Interview: De Waal Sees 'Tricky Game' To Stabilize Armenian-Azerbaijani Peace
By RFE/RL's Armenian Service January 30, 2021
It's been nearly three months since a Russian-brokered peace agreement was signed on November 10, bringing an end to the war between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces over Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
RFE/RL Armenian Service Director Harry Tamrazian spoke on January 29 to Carnegie Europe's Caucasus expert, Thomas de Waal, about the evolution of postwar diplomacy and the prospects for stabilizing the situation by reestablishing long-severed economic ties.
RFE/RL: In Moscow on January 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the second time with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The deputy prime ministers of those three countries were meeting in Moscow on January 30 for talks about reestablishing communications and transportation links. This is a fundamental change since the 1990s when the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- jointly chaired by Russia, France, and the United States -- was the mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan. How would you assess Putin's second meeting with Pashinian and Aliyev? Was that a constructive summit or was it an effort by Russia to consolidate its position as the sole peacekeeper and peacemaker in the conflict?
Thomas de Waal: It was certainly an effort by Russia to consolidate the November 10 agreement -- which had many gaps in it, many unclear positions. There are many unresolved issues around that agreement, which was obviously signed in haste. Russia has an agenda here, and Russia wants this agreement to work. But there are still many unresolved issues. For example, from the Armenian side, the fate of captured prisoners who were taken -- particularly in the Hadrut region in December. On the Azerbaijani side, I think they're a bit unhappy that the Russian peacekeeping mission doesn't have a clear mandate, that they're doing many things, particularly unilaterally. And yet, it was still a trilateral meeting between Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The other Minsk Group co-chairs -- France and the United States -- were not invited.
I think Russia is pushing forward its agenda. But the fact there was only a declaration on economic issues is obviously only the tip of the iceberg. There were many issues: prisoners, the mandate for the peacekeeping force, the Lachin Corridor. Many, many issues which are still unresolved.
RFE/RL: Let's talk about possible changes that the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden can bring to the region. During his Senate confirmation hearing, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he will reinvigorate U.S. engagement to find a permanent settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that protects the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and helps to ensure that another war does not break out. He said the United States will be stepping up its engagement via the Minsk Group and will do additional diplomatic work to prevent any additional interference by third parties. What's your reaction to that?
De Waal: Obviously, I think it's positive that we're going to see a more active U.S. foreign policy on this conflict and in this region. I think the Biden administration has already signaled that it intends to have a tougher relationship with Turkey. They felt that President [Donald] Trump and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan had a kind of very friendly, transactional relationship which was not in U.S. interests. So I think this is the ambition. Obviously, we also know that the November 10 agreement has no provisions on the future of the peace process.
Having said all that, the United States has been left far behind by this conflict. Russia is in on the ground. And it's not clear whether Azerbaijan really wants to talk any more about a political process. As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, this conflict ended the dispute in their favor. They're not in a hurry to talk about status issues [on Nagorno-Karabakh] and so forth. I think it will be difficult. But I think the United States can start to engage on a number of political issues and maybe, most importantly, regional economic issues.
I think no one believes that Armenia and Azerbaijan can do all the reconstruction work themselves. There need to be economic connections now which make Armenia and Azerbaijan interconnected economically. But that has to be done intelligently. It has to be done to promote a peace agenda. The United States, and obviously the European Union, can help with all those issues. But let's be clear: they've been left far behind by this conflict and they have a lot of catching up to do.
RFE/RL: It would be naive to think that the leaders in the region will suddenly start talking peace and economic cooperation. But Turkey's role is important in pursuing Azerbaijan to seek a peaceful settlement with its neighbor, Armenia. Some statements from Ankara might indicate that it is ready to normalize relations with Armenia. For example, opening the borders with Armenia -- hoping that it will be well received by the Biden administration and by the West. But so far we see some actions on the ground that might have the opposite effect. For example, Turkish-Azerbaijani joint military exercises near the border of Armenia. Do you think Turkey is interested in the economic development of the region and in opening communication lines with Armenia? What would the impact be of Turkey opening its borders with Armenia? Will that bring stability?
De Waal: Pragmatically speaking, the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven territories [occupied in Azerbaijan since the early 1990s] means the impediment has been removed to Armenia-Turkey normalized relations and opening the border. That was really Turkey's main problem with Armenia. But relations are now incredibly bad given the fact that Turkey helped Azerbaijan win the war. As far as Armenians are concerned, Turkey has new blood on its hands. President Erdogan was there at the victory ceremony in Baku on December 10 and even referred to Enver [Pasha, the Ottoman military officer and a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution].
I think the historical grievances are still very strong, and with much justification on the Armenian side. So I think we'll see a move toward opening the border -- some kind of trade restoration and economic relations. But my guess is that Armenians are not in a hurry to do that, maybe, as long as President Erdogan is in power.
And, of course, we must also remember that President Erdogan's coalition partner is the [far-right, Euroskeptic Nationalist Movement Party] MHP, which has this very strong Turkish-nationalist attitude toward Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, and other minorities [in Turkey]. So the openings are there. But I'd be very surprised if anything happened quickly. I think we're looking at quite a long-term process here.
RFE/RL: A Washington Post opinion piece on January 28 quoted a senior adviser to President Erdogan as saying that Cyprus and Armenia may not be at the core of Turkish-U.S. relations, but solving these conflicts would hugely benefit Ankara's relations with the West. The adviser said Ankara's problem with Yerevan has always been the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory -- the seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. And now that this issue has been resolved [largely] on the battlefield, Turkey is ready "if Armenia is willing to take a step."
De Waal: I'm sure there are different voices, different views in Turkey. There are some who want to move ahead with normalization [with Armenia], some who see it as a ticket for better relations with the West.
There are good economic reasons both for Armenia and for Turkey, for the Kars region [of northeast Turkey], to open the border and restore trade. But I don't have to tell your Armenian audience that there are big historical issues there. So, if this is just given as an economic offer, it won't work -- I'm sure -- on the Armenian side.
There have to be other measures toward the Armenians on the historical record. I don't think we're talking about genocide recognition [by Ankara], but sort of memorializing the Armenian genocide in some way. Some efforts on Armenian churches [within Turkey]. I think that is where the conversation also needs to happen. Let's see if that is possible given Mr. Erdogan's alliance at the moment with the MHP and his stance on the issues.
RFE/RL: The Russians are now talking about Nagorno-Karabakh as something separate from Armenia. They're talking about Karabakh as an internal Russian affair. Putin is having meetings with his security and military officials on Nagorno-Karabakh without any Armenian officials taking part. Can we say that Nagorno-Karabakh is an unofficial protectorate of Russia? They're in Nagorno-Karabakh. They're also deployed along the Lachin Corridor. Are they really interested in making peace permanent or are they pursuing other goals -- for example, creating conditions that will make the presence of Russian peacekeepers desirable for all sides?
De Waal: It's incredibly complicated. The picture is taking a long time to form. And I think no one is quite clear, including the Russians, about what will happen. For sure, Russia is on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh in a way it never has been. Probably not even during the Soviet period. And the local authorities in Karabakh are now dealing, maybe, as much with Moscow as they are with Yerevan.
But, on the other hand, we must not forget that Russia must also deal with Baku and that there's a five-year expiration clause on the Russian peacekeeping mission. So Russia cannot behave like it does in [Georgia's breakaway regions of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It must also deal with the authorities in Baku.
Russia, on the one hand, needs a justification to keep its peacekeepers there -- because otherwise, if there is complete peace, then they should go home. On the other hand, it doesn't want those peacekeepers to be shot at. So it wants some kind of stabilization. So Russia is constantly bouncing. It has a lot of influence there.
But it has a very tricky game to play. There are almost certainly different Russian voices there arguing for different Russian policies. And, of course, the Minsk Group continues.
I think Russia wants to share the responsibility for this conflict with France and the United States. And also, I think Baku and Yerevan also don't want Russia to just have a monopoly on this conflict. So there's lots and lots of bargaining, lots and lots of negotiations. But it's fair to say that Russia has to be quite clever here. It's got quite an advantageous position. But it could very easily end up offending both Armenians and Azerbaijanis and facing strong criticism from both of them.
RFE/RL: How do you see the restoration of the peace process? How can it happen? Russia has managed somehow to bring the two sides together. But I don't see that it can happen within the OSCE Minsk Group's troika framework. Is there anything planned and do you have an idea what they want to do to get both sides talking?
De Waal: The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is really a century old if we date it to 1918. That dispute continues and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is still completely contested by Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The Minsk Group had a very difficult problem before about how to resolve that issue. Remarks by [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov confirm that they don't know what the agenda will be. They know talks must continue. But it's very difficult to talk about the status issue.
I think the Minsk Group will continue. But it will have to deal with other issues and this is where the importance of restoring economic relations is very great.
This has to be done in a way that doesn't just benefit Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia. The Armenians have to feel that they are benefiting from the restoration of economic relations -- including the Armenians of Karabakh. And I think there are possibilities here.
For example, [Azerbaijan's] Kalbacar region, [recently returned to Baku's control under the November 10 peace agreement], is very isolated. I think it's very hard to think of it as being economically viable without proper trade with Karabakh and with Armenia. If the Minsk Group and other international actors can work on economic co-activity in support of peace, that's a good project to be getting on with.
RFE/RL: Do you think Pashinian will survive politically through this period of uncertainty and internal instability in Armenia?
De Waal: It's very difficult for me sitting in London to judge Armenian domestic politics. From a distance it looks as though Pashinian is surviving at the moment. But his popularity has dropped.
We're looking at a situation rather like what we had a few years ago of a weak government and a weak opposition, and most of the population doesn't feel very strongly one way or the other -- which is not healthy for Armenia.
It seems a lot of the energy in Armenia is going on domestic fights rather than on planning for the future, looking at foreign policy, looking at the region's economic issues, and so on. So that's not healthy for Armenia.
My guess is that Pashinian will survive for a bit longer. Sooner or later there will need to be elections. But he probably stands quite a good chance in those elections because I don't see many fresh faces from the opposition.
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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