Expert argues conflict status quo is fragile and threatened
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Friday April 17, 2009
Tom de Waal at CSIS in Washington in May 2007. Armenian Reporter
Washington, - A program associate for UK-based Conciliation Resources (CR), Tom de Waal is the author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, the only comprehensive study of the Karabakh conflict available in English. For several years CR has been implementing Track 2 initiatives seeking to establish mutual confidence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
On March 10 de Waal gave a phone interview to Armenian Reporter Washington editor Emil Sanamyan about his recently released paper, "The Karabakh Trap: Dangers and dilemmas of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict," a draft of which he presented in Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan prior to the paper's release in early 2009. De Waal last spoke with the Armenian Reporter in May 2007.
Why challenge the status quo?
Armenian Reporter: Your long-held view has been that the current status quo in Karabakh is bad. It also seems to be the central bias of the "Karabakh Trap" paper. Fundamentally, why shouldn't this status quo - with its very limited level of violence for almost 15 years - be cemented and made to last?
Tom de Waal: This is the main line of criticism you hear on the Armenian side: that Karabakh is building up its statehood and no one really wants a war.
I think it is possible that you will see this status quo continue. But a number of reasons make this a dangerous assumption.
First, the cease-fire is based on the good will of the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. And if one side - and we are basically talking about the Azerbaijani side - wants to make things worse, to escalate the level of firepower used across the cease-fire line to increase the number of casualties, they can. And there is nothing that could stop it.
The second point that is not properly appreciated by the Armenian side is that while Karabakh may be de-facto lost to Azerbaijan, and I think some people in Azerbaijan may accept that, it is absolutely unacceptable that the [districts] occupied by Armenian forces outside Karabakh could remain under Armenian control. With the exception of Lachin, [these districts] are totally destroyed and empty, and that is a daily insult to Azerbaijan that these territories are lying empty and in ruins.
If in a place like Cyprus, the matter may be just normalizing the status quo [between Cyprus proper and Turkish-occupied northern third] and building bridges across it, in Karabakh, the factor of the occupied territories and the cease-fire line make things much more unstable.
Additionally, there is the international cost for Armenia diplomatically. It is hard to justify maintaining the occupied territories and this gets condemned in international forums, in resolutions. And obviously there are economic costs for Armenia as well, although those have been mitigated in recent years.
But I believe these are enough reasons and that the status quo needs to change.
Reporter: Overall, you seem to be optimistic as to where Azerbaijan is headed economically and politically and pessimistic vis-à-vis Armenia. There is no mention of the impact of falling oil prices, for example.
de Waal: One might indeed get that sense [from the "Karabakh Trap" paper] - that Azerbaijan is booming and that Armenia is in crisis. But if readers take a closer look, I do note that Azerbaijan's boom will be relatively short-lived, that there is no evidence that they will be using the money wisely, and generally I am skeptical that this boom will be of long-term benefit to Azerbaijan.
And yes, falling oil prices do impact Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijan being a small country, the billions [of dollars] that it will get [from energy sales regardless of price] will still be significant.
And Armenia has had very impressive growth in last 10 years, but everyone accepts that that now is coming to an end [with the effects of the global economic crisis].
Reporter: You do not mention the difference in political systems in Armenia and Azerbaijan. If Armenia has a problematic system, it is at least competitive politically. No political competition is apparent in Azerbaijan. Do you see that as an asset or a risk for Azerbaijan?
de Waal: Azerbaijan is indeed a rigid political system. There is lot more debate in Armenia, in Yerevan. And much less debate in Baku - or Stepanakert for that matter. But at the same time, there is broad consensus in Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue and it is difficult to break that consensus.
Reporter: You were criticized rather harshly by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's Foreign Ministry that your paper had a pro-Azerbaijan bias and even amounted to "war-mongering."
de Waal: This was very unfortunate and I think an irrational reaction. This may be a symptom of a bunker mentality when everything is viewed through a very narrow perspective and this is exacerbated by Karabakh being sidelined from the peace process. I have to note that I have always been a proponent of Karabakh's participation in talks and in decisions that are being made about Karabakh.
Who wants war?
Reporter: You make the argument that the Azerbaijani public is supportive of or even impatient for a war in Karabakh. It seems the events in Georgia last year showed that the vast majority of the public, while rhetorically supportive, when it came to the actual fighting remained on the sidelines. Even though the war in South Ossetia was taking place just a two-hour drive from Tbilisi, there were very few volunteers.
de Waal: I would say that the temperature is higher on the Karabakh issue because there is this feeling in Azerbaijan that they are now a force to be reckoned with in the world and that "we should not bear this humiliation much longer."
What they will do about that is a different issue. It may be limited to things like United Nations resolutions and international courts, trying to drag Armenia through them whether they have any success or not.
But like in Georgia, having spent all this money on weapons, in Azerbaijan there is a risk of the government talking themselves into a war, even if they do not consider it a good idea strategically.
This is what I am trying to highlight in the paper. That there is this rising expectation in Azerbaijan, not very well articulated, not necessarily very rational, but one that may have its own logic.
Reporter: What about the role that Russia could potentially play in any new military confrontation. After Georgia, it seems that, should there be a new conflagration over Karabakh, the threat of Russia coming in to secure the Azerbaijani oil fields, for example, cannot be discounted.
de Waal: I did begin the paper before the August war, so perhaps that was the reason [that experience was not reflected in the paper sufficiently]. But my sense is that Russia has a weaker hand in the Caucasus than most people think. And the Americans do as well for that matter.
I do believe that Russians would try to do everything in their power to prevent the war from getting started and not to be dragged into it, considering that Russia and Armenia have allied relations.
Looking for a way forward
Reporter: Has there been much feedback on the paper's main recommendation - about changing the hostile official rhetoric on both sides?
de Waal: There has not been much feedback. Perhaps what I am suggesting is not doing something bigger or grander, but rather a slow recovery. And that [lack of interest] perhaps does reinforce the impression that everyone is more or less happy with the status quo. If great powers wanted to solve this conflict, they could solve it [and they have not].
Reporter: Do you see a scenario where there is one regional hegemon in the Caucasus that clamps down and resolves conflict, as happened in the past?
de Waal: I don't see one hegemon emerging in the Caucasus, no. The scenario that I could see is that if the U.S. and Russia both make [a Karabakh settlement] a strategic priority, then it could get solved.
And even then, it would be hard. I hear from [Western diplomats] in the region that it is an unpleasant thing to push [Armenians and Azerbaijanis] to compromise. They don't like it because this is an issue of national identity for them. And they have many other agendas with them, and these agendas - energy, security, etc. - could be undermined [if the countries are pushed too hard].
Reporter: Last year, there were a couple of initiatives by OSCE mediators regarding cease-fire strengthening: earlier in the year, reaffirmation of the 1995 agreement on cease-fire violations; and late in the year, the call for the sides to pull back snipers. Do you know if that progressed to implementation at all?
de Waal: They made a big push on the issue of snipers on the cease-fire line at the Helsinki ministerial, but I don't think they got much of a positive response. And that is on a seemingly non-controversial issue such as snipers. It is hard to justify the need for snipers on cease-fire line.
I do think this shows the weakness of the [mediators'] mandate and that generally the situation in terms of casualties could deteriorate relatively easily with sides, say, beginning to use mortars regularly without even any big offensive across the cease-fire line.
The order of settlement
Reporter: Certainly the situation could deteriorate at any time, but there are also certain things holding Azerbaijan back from an escalation. One of these factors seems to be the current geography of the conflict that helps keep the relative balance of forces in place.
Should this geography be altered via Armenian pull-outs in exchange for some kind of temporary arrangements for Karabakh, without a final settlement - as is being suggested in the so-called Madrid Principles - wouldn't that make the risk of escalation more pronounced?
de Waal: Well, in the Arab-Israeli conflict too you had the Oslo process with its temporary status and withdrawals that eventually broke down. So that argument does make sense. But that also reinforces the need for peacekeeping forces and demilitarization of occupied territories.
Reporter: And what if the order of settlement is put in reverse: there is recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh but conditional on withdrawal of its forces from all or most of adjacent territories. Could that make the process less risky and more predictable for everyone?
de Waal: If that were accepted on the Azerbaijani side - to give up on Nagorno-Karabakh - this conflict could have been solved in 1988. But Karabakh still has meaning in Azerbaijan that makes it impossible for Azerbaijan to give up [its claim] de jure.
So, I think for the Armenian side rather than seeking a de jure status, the priority should be improving the de-facto status of Karabakh.