March 29, 2014

Crimea and Karabakh

Crimea and Karabakh -

By Thomas De Waal

 

 

The repercussions of the Russian takeover of Crimea continue to cascade across the post-Soviet space.

President Vladimir Putin's move has re-opened the Pandora's Box of sovereignty disputes that spread conflict across the region in the 1990s. In the Caucasus, the protagonists are now re-assessing what this means for the unresolved conflicts of that era.

The spokesman for the president of Abkhazia has said that there is no question of joining the Russian Federation. Others in Abkhazia—specifically Russians and some Armenians—may disagree.

It is not a good moment to stir up Nagorny Karabakh, the oldest and biggest of the conflicts. The spring thaw in the mountains often causes breaches in the ceasefire—and, sad to say, two Armenian soldiers have been reported killed in the past week.

Over the years Russia has had several agendas and changing roles in Karabakh, from active meddling during the conflict and negotiating the 1994 ceasefire to a long period of fairly harmonious cooperation with the other two mediators in the OSCE Minsk Group, France and the United States, since 1998.

Has this changed? The Minsk Group will probably survive—indeed the French and U.S. co-chairs just traveled to Moscow. But its ability to deliver a peace settlement now looks even more diminished and Vladimir Putin's calculus on Karabakh is likely to be different from what it was a few months ago, as it is on everything else in his "near abroad."

As soon as the Crimea crisis struck, both Armenia and Azerbaijan immediately hardened their positions on the conflict. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan called Putin and gave him a half measure of support—although even that was enough for Ukraine to recall its ambassador from Yerevan. Sargsyan supported the first half of the maneuver, the Crimean referendum, but said nothing about Russia's right of annexation.

By doing so he reaffirmed Armenia's position on Karabakh—that the Karabakh Armenians have a right of secession by referendum.

It is no secret that Azerbaijan sympathizes with Ukraine in this crisis. But it has mostly keep silent, not wanting to offend Russia without good reason. President Ilham Aliyev did however issue an unusually aggressive speech on the Karabakh issue on the occasion of the Novruz holiday, saying that not just Karabakh but also parts of Armenia were "ancient Azerbaijani land."

The two presidents were both at the Hague nuclear summit this week. They met the mediators but not each other. If they had more strategic vision, they could see the Crimea crisis as an opportunity to reach out to each other and try to resolve their differences over Karabakh together, rather than allow themselves to be manipulated by a new agenda set by outside powers. But there is so little trust between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and so little evidence of any willingness to build any, that it is much more likely that Crimea will end up being one more barrier to peace.

CARNEGIE MOSCOW CENTER

         
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