Time to Reform the Minsk Group

Time to Reform the Minsk Group

The Minsk Group, a special body of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was established in 1992 in order to help the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been constantly criticized in 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 on both belligerent sides claim the Minsk Group has failed to find the ultimate solution to the conflict and reach a 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 which began on a  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 retaining sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia backed the separatist movement of ethnic Armenians in the region.

In 1992, the United Nations admitted and recognized an Azerbaijan which included its Soviet-era holdings, and most importantly Nagorno-Karabakh. However, by 1993, Armenian forces, by taking advantage of internal political instability and squabbles in Azerbaijan, had occupied nearly 11,000 sq. km of Azerbaijan’s territory – Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent districts – and expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Four resolutions of the UN Security Council were adopted throughout 1993 demanding the unilateral and immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from the occupied districts, all of which were ignored.

In total, around 25,000 people were killed and 600,000 Azeris were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh.  The self-proclaimed “Nagorno Karabakh Republic”, which is recognized by no international body, was carved out of the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. In addition to this, hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azeris were expelled from each other’s territory as a result of the wider conflict.

Russian-brokered negotiations secured a truce in 1994 but failed to create a clear path  forward. Controlled by an unrecognized Armenian government, Nagorno-Karabakh has maintained de facto autonomy since the cease-fire, while the region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

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. Cross-border violence has remained a constant in the two decades since the 1994 cease-fire and has claimed dozens of lives, military and civilian, on both sides. A new solution is needed in order to ensure stability in the region.

Minsk Group: History and Activities

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

In December, 1994, the Budapest Summit of the CSCE decided to establish a co-chairmanship for the process. Following the Budapest Summit decision, in March 1995, the Chairman-in-Office directed the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group to provide an appropriate framework for conflict resolution. Their task was to convince the two parties to sign an agreement ending the armed conflict 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. That same year, the Co-Chairs, during their visit to the region, presented two proposals (the Package Deal and Stage-by-Stage Approach).

Each of the proposals included the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan with a large degree of autonomy, the return of displaced persons and the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Both governments initially agreed to the proposals but after an election win by a party from Nagorno-Karabakh in 1998, the plans were rejected by the new Armenian government.  

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 a federal state within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan rejected those proposals claiming that they violated its sovereignty and contradicted international principles on territorial integrity.  

Throughout the 2000s, the Minsk Group mainly acted as a mediator and encouraged direct talks between the leaders and officials of the belligerent nations. Although “ripe moments” for the settlement of the conflict were announced several times, a solution never materialized. Azerbaijan and Armenia have yet to resolve the issue because their positions are diametrically opposed. Azerbaijan seeks the full return of Nagorno-Karabakh (with a large degree of autonomy) while Armenia will settle for nothing less than full independence for the 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 have prolonged the conflict. The co-chairs, in response, have laid the blame on Azerbaijan and Armenia. In the past few years, the Minsk Group`s shuttle diplomacy and lack of planning have generated criticism and distrust in both countries, but especially so in Azerbaijan because the longer a resolution takes the less likely that the region will be returned to Baku’s control.

Many Azeris see the United States involvement in the conflict in a negative light for various reason. One such is section 907 of the United States Freedom Support Act which bans any kind of direct U.S. aid to the Azeri 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 the post-Soviet transition period and the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the ban was perceived as being very unfair by Azeris. Although in 2001 the Senate adopted a waiver of Section 907, Azerbaijan was no longer in need of foreign aid because of large revenues from energy resources.

The United States allocates financial aid not only to Armenia but also to the separatist government in Nagorno-Karabakh; a seemingly untenable position as the United States does not officially recognize the separatist republic.

Moreover, the United States has long earned the distrust of many in the Islamic world due to its open support to Israel, as well as the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Many Azeris blame the United States for its “deliberate policy” of undermining the Islamic world, including Azerbaijan.

France’s nomination  in the mid-1990’s as the second Co-Chair in the group was met with protests from Azerbaijan which was the reason for the United States being added to balance the institution. Despite mutual visits of leaders and a campaign which promoted Azerbaijan in France through cultural programs, distrust of Azeris in France is unlikely to change anytime soon. France is home to one of the largest Armenian diasporas. According to some estimates, up to 750,000 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 Azeris, who are currently at war against Armenia and are a Turkic nation with a strong relationship with Turkey were further enraged in the 2000s when France passed laws to recognize the Armenian genocide and to outlaw any denials. (Azerbaijan and Turkey both contend that there was no genocide and massacres were inflicted by and on both sides.) 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, which traditionally considers the entire Caucasus its sphere of interest, is seen in Azerbaijan as an invader, which occupied Azerbaijan almost continuously from 1813 until independence in 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 remembered only in 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 which has convinced many people in Azerbaijan that Karabakh was occupied and is still controlled by the Armenians with Russian help. 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. Prolonging this conflict is in the best interest of Russia, which is eager to keep control over the region, sell weapons to both countries and make them dependent on Moscow`s will.

Minsk Group: New Candidates?

Some argue that the failure of the Minsk Group has caused the belligerent parties, especially Azerbaijan, to search for more effective mechanisms and new approaches. The replacement of certain Co-Chairs or the addition of new ones 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, the most feasible proposal 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 breath to the peace process.

However, according to M. Bryza, former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, the EU would make more sense because it would represent all of Europe and has experience mediating similar conflicts in the Balkans.

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 because 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 offering certain incentives in exchange for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s resolution. 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. However, it is unlikley 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 state that would most likely prove the most effective in resolving the conflict is one that has so far not been proposed, Kazakshtan. 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’s titular population is Turkic and shares the same language, religion and roots with the Azerbaijanis, it is a member of several Kremlin-led organizations together with Armenia. It also has a very large population of Russians who share a religion with Armenians. Therefore, Kazakhstan could be equally close or distant to either warring side. Add to this Kazakhstan`s previous experience in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and they are clearly the best choice to join the group and help bring peace to the region.

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The results of the past decades demonstrate the exhaustion of the present model of the mediation process. As the current Co-Chairs will probably not allow themselves to be replaced the most practical option is to add a new Co-Chair. Even if Turkey and Germany were not accepted as new Co-Chairs, then Kazakhstan, as the best option amongst the possible candidates could become involved in the peace efforts. Both parties to the conflict and the Minsk Group Co-Chairs should attempt to initiate any changes that could result in a resolution of this frozen conflict.



This article is originally published in the "Vostokian" media outlet.