Nagorno-Karabakh, The OSCE Minsk Group, And The Pressures Of Time And Space

As the dust settles on last year’s forty-four-day Nagorno-Karabakh War, questions have been raised over the purpose and value of the OSCE Minsk Group. Created in 1992 under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the group has sought to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. But the recent war, and continued failure to reach a resolution, has led to diplomatic statements discussing the group’s future. The discourse began with a somewhat provocative publication by Richard Hoagland, former United States Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, on the website of the International Conflict Resolution Center. In it, he describes the deeply entrenched positions of Yerevan and Baku and how he privately reached the conclusion that “only a war would finally settle the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh.”Azerbaijan and Armenia hold seemingly irreconcilable views on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and thus, on purpose of the Minsk Group. On March 31st, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev addressed the Informal Summit of the Turkic Council and blamed the Minsk Group for last autumn’s conflict. He argued that since its creation, “the result of the Minsk Group was equal to zero.” In his view, “steps were taken to freeze the issue,” when the correct course of action would have been to place serious pressure and sanctions on Armenia in response to Baku’s demands. Armenia, meanwhile, has maintained that “a final political solution to the conflict is possible only within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship,” as Foreign Minister Ara Ayvazyan put it on March 16th. 

The Minsk Group is headed by three co-chairs, representing France, the United States, and Russia. But in this troika, Moscow is preeminent. Indeed, Hoagland has argued that while the Minsk Group treats the conflict as a bilateral issue, it is in fact trilateral with Russia playing a key and potentially decisive role. Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the frozen conflicts strewn across post-Soviet Eurasia which Moscow has thus far chosen not to solve, despite a clear capacity to do so. Although each conflict is nuanced, the unifying theme in Moscow’s analysis is that these territorial disputes keep its neighbours within its sphere of influence and unable to seek new partners. Hoagland references an exchange with his “excellent colleague” Ambassador Igor Popov, the Russian Co-Chair of the Minsk Group, on the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s proposal to resolve the conflict. The American asked whether the Kremlin would implement the plan if Yerevan and Baku managed to accept; the Russian responded “of course not.” There is perhaps, therefore, some credibility to Aliyev’s claims that the Minsk Group is not wholly focused on finding a resolution. When Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko responded to Aliyev’s recent claims, he predictably insisted that the Minsk Group should play a “leading role” in reaching a settlement.

However, Baku’s position on the future of the Minsk Group equally hides an ulterior motivation. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict tends to be treated in spatial terms: internal displacement, control of territory, and spheres of influence. But perhaps the most pressing issue is time: Azerbaijan’s oil reserves are dwindling, and with them the country’s military dominance over its resource-poorer neighbour. For this reason, Nagorno-Karabakh is arguably the least ‘frozen’ of the frozen conflicts. It is estimated that Azerbaijan has less than thirty years of oil dependency left, and many believe that the currently well-funded army may never be as strong again. Viewed in this light, the Minsk Group’s primary role cannot be seeking a resolution, but preventing another devastating war through international oversight and mediation mechanisms.

Richard Hoagland concluded his piece with the thought that the Minsk Group needs to redefine its mission or risk continuing “as an intriguing backwater of international diplomacy.” Its mission, while officially defined at the 1992 Conference which birthed it, has in practice been interpreted differently by the three most relevant participants: Yerevan, Baku, and Moscow. But contrary to the other post-Soviet frozen conflicts―Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine―Nagorno-Karabakh seems scheduled to thaw imminently. The Minsk Group will therefore have a role in conflict prevention before it can think seriously of a permanent resolution. Its purpose and value may be defined for it by Azerbaijan’s temporal pressures, but its chance of success will be defined by Russia’s spatial considerations.

Isaac Evans