Is the policy of maintaining impartiality and neutrality by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair mediators helping or hindering the Karabakh Conflict peace process? Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment and specialist on the South Caucasus Thomas de Waal spoke to CivilNet’s Maria Titizian about this in the context of the recent upsurge of violence on the Karabakh-Azerbaijan contact line and the prospects for a peaceful settlement.
During these past ten days, there has been an upsurge of violence, tensions and violations of the ceasefire regime on the Karabakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact and also along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. You recently wrote a piece called ‘Karabakh’s Guns of August,’ reflecting on the current situation. I want to begin today by asking you a question about the peace process: In every statement they issue following an upsurge of violence or ceasefire violations, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs try to always maintain impartiality or neutrality. Has this aided or distorted the peace process?
This is a great question. Well, it is best to be said that most of the Minsk Group’s work is behind the scenes. It is like the iceberg. We only see ten percent, but they have been working very hard over the last ten days. This holds true especially for Ambassador Kasprcyk, the man on the ground, the special envoy of the OSCE, who is monitoring the ceasefire, and for the Co-Chairs. I gather that the Russian Co-Chair will attend the meeting in Sochi, so obviously a lot of work is done.
But your question is really about the public side. I agree in that we do not see enough of the public side of the work of the Minsk Group, not enough details. The statements are much too general. And I do agree with you that it would be more useful, if they were more detailed and more critical. It would be useful if we heard about it, if one of the parties did something bad. Obviously, that has a political risk attached to it, because we should not forget that this process is mainly run by the two presidents, President Aliyev and President Sargsyan. The Minsk Co-Chairs are just mid-level ambassadors.
I want to talk to you a bit about the reactions in the region, particularly in Armenia. Tigran Mkrtchyan, who is head of Press Information and Public Relations here at the Foreign Ministry in Armenia wrote a status on his Facebook page. He asks why Armenia would instigate an attack. In your article you wrote that this could be a result of an Armenian operation or counter-operation in response to minor Azerbaijani attacks along the Line of Contact. He goes on to say, “Which military task do we have to achieve that we have not yet solved?”
He is talking about the Armenian side. And he asks, who today is continuously using the bellicose rhetorics and statements, threatening war, boasting about increased military budgets, making territorial claims on other regions of Armenia. So again, he poses the question that all of us are posing: Should the aggressor not be singled out and condemned? I understand the political ramifications for the OSCE Minsk Group and for other international actors who are trying to mediate, but when you are not calling a spade a spade, how do you then expect to achieve peace?
First of all, let us talk a bit about the nature of this latest upsurge of fighting. Let us maybe start with reflecting that probably this is the worst fighting on the ceasefire line in twenty years. And the saddest part of it is that young men on both sides have been dying, many of them born after the ceasefire was signed back in May 1994. This is a very sad reflection. Who started it? Often times in a conflict like this, one side does something small, the other side retaliates and it is very hard to point the finger at who started. As far as I understand, we have had a couple of months with increasing attacks along the ceasefire line, particularly along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. This is a development we have not had before.
These attacks, these ceasefire violations do not have any military logic to them. No territory is gained and it is all about scaring the other side. You make a political point. In the last couple of months, the Azerbaijanis were maybe challenging the status quo. We know that the status quo does not suit them, as they are the ones that have lost territory. So, as you observed, it is more in their interest to challenge the ceasefire.
But there is even some evidence from Armenian sources, that the events of the last week were counter-moves from the Armenian side, saying that enough is enough. It is like saying, “We can also strike back, stop doing this to us.” So the escalation could have been an act of retaliation by the Armenian side. We have seen pictures of Azerbaijani positions taken by Armenians, which suggests that Armenians crossed over [the border]. So who started in the last week? That is hard to say, but the Armenians may have been trying to prove a point.
Now to your second question, which is really about whether the international media should be more specific. The problem is that there are only six monitors along the ceasefire line. It is very hard to get good evidence. I think a much more sophisticated mechanism to investigate incidents along the ceasefire line is needed. This has been discussed for a long time. Without that, it is going to be very hard to pinpoint exactly what is happening.
I think it is important to know for our viewers as well, that this ceasefire regime has been self-maintained for the past twenty years without any peacekeepers on the ground. It was in the interest of both sides to try and maintain that calm until there was some kind of resolution to the conflict.
Yes, six monitors from the OSCE, who are unarmed, who maybe make visits once or twice a month to the ceasefire line.
This is certainly not enough to be able to investigate properly. I want to talk to you the upcoming potential meeting between the two presidents in Sochi, which you mentioned earlier. Usually, if we look back at the history of ceasefire violations, they always come when the presidents are scheduled to meet. It also happens when there is some action or some progress going on or even in a lack of progress in the peace process. Do you have an expectations for this next round?
Well, as I understand it, this was a pre-scheduled meeting, which originally was not going to be mainly about Karabakh. I think President Putin wanted to talk to the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan mainly about Ukraine to give a strong push to have them support the Russian position on Ukraine. This has been planned for some time. I do not think that President Putin has a strong interest in the Karabakh peace process, unlike President Medvedev.
Maybe the failure of President Medvedev has convinced President Putin that it is not worth the effort to invest time. However, I am sure that we will see some calls for peace, to strengthen the ceasefire. Russia will try to use its leverage to dampen down the conflict, as it is not in Russian interest also to have a war.
Well, we have heard the opposite speculation of Russia’s involvement. Perhaps it is instigating the conflict to then play the role of peace-maker, negotiator and mediator in light of what is taking place in Ukraine.
I think that it would clearly give a political advantage to Russia to play the peace-maker in this case. Undeniably, Russia does supply weapons to both sides in the conflict. But that is not to say that Russia actually started the shooting on the ceasefire line or that Russia gave orders to sovereign armies along the ceasefire line.