate relations, focusing on the issues pertaining to the opening of communication links, border delimitation and demarcation and humanitarian subjects.

Baku's emphasis on the "conflict being over" is not a mere rhetorical device, but also a considered opinion and negotiating position within the post-conflict normalisation process. The crux of the whole matter is that the cause of the conflict - the status of the former Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast – is no longer on the agenda.

In Azerbaijani diplomatic parlance, the term “status” used in relation to the mountainous part of Karabakh has become undesirable, and the discourse shifted into the cultural rights of the Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh. The Armenian government still employs the term, albeit in a different sense, somewhat detached from its territorial dimension, linked mostly with the people. In this vein, the parties are slowly approaching a framework, within the confines of which a sensible discussion on substantive issues could take place.

Demise of mandate holder

The ultimate fate of Karabakh Armenians remains an issue in relation to which exhausting and detailed arrangements are yet unknown. The OSCE Minsk Group, whose duty it was to coordinate the negotiations around this theme, despite being formally in existence, is no longer an institution to be reckoned with, for it is no longer capable of contributing to anything.

As far as one can tell, at present, it is being disintegrated. The co-chair countries have an option of appointing their special representatives – the U.S. and Russia have already followed this pattern. Washington has sent Andrew Schofer to the region, in the capacity of Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations. Moscow appointed Igor Khovaev as a special representative for the Azerbaijani-Armenian normalisation process. In other words, those who were formerly co-chairs now are special representatives, and the institute of co-chairmanship is out of the question.

In the case of France, by all appearances, the EU has replaced it on the international stage, which was in many ways a logical step, as the inclusion of Paris within the process in 1997 was aimed at ensuring European representation. However, the pro-Armenian political rhetoric emanating from the Élysée Palace has rendered it a spent force.

In a functional sense, subsequent to the 2020 ceasefire deal, one multilateral OSCE format was replaced with two separate platforms mediated by Moscow and Brussels, and the U.S. has, to a certain extent, lost its clout over the process, as there is no specific Washington-mediated format.

Where do we stand now?

The specific nature of the present state of the affairs is that the conflict is over, and the cause that was at its heart, has been removed, but not everything is dusted and done. In addition to the issues falling strictly within the interstate domain, there are some leftover matters pertaining to the Armenian inhabitants of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan that are to be addressed.

Yerevan has by now understood that the jurisdiction over the territory inhabited by Karabakhi Armenians should rest with Azerbaijan. In Pashinyan’s words, the status is no longer an object, but a method to guarantee the security and rights of the population in question. Yerevan’s official line is largely centred upon ensuring the physical presence of the Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh.

Since, by virtue of its military and diplomatic triumph, it is Baku that happens to be the driving force of the peace process, it is vital that the Azerbaijani government’s red lines and the progress made in the context of Armenian acquiescence are properly understood.

The central question here is what Baku may offer in return for Armenian recognition of Azerbaijani territorial integrity. There is no clear answer to this question, as far as one can tell. But Baku has a principled vision on an exclusionary basis. Neither status nor an administrative entity inside Azerbaijan with an explicit Armenian character could be contemplated. Nothing that could be deemed as remotely militating against the victor’s territorial integrity and unitary governance system will be touched with a barge pole.

Prior to the Second Karabakh War, Baku was content with keeping the old administrative division of the region on a formal level. In July 2021, two units – Karabakh and the East Zangazur Economic Regions - were created in the liberated lands, with the former’s geographic scope being inclusive of the territories which are currently under the temporary zone of influence of the Russian peacekeepers. In other words, Baku has made its intentions clear in advance.

No space seems to have been left for territorial Armenian autonomy inside Karabakh. It may not be as simple as that. The foundations of the institutional future of the region have been laid down, but the emergent administrative landscape could be altered and moulded to suit the overriding needs.

Autonomy, if one may use the term in its vaguest possible sense, if offered to the Armenian inhabitants of the region, is neither going to be political in nature nor in no way amounting to the creation of a territorially delineated structure. It may certainly be a cultural autonomy, which could generally be perceived, as a legal regime which will ensure rights of a cultural nature, by which one could surmise as rights to have Armenian schools, media and other entities.

These cultural rights are likely to be considered for the inclusion in a prospective peace deal, and accompanied with security guarantees. Whatever may emerge out of this currently nascent mode of deliberation, the future of the Karabakh Armenians will be largely centred upon the principle of their maximum integration into a wider Azerbaijani society as fully-fledged citizens, protected by guarantees concerning the protection of their separate cultural identity.

The question as to the rights and security of Karabakh Armenians is not new. But academic literature on the subject is scarce, as the present discourse is about the post-war reality. And, as far as one can tell, the Azerbaijani government’s bespoke policy in relation to this undeniably complex subject is still very much emerging.

Since both the tempo and agenda of the process is largely dominated by Baku, and Yerevan seems to be in a position of gradually acquiescing and expecting some fundamental guarantees, the future could be understood alongside the lines of what will or may happen, or what is out of the question.

We know what the red lines are. We know the aspects that are unacceptable to Baku. We also know what Baku may agree to, in general. But what we are yet to establish is what Baku will be perfectly comfortable with and that Yerevan will finally be compelled to agree. Once we know the answer to the latter, we will also have a fair idea as to the exact nature of cultural rights and subsequent legal regime applicable to the Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh.


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