Artsakh issues : Diplomatic perspectives and sobering thoughts

Artsakh Nagorno Karabakh Stepanakert Shushi Artsakh Nagorno Karabakh Stepanakert Shushi image pictureIt is well understood that the UK government has significant connections with Azerbaijan through the British Petroleum company and many years of investment in the oil industry in Baku, and therefore has a strong bias towards protecting that alliance. This inevitably means that diplomacy around the issues with Artsakh is particularly difficult in London. I took the opportunity to meet with Ara Margarian, the Charge d’Affaire for the Armenian Embassy in the UK, to discuss this, and other related diplomatic issues.

It came as no surprise that the UK government has no direct involvement in any issues to do with the resolution of the conflict in Artsakh, and any direct questioning just results in political platitudes around supporting the established peace process. However, the last debate in the House of Commons ( elected chamber in the UK Parliament) prior to Christmas 2012 was on the subject of Azerbaijan. Mr Margarian commented:

“It was not encouraging for Azerbaijan. Despite their lobbyists and friends who are influenced by petrol dollars, and other gifts, the discussion was very critical of Azerbaijan….it is an important ally and an important player for Europe’s energy independence but at the same time they understood that a “blind eye” was being turned to developments in democracy and the horrible situation with human rights – at times even your Government cannot help but criticise Azerbaijan….but in general there is a visible bias towards Azerbaijan”

In the UK Parliament, there is the British-Armenian All-Party Parliamentary Group whose prime objective is to promote relations between the 2 countries, and to give some balance to the inherent pro-Azeri bias. This group is comprised of 20 Members of Parliament and 5 representatives from the House of Lords and is chaired by Baroness Cox – a well-known friend, champion and advocate of Artsakh.

Our discussion moved on to the Safarov affair from 2012 and he provided an interesting perspective. He saw that it was a “clever move by Aliyev” – but that was not meant as a compliment more a comment on its multi-faceted objectives. The prime driver for his actions, Margarian felt, was “ .. to test the mood of the international community in case of war”. The other objectives, he speculated, were to boost popularity internally, and to provoke Armenia.

But there was a transparent message for Aliyev:

“Safarov’s pardon clearly told him that the international community would not accept that, and all of the countries involved basically criticised that move, …so if it was that harsh in the case of Safarov’s release then if they become the one that starts the war then it’s going to be quite tough for them”

I then moved onto the subject of Stepanakert airport and the policy by Azerbaijan to shoot down civilian planes that attempt to fly in to it. His response was forthright:

“It’s unacceptable to keep people in a blockade for that time and it’s the right of the people of Karabakh to have their chosen means of transportation” and it is “…an inalienable right of the people of Karabakh to have freedom of movement”

He explored the comparison with Kosovo, where Serbia does not accept its independence and it still considers Kosovo to be its sovereign territory.

“Kosovo is recognised by a few countries, but not by Serbia…but Serbia does not try to shoot down all the planes that fly into Pristina. This is the difference between a civilised way of handling the situation and a brutal dictatorial way”

We then turned to the key subject of the recognition of Artsakh, and the final path towards peace in the area. The UK’s motivation was simple to understand.

“Your Government is very interested in peace and stability in the region because the first thing to be in danger will be the oil supply where you have invested all these billions which is a direct threat to the British economic interest”

Artsakh Nagorno Karabakh Stepanakert Shushi Artsakh Nagorno Karabakh Stepanakert Shushi image picture

The UK has to walk the delicate tightrope between not losing the source of the oil from Baku, or the means of transportation which passes close to Artsakh; an inevitable strategic target if there was war.

Mr Margarian confirmed that the route to Artsakh’s recognition was by having another referendum ; the last one being in 1991. The only block to this happening is that Azerbaijan will not agree to it without the return of the 7 outlying territories; an impossible impasse given the status of these regions as being Artsakh’s guarantee for its future. He described, bluntly, the conditions of the referendum and the notion of a “package deal”:

“ You (Azerbaijan) give us the date of the referendum, we give you the territories back. By that date , the referendum is conducted, and the outcome is final. Every single clause in the agreement has to have the backing of the international community – serious backing from the major powers. EU, Russia and the United States, and they are the ones that have to be the guarantors.”

“It has to be a compromise deal. Compromise means giving up something that you like , but that giving it up is painful – I think that, God willing, when we come to that point, and there is an agreement reached, and we have to make painful concessions regarding our position…maybe Kashatagh could be that painful loss for us?”

These concessions would be in the context of a preserved Lachin Corridor and a de-militarised zone between Artsakh and Armenia. This approach is based around the Madrid Principles and the exact outcome is in the hands of the appointed negotiators. It is difficult to see how the people of Artsakh would ever trust having Azeri controlled territory between them and Armenia – this may have some sound negotiating logic but is not considerate of the natural anxieties of the people of Artsakh.

I had always been intrigued as to why Armenia didn’t recognise Artsakh as that seemed to be quite anomalous. Mr Margarian explained how this position was important to ensure the continuation of the bilateral negotiations.

“Since we are negotiating the status of Karabakh, with Azerbaijan – if we recognise Karabakh then it means that we have to stop negotiations because if we recognise Karabakh there is nothing for us to discuss. There is no logic”

“If we (Armenia) recognise, then we will condemn Artsakh to be never recognised”

The delicate links between a referendum, compromises, and lasting peace for Artsakh are intertwined with Armenia’s status in the negotiations, and no one part of this complex jigsaw can be moved without calculating the many possible outcomes. Mr Margarian’s last comment to me on the impact of Armenia recognising Artsakh was profoundly thought-provoking, and very concerning:

“In that case (Armenia recognising Artsakh) then that is the end of the peace talks, and the end of any hopes that the international community can one day be more constructively engaged in the process, and it means that ….basically it’s war – to determine the final winner.”

A sobering thought!

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Categories: Artsakh in the World

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