Time to reform the Minsk GroupThe Minsk Group, a special body of the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe, established in 1992 in order to help the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been constantly criticized during the recent years. No breakthrough has been achieved over the resolution of the long-lasting conflict that emerged in 1988 over Armenia’s territorial claims against Azerbaijan, though the negotiations are underway through the mediation of OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries - the U.S, France and Russia for over two-decades.

Many people in both belligerent sides claim the Minsk Group has failed to find the ultimate solution for the conflict and reach the peace accord. In Azerbaijan, there are also calls to reform the Minsk Group, which in its current state, is thought to unfit Azerbaijan`s interests.

 

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

  

The ethnic clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous province (4,400 square kilometers) inside Azerbaijan, arose in 1988 towards the end of Soviet rule. The conflict of local scale turned into a full bloody war at the end of 1991 – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan tried to maintain its territorial integrity by keeping sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia backed the separatist movement of ethnic Armenians in the region.

In 1992, the United Nations admitted Azerbaijan with its Soviet-time territory that included Nagorno-Karabakh. However, by 1993, Armenian forces, by taking advantage of internal political instability and squabbles in Azerbaijan, had occupied nearly 20 percent of the Azerbaijani territory –Nagorno-Karabakh plus adjacent districts (a total area of over 17,000 sq. km.) – and expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Four resolutions of the UN Security Council adopted throughout 1993 demanding unilateral and immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from the occupied districts were ignored.

The Russia-brokered negotiations secured truce in 1994 and ceased the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan but failed to create a way forward. Controlled by Armenian separatists Nagorno-Karabakh has maintained de facto autonomy since the cease-fire, while the region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

In total, around 25,000 people were killed and nearly a million Azerbaijanis lost their homes and became refugees.  The self-proclaimed “Nagorno Karabakh Republic”, which is recognized by no international body, was carved out of the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan.

Cross-border violence has remained constant in the two decades since the 1994 cease-fire and been claiming dozens of lives of military and civilians from both sides. 

Beyond the humanitarian crisis, the ongoing military conflict, although frozen now, over Nagorno Karabakh poses a very real threat to regional stability and security, as well as to the global energy market.

 

Minsk Group: history and activities

 

After Azerbaijan and Armenia joined the Conference for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (later renamed Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe) in 1992, the organization decided to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In March 1992, a committee under the CSCE was formed to find a peaceful solution. Belarus offered its capital as the venue for the final negotiations, hence, the name Minsk Conference or the Minsk Group.

In December, 1994, the Budapest Summit of CSCE decided to establish a co-chairmanship for the process. Following the Budapest Summit decision, in March 1995, the Chairman-in-Office mandated the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group to provide an appropriate framework for conflict resolution in the way of assuring the negotiation process; to obtain conclusion by the parties of an agreement on the cessation of the armed conflict in order to permit the convening of the Minsk Conference; and to promote the peace process by deploying OSCE multinational peacekeeping forces.

The triple Co-Chairmanship, including Russia, France and the USA, was established in 1997. This troika and its members have not changed ever since. The same year, the Co-Chairs, during their visit to the region, presented two proposals (Package deal and Stage-by-stage approach).

Although each of the proposal, which mainly included keeping Nagorno-Karabakh with the highest status of autonomy within Azerbaijan, returning displaced persons, deploying peacekeeping forces came to be accepted by both Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders, the government change, as a result of which, a Nagorno-Karabakh clan came to power in Yerevan in 1998, Armenia officially withdrew the consent to the proposals on the settlement of the conflict. 

In November 1998, the Co-Chairs put forward a new proposal based on the concept of a “common state”. According to this concept, Nagorno-Karabakh would have the status of a state and a territorial unit in the form of a republic, which, together with Azerbaijan would constitute the common state within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan rejected those proposals since they violated its sovereignty and contradicted international principles on territorial integrity.  

Throughout the 2000s, the Minsk Group mainly acted as a communicator and encouraged direct talks between the leaders and officials of the belligerent nations. Although the mediators announced “ripe moments” for the settlement of the conflict several times, those moments were never materialized.

The Co-Chairs makes it clear that it is the two presidents who are ought to find an agreement, while the Minsk Group will assist them in the negotiations. Azerbaijan’s position consists of recovering territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, returning the displaced people to their homes, providing peaceful living together for Azerbaijani and Armenian communities of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Baku repeatedly stated its readiness to grant Nagorno-Karabakh the highest status of self-rule within the internationally-recognized territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan, while the Armenian side demands full independence for the breakaway region.  

 

Minsk Group: present co-chairs

 

Looking back and analyzing the activities of the Minsk Group, many claim mediation efforts on Nagorno-Karabakh have turned out to be a complete fiasco and that these efforts themselves have prolonged the conflict although the co-chairs, in response, have laid the blame on the parties. The fruitless and endless talks, during which Baku has repeatedly offered a high autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan`s territorial integrity, the Armenian side continues to try to obtain independence for the breakaway region, neither compromise nor agreement has been achieved.

In the past few years, with no more real plan or proposal, the Minsk Group`s visits to the region and shuttle diplomacy-like efforts generated only criticism and distrust in both countries, especially in Azerbaijan. There have been calls in Azerbaijan to reform the Minsk Group: some officials and common people have negative perceptions not only towards the Minsk Group as a whole, but towards each co-chair.

For the Azerbaijanis, the position of the United States regarding the conflict is not fair. The Section 907 of the United States Freedom Support Act adopted in 1992 bans any kind of direct U.S. aid to the Azerbaijani government. This ban makes Azerbaijan the only exception to the countries of the former Soviet Union to receive direct aid from the United States. The Act was strongly lobbied for by the Armenian-American community in the U.S. and was passed in response to Azerbaijan`s blockade of Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. In the 1990s, when Azerbaijan greatly needed foreign humanitarian support because of post-Soviet transition period and presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees, such ban was perceived unfair by the Azerbaijanis. Although in 2001 the Senate adopted a waiver of Section 907, Azerbaijan was no more in need of foreign aid as huge oil income was about to flow into the country.

The United States allocates financial aid not only to Armenia but also the separatist government in Nagorno-Karabakh and overlooks visits of authorities of the self-proclaimed regime; in Azerbaijan these actions are considered double standards by a co-chair of the Minsk Group.

Moreover, the United States has long earned distrust in the entire Islamic world to its open support to Israel, as well as because of the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. The Azerbaijanis who feel more Muslim and Orientals rather than Westerns and show support with the Islamic world, also blame the United States for its “deliberate policy” against the Islamic world, including Azerbaijan.

France, its nomination as a co-chair along with Russia received Azerbaijan`s protest already back in the mid-1990s (the United States was therefore proposed as a third co-chair to balance this institution). Despite mutual visits of the leaders and campaign on promoting Azerbaijan in France mainly through cultural programs, the distrust of the common Azerbaijanis on France is too great and unlikely to change in the near future. France is home to one of the largest Armenian diasporas. According to some estimations, up to 1,5 million people of Armenian origin dwell in France. With representation at almost all levels of society and governments, they possess important instruments to influence French policies and actively lobby in their interests. The Azerbaijanis, who are currently at war against Armenia and are a Turkic nation with a strong solidarity with Turkey, got further enraged in the 2000s when France passed laws to recognize the Armenian genocide and to outlaw any denials. Thus, there is a strong popular opinion in Azerbaijan that France`s position on the conflict cannot be unbiased, while its presence in the Minsk Group will further serve Armenia`s interests.

Russia, who traditionally considers the entire Caucasus its sphere of interest, is mostly accepted in Azerbaijan as invaders, who kept control over Azerbaijan during the stardom (1813-1918) and Soviet period (1920-1991). The destruction of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920), the first democratic country in the Muslim world, by the Russian Red Army in 1920 is learnt from history books, but the same Red Army`s pogroms in Baku in January 1990 are still fresh in minds.

Add to this, Russia`s military base in Gyumri, Armenia – this is why many people in Azerbaijan are confident that Karabakh was occupied and is still controlled by the Armenians with the help of the Russians, and had the Russians ceased their help to Armenians Azerbaijan could have retaken the occupied territories. Armenia is also part of several Russia-led organizations (Eurasian Customs Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization), which makes them strategic allies while Azerbaijan has distanced itself from such alliances and pacts.

In Azerbaijan, everybody would say that prolonging this conflict is in the best interests of Russia, which through this conflict and mediation process, is eager to keep control over the region, sell weapons to both countries and make them depend on Moscow`s will.

 

Minsk Group: new candidates?

 

Some argue that the failure of the Minsk Group that has not achieved any results make the belligerent parties, especially Azerbaijan to search more effective mechanisms and new approaches. The co-chairmanship institution should also be reconsidered and reformed according to a widespread opinion. The replacement and increase of the co-chairing countries’ number are the most commonly voiced ideas. As the present mediators would probably not withdraw or terminate the mediation efforts, since their national interests are at stake and they do not want another mediator to undertake initiation, one of the proposals is to include new co-chairs in the Minsk Group.

Not long ago, an Azerbaijani member of parliament proposed Turkey and Germany as additional co-chairs in the Minsk Group.

Germany as a leading country in Europe and in the world closely cooperates with both belligerent nations and may find new approaches and instruments in the settlement of the conflict. Germany may be attractive for the mediation process as it seems more unbiased and looks equally distant to Azerbaijan and Armenia. Germany`s recent activities in the Ukraine conflict and its attempts to play a more active role in the regional issues may contribute a new breathe to the Karabakh peace process.

However, according to M. Bryza, former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, said Germany is not able to make a significant contribution to the settlement of the conflict, adding that the EU could make a lot of sense, since it is a partner of the U.S. and Russia.

Turkey has had century-long relations with the Caucasus and been increasing its participation in the regional processes. Turkey and Armenia have recently tried to search ways to normalize their ties and open the borders. As a landlocked country Armenia needs this normalization, but closing borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey block its development. Turkey, Azerbaijan`s fraternal country and natural ally, can therefore strive to broker a deal with Armenia by receiving some compromises from Yerevan – the Turkish officials always state that  the normalization process depends on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem’s resolution. In this context, Turkey`s co-chairmanship would be more logical, positive and beneficial in the opinion of the Azerbaijani side.

Turkey is also interested in actively joining the mediation efforts as it considers the Minsk Group to be impotent in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The group's fruitless brokering involvement so far got a thumb down from the Turkish president, as well as other officials. However, it is less likely that Western powers will be happy to let Turkey join the process, while the Armenians strongly lobby against such a prospect, fearing Turkey`s inclusion will strengthen Azerbaijan`s position in the settlement process.

The author of this article would also propose Kazakhstan as another candidate for co-chairmanship and mediation process. A large, Eurasian country, Kazakhstan has turned into a big actor in the post-Soviet area. While Kazakhstan is a Turkic country for its titular people, the Kazakhs, share the same language, religion and roots with the Azerbaijanis, it is a member of several Kremlin-led organizations together with Armenia. Therefore, Kazakhstan could be equally close or distant to either warring side. Add to this Kazakhstan`s previous experience in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: the Kazakh diplomats were quite active in the first 2 years of the war and showing the first peace attempt before the Minsk Group took over the responsibility.

 

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The results of the past decades demonstrate the exhaustion of the present model of mediation process. Both conflict parties and Minsk Group co-chairs should consider and initiate some changes in the format of the group and negotiations if these changes can contribute to the peace efforts. 

 

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