Less than one year after the April battles for Karabakh, during which the status quo was changed for the first time since the introduction of the ceasefire in 1994 and part of Azerbaijan's occupied territories was liberated, tensions have been increasing on the contact line between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops again, clashes have been escalating and become increasingly violent. In anticipation of the anniversary of the events of April 2016, the leading expert of the North-South Political Science Center, Alexander Karavaev, told Vestnik Kavkaza, about the lessons of the February and April clashes and prospects of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.
- In your estimation, how far have they progressed in the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict during the 11 months following the April clashes over Karabakh?
- No progress had been made during this time. It is not the settlement process, as much as the process of changing balance, positioning of the parties and their methods to pressure each other and the intermediaries. We are witnessing a new stage of the conflict's development, but directly the settlement isn't on the table. The settlement will start only when the parties to the conflict sit at the negotiating table to agree on procedures to address all the issues on the occupied territories, refugees and various compensations. We have not yet reached this point.
- How have the April battles for Karabakh changed the Nagorno-Karabakh process?
- The sharp outbreak of conflict drew attention of Moscow and Washington to the Karabakh problem, as well as changed the atmosphere in Armenia: there has been a polarization of public opinion in the country. On the one hand, there has been growth of patriotic and nationalist sentiments, on the other hand, arguments of supporters of the agreement with Azerbaijan have become more notable, even despite the fact that the authorities have not yet answered them. There have always been supporters of strengthening the military and the Armenian army in the face of Azerbaijan's possible actions, and now their number has increased to some extent - but at the same time, there is a growing number of those who believe that dangers posed by worsening of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have made it impossible to count on preserving the status quo, hoping to fix it in an uncertain future as a recognized state. Those who promote dialogue with Azerbaijan are not in the majority in society, but they were not defeated. It would seem that if the confrontation becomes more acute, the possibility for public debate among supporters of the normalization of relations will be reduced, but it did not happen: their number did not reduce, and perhaps the position of dialogue is being promoted among the elite, despite the growth of patriotic and national sentiments.
Also, after the April 2016 Moscow's scheme of actions was evident. After the publication of data on Russia's deliveries of weapons to Azerbaijan in 2011-2012, there were assumptions that Moscow is ready that the conflict can be sharpened until local military operations. As a result of the April war, we must admit that it's true. It is clear that we do not know for sure how Moscow views its ability to control the situation in Karabakh, whether it really allows clashes, or is unable to intervene technically, based on the fact that local clashes take only a few days, while Russia's direct intervention is fraught with their expansion. In my opinion, Moscow allows local clashes, otherwise it simply would not sell weapons to Azerbaijan. There is another point of view, the fighting continues until there are negotiations between the presidents, as there is no other way to respond, except direct calls between the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia: it takes considerable time for Serzh Sargsyan to call Putin, who then call Ilham Aliyev for a cessation of hostilities. Despite all the modern communication, access to Moscow is not open enough for Yerevan to reach out the Kremlin directly.
I can explain my version by the fact that Putin is a politician of such scale, that it is unlikely that he would allow the aggravation in Karabakh and would certainly have intervened, because Russia has enough means of objective control in order to see and understand what is really going on. If Putin does not intervene, it means that Baku has a certain carte blanche for actions in the occupied regions of Karabakh to change the existing balance, to use new negotiating positions for building a dialogue with Yerevan. The fact that the liberation of a number of Azerbaijani territories has not led to changes at the level of negotiations is not so important, since we are talking about small steps, a combination of actions, the result of which we can see only a few years later. The main thing is Azerbaijan's success in these local battles and an increasing aggravation on the entire front line make public opinion in Armenia to accumulate reproaches of its military and political leadership, and the number of supporters of the idea of dialogue with Azerbaijan is expanding. This effect will be achieved only if Baku wins on the battlefield, which is fraught with very great loss of life on both sides. Modern communications allow public opinion to be at the forefront of developments, therefore, every Azerbaijan's success strongly influences it.
- Therefore, how dangerous is to delay and postpone negotiations, is there any threat of resumption of active hostilities to further change the status quo?
- With respect to forecasts on clashes, opinions are divided this year. Some believe that the pause after the conflict in April of last year will continue for most of this year. The number of victims of the last February clashes is still not comparable with April. The imbalance in the supply of Russian arms to parties to the conflict has partially decreased after appearance of tactical missile systems Iskander in Armenia, and it partially restrains Azerbaijan. It is not clear how long will be the pause before the next large-scale military operation, but it is clear that it will be filled with regular clashes, the work of reconnaissance and assault teams and snipers shooting. The negotiation process is not affected by it directly, it is changing only the political atmosphere, the mood of the leaders and the topic's inclusion in other issues of the Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan triangle, whose main theme lies in the plane of economic and business interests, focused on Russia. This theme, incidentally, supplements and periodically brings own changes in the course of interaction between the three countries. Many expect that the economic and trade cooperation in the triangle would make Russia to change the nature of the conflict, reducing its intensity and bringing the parties to a direct solution, but not yet. The opposite is taking place: the conflict is wedged in the current cooperation between Baku and Moscow, Yerevan and Moscow, being annoying, but Russia averts its eyes, apparently having some kind of strategy and monitoring the problem in more broader boundaries, giving Baku freedom of action locally.
- What can stimulate the transition from diplomatic meetings to implementation of specific steps, such as the liberation of the occupied territories around Karabakh and the return of refugees?
- Only a new combination of factors, combining global changes and strong internal motions, can stimulate it, some revolutionary situation on a global scale, when both the factors affecting the region from the outside, and those operating within countries are changing. As long as the negotiation process is still in the paradigm of 1994, which formed immediately after signing the Bishkek protocol on ceasefire. There are new aspects related to the emergence of new leaders, in particular President Vladimir Putin, and changing dispositions of different scale - but the overall scheme of 1994 is maintained. Some new understanding of how Russia can influence the parties intervened to the algorithm, we have witnessed it for last 6-7 years, and if you generalize, the main factor was still the fact that Azerbaijan strengthened economically. Its economic growth has changed the political balance of interests of other countries to Baku and its capacity to strengthen its positioning in the international arena to search for new leverages for bringing their interests to foreign players. It affects everything that was happening around Karabakh in recent years, including on the negotiation process, despite the fact that the situation has not changed radically.
- Azerbaijan has repeatedly stated that it is ready to fully restore the damaged occupied areas at its own expense if they are liberated, and the current restoration of the Jojug Marjanli village is the example. In your opinion, can this example stimulate the Minsk Group and the population of the occupied territories, proving them Baku's constructive approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
- The plan of "a great return", an economic recovery and reintegration of the lost territories was introduced for the first time in 2007-2008. Then the budget of this plan was impressive, in the range of $15 billion to $30 billion, depending on what economic strategy will be used for the reintegration and what enterprises Baku can deploy there. Back then the plan made a certain impression on intermediaries, but not Armenia. The high tone of mutual information campaign in Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other was a major deterrent: for common Armenians it is important to understand how strong is antagonism to them in the Azerbaijani society, but that plan cannot answer such question. It was clear that Azerbaijan is ready to invest in the restoration of the occupied territories after their de-occupation, the possibility of Armenian population living there was declared, but procedures, in particular, determining whether anyone will be prosecuted as a war criminal or an accomplice, were not outlined. These unanswered questions were actively used by the Armenian propaganda to prove - "Look, Azerbaijan does not change, it just wants to fill you with petrodollars." Following this throwing of propaganda arguments the plan was put aside.
After Azerbaijan started to restore the Jojug Marjanli village and allocated funds to build 50 houses and the road to it, the plan of recovery was remembered again, but there is still no certainty on how it will be applied to the Armenian population in these territories. Therefore, Azerbaijan has been not yet supported here. But this gap should be closed, and I think that the idea of a platform of dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia can be used as a channel for Baku's plans on the Armenians living in Karabakh and surrounding districts, and those scenarios which it will follow when recovering territories in practice. Thus, the economic program of revival of the occupied territories can bind to political declarations.
- Considering the latest large-scale clashes in February, how urgent is the problem of the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: the transition to the implementation of concrete steps, according to a particular scheme, or the resumption of the active phase of the war?
- A peaceful settlement and clashes are two sides of the same coin. It is a complex development using a variety of mechanisms, considering Azerbaijan's view on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There will be military operations, it is obvious now, but at the same time there will be development of an interactive platform, the expansion of economic programs and provision of a message to the population about methods of economic reconstruction in Karabakh. These are literally parallel processes. Once a new aggravation on the line of contact is over, a dialogue will be immediately revived. These lines are bred now to show that the military solution is not removed from the agenda, and always will be a factor of influence and pressure, while new civic and economic initiatives will increase.