The Heads of Armenia and Azerbaijan meet…and very little happens

Knowing the vitriol that is generally associated with this topic and having lived with an Armenian and Azerbaijani at the same time, having to act much like a diplomat of the Minsk group all the time, I would like to take this opportunity at the beginning of this article to state one thing. If I put Armenia before Azerbaijan, I am not making a political statement in support of Armenia, to the detriment of Azerbaijan. It is simply that the last time I looked Ar comes before Az in the English language alphabet and so I follow the alphabet rule. In this article I try to be neutral and to provide the facts. This done, let us begin.


On the 19th November the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met In Vienna to talk about trying to resolve the frozen conflict between both sides and the region (plus seven further regions) of Nagorno-Karabakh. The personal meeting of the Armenian president (Serzh Sargasyan) and his Azerbaijani counterpart (Ilham Aliyev) did not under in acrimony, but rather appeared to end cordially. However, neither man gave a press conference or spoke on what had been discussed at the personal meeting. All that was said was Sargasyan’s response to a question by an journalist has to how effective the talks had been. His response was a monosyllabic “normal”. The meeting was held in Vienna and chaired by the Minsk Group. This group under the auspices of the OSCE consists of France, Russia, the United States and the two conflicting states (Armenia and Azerbaijan). It was a dialogue brought about by American insistence to try and bring the frozen conflict to a satisfactory conclusion in this strategically important region.


John Kerry had discussed this pressing issue with the Turkish foreign minister (Ahmet Davatoglu) to ascertain Turkey’s solution to the problem before gauging the ideas of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Sergei Lavrov (Russia’s foreign minister) had also been in talks with John Kerry and both agreed on a concerted effort to solve the issue. After the closed one on one meeting between Sargasyan and Aliyev, there was an open meeting between the presidents and the diplomats of the Minsk group. Although very little was formally discussed both sides to the conflict were able to state that the Minsk group would be allowed to arrange a meeting of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers in Kiev in the near future. It is somewhat strange that America which had vociferous in trying to arrange a meeting and had brought negotiators together had not offered even a modicum of a proposal for a future peace plan. Bearing in mind that Saragasyan and Ilyiev had only last spoken two years ago in Sochi the fact that they were able to sit down and discuss this highly contentious issue and even agree to follow up on possible dialogue. This at least will allow America, France and Russia time to start to formulate a proposal for a peace settlement.


However, there are a number of reasons as to why this conflict has been frozen for 19 years so far and is unlikely to thaw on its 20th anniversary. The first issue is that Armenia has continually ignored UN resolutions 822 and 853 for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the conflict zone and the territory outside of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces still occupy.  Armenia’s answer to this is not the rejection of the resolutions, but the incredulous answer that Armenian forces are not there and Armenia does not finance the Nagorno-Karabakh government (NKG). Certainly, the Armenian government does not fund this entity openly. But Diaspora remittances to the tune of about $250 million (over the last 4 years) are funnelled to the NKG in Stepanakert. Nagorno-Karabakh’s economy has rapidly grown to a GDP of $320 million and a GDP (PPP) $1.6 billion. But, due to Azerbaijan’s strenuous economic blockade it is an economy almost totally faced towards Armenia. Its economy is based on agriculture and natural resources, both of which are staples of the Armenian economy. Armenian companies have a near total stranglehold over employment and investment in Nagorno-Karabakh. On top of all this Armenia, has given about $30 million a year since 2009 in aid to the NKG.  Next is the concept of Armenian armed forces. I am fortunate to have a number of Armenian friends. Having spoken with them I have come to the conclusion that at least some Armenian men on compulsory national service appear to have got lost and ended up on the ‘border’ between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.  Whilst, data is difficult to come by, as the Armenian government routinely fails to provide figures to monitor, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has seen a rapid rise in Armenian defence spending of which a significant amount goes on the defence of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although Armenia’s new defence systems are not in Nagorno-Karabakh they line the border allowing for rapid deployment into Nagorno-Karabakh. Roads are repeatedly re-laid from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh to make the swift travel of tanks easy. However, it is not just Armenia that is rapidly escalating its armed forces.


Compared to Azerbaijan whose government increased its military spending by 89% in 2011, Armenia’s 10% increase in the same year is somewhat puny. The Azerbaijani government has stated that it wants a modern heavily mechanised army by 2016. To this end it has arranged arms deals with states like Israel, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa and Turkey to produce modern equipment. There is very little peaceful use for such a rapid technological build-up and in this regard it is somewhat understandable that Armenia is also re-invigorating its own armed forces and those of the NKG. Both sides are ignoring the OSCE non-proliferation embargo claiming that the re-armament is merely for defensive reasons. It is the only thing it seems that the two governments can agree on.


One must also remember that like Aliyev who is a member of the ‘Nakichevan clan’, Sargasyan was the chosen successor of Robert Kocharian and like his mentor he is a part of the so-called ‘Artsakh clan’. Artsakh is the name given by Armenia to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which according to Armenian folklore is the founding territory of the Armenian empire and thus modern day Armenia. This is a common refrain among Armenians, that they are protecting the ‘fountain’ of their civilisation. Another common refrain is that this is a self-determination issue. The majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh are ethnic Armenian who want to join Armenia and feel victimised in Azerbaijan. Regardless of whether that majority Armenian population only came to the region in the nineteenth century, it still constitutes the majority. Yet self-determination under international law only adheres to people without an existing state.


By intervening militarily Armenia has undermined Azerbaijani state sovereignty. This is the most important aspect of international law and so Armenia suffers from this accordingly. However as the regime is closely affiliated to the armed forces who beat Azerbaijan and the mantra of a nation forged in war is often pronounced by Armenian new services the populace are also dead set against finding a solution. As a friend once told me “isolation is better than giving back one centimetre of our homeland”. This intransigence across Armenian society makes locating a solution even harder This is not helped by the Azerbaijan’s regimes comments on the issue. At a Security Council meeting of the UN in May, Aliyev had called the Armenian government terrorists and that what had occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh a genocide which was worse than the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915 and was the second one (1905) perpetrated by Armenians against Azerbaijan. Aliyev went on to claim that the Armenian government was a supporter and financier of international terrorism, as well as drug trafficking, money laundering and illegally supplying arms.


Like the Armenian populace, Azerbaijanis have a view of the world based on Nagorno-Karabakh. But theirs is one of the great injustice of losing it. I remember whilst teaching a conflict resolution course at a summer school in Austria. Some of the students were Azerbaijani. Each group had to do a presentation of 10 minutes on the last day to pass the course. Suffice it to say the Azerbaijani students grouped together and did their presentation on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 45 minutes later the group’s diatribe had found a solution to the conflict which required that UN peacekeepers disarm the Armenian army and keep them at bay, whilst Azerbaijani forces re-took Nagorno-Karabakh and continued into Armenia proper taking the region of Guymri to link Nakhichevan with the rest of Azerbaijan. The Armenian populace in Nagorno-Karabakh would be forcibly moved to Armenia and if they refused well…. Although this is of course an instance of student bravado, certainly Azerbaijanis feel the sense of victimisation very strongly and do not countenance anything, but total reversal to the current situation. They have grown disaffected by the UN’s failure to pass a new resolution to the conflict in their favour and see the only viable resolution to the conflict, with yet more armed clashes.


If anyone regularly reads Armenpress, Artsakh Armenpress and the Azerbaijan State Telegraph Agency (yes I admit it I do) then you will know that each week all three sides waste much paper and resources of the internet accusing each other of violating the ceasefire. For instance the Artsakh Armenpress accused the Azerbaijan army on November 9th of managing to violate the line of contact over 250 times in a 6 day period (3-9 November). On the 11th November Azerbaijan press services shot back that they would make a complaint to the UN, OSCE and Council of Europe that Armenia kept violating the line of contact and attacking Azerbaijani villages. It is a discourse that is not helped by Russia. On November 1st the Russian commander of the 102nd division which is based in Armenia announced that should Armenia and Azerbaijan return to a state of war, Russian forces would engage Azerbaijan on behalf of Armenia. This is significant. Before anyone from the Russian establishment had shied from saying that Russian forces would fight Azerbaijan regardless of who acted first. Before it had always been, ‘Russia will not act unless Armenia is attacked’. On the 19th November Putin proclaimed that he wanted to incorporate the states of the Customs Union into a missile defence system. This would involve Russian interceptor rockets in the other Custom Union Member states. Armenia as a Member state of the Customs Union would therefore be protected from the new Azerbaijani rockets that the regime in Baku has just bought. Similarly, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This means that on paper at least, should Armenia be attacked an attack on Armenia would be considered to be an attack on the other CSTO Members (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan). Azerbaijan which is a member of no regional security organisation would have to rely on negotiating support from allies like Pakistan and Turkey.


The Armenian government therefore feels it is negotiating from a position of strength and so is unlikely to choose dialogue for a long time. By the same token Azerbaijan which feels it has lost everything is unlikely to negotiate unless it was in a position of strength. It is unlikely that the Minsk group will be able to get the parties to willingly negotiate, especially if Russia keeps backing the Armenian regime. It is therefore highly likely that the mountainous ice republic between the Muslim and Christian worlds will remain frozen for a good while yet.

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Categories: International politics, Opinion


I am a political scientist. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge and a Visiting Professor at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg. My research is on authoritarian regimes, especially in the post-Soviet space. Thank you for reading the blog, I hope you enjoy...

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