Last month Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev came to Kazan, a Russian city lying on the Volga River, to negotiate under the auspices of the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conﬂict.
Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, diﬀerent representatives of the international community have been making attempts to mediate this conﬂict. Before that, or at least until Gorbachev’s perestroika, the conﬂict over Nagorno-Karabakh was latent, although it did exist even at that point; in fact, when the Bolsheviks came into power, the region was already quite troubled. When faced at the beginning of their rule with the task of organising the administrative-territorial structure, the Soviet leaders had several options for Nagorno-Karabakh, a region, populated primarily by Armenians, but surrounded by Azerbaijani territories: a) assign it to the Azerbaijan SSR b) assign it to the Armenian SSR c) grant it autonomy (from both of those SSRs).
Tatiana Rudneva recently graduated from Moscow State Linguistic University with a degree in Political Science and specialises in post-Soviet conﬂicts. Her current research interests are security studies, minority issues, ethnic conﬂicts and conﬂict resolution.
It is worth noting that in the Soviet Union, there had never existed a fundamental principle on which the administrative-territorial division was based. Beside rather obvious territorial, economic and ethnic factors, the decision-makers were often guided by various other reasons, which in some cases motivated them to completely ignore certain traditional borders or to create artiﬁcial ones. As long as these were internal borders, it did not really matter, and, if it oﬀers any kind of explanation as to the Soviet leaders’ rationale for their decisions, the implications of certain territorial arrangements in the case of the country’s untimely demise, are indeed not something politicians usually consider when making those arrangements. Be that as it may, what once had been internal borders in a country of ‘fraternal’ peoples turned to sources of interethnic conﬂict after the country collapsed.
The conﬂict in Nagorno-Karabakh followed practically the same scenario. Under the Soviet rule, for reasons more speculated than actually known and to the Armenians’ great displeasure Nagorno-Karabakh became a part of the Azerbaijan SSR. Since it was utterly and completely Moscow’s decision, all that Armenians could do was try to make a special point of their dissatisfaction to Moscow, which in its turn made a point of ignoring it. With the begin of Gorbachev’s era of Glasnost, which introduced much greater freedom of expression, the Armenian rhetoric became louder and ﬁercer, causing the conﬂict to escalate.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, a wave of independence declarations swept over the territory of the former USSR. Whilst most of the newly established states were celebrating their not being a part of the USSR and having nothing to do with Russia any more, Nagorno-Karabakh was declaring its independence from Azerbaijan. With no Moscow as a deterrent power, nothing could stop the two enemies from ﬁnally clashing, and the conﬂict soon escalated into a full-blown war.
As it was no longer an internal conﬂict within the USSR borders, other members of international community could act as mediators now, which they had not been able to do before. There have been quite a few attempts to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conﬂict since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with the most successful one resulting in a rather long-lasting cease-ﬁre. But after that, negotiations reached an impasse.
The main method that has been used to try to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conﬂict is a quite customary method of mediation, when a third party acts as a mediator between the disputants. It is usually rather arguable whether the disputing parties are incapable of negotiating a settlement by themselves, but in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh that the two warring parties would initiate direct negotiations was indeed extremely unlikely. Azerbaijan has been clearly unwilling to hold negotiations with Karabakh Armenians because doing so would mean admitting that Nagorno-Karabakh constitutes a separate entity capable of acting as a negotiating party. Armenia, in its turn, fears that negotiating from the position of the second party in a two-party dispute may get it bogged down in a conﬂict in which it is not directly involved. In such circumstances, the mediation eﬀorts are indeed well-founded and justiﬁed. But if so, why are they getting nowhere?
Scholars tend to accentuate the following problems that may have hampered the overall conﬂict resolution process: third parties are supposed to be impartial, but most of the actors are in fact motivated by their own interests and do not do try to mediate a conﬂict just for the sake of it. It is not necessarily a problem if a third party is still interested in resolving the conﬂict (even if it is motivated by, for example, its own safety) in general, and not in favour of either of the conﬂicting parties. Since Nagorno-Karabakh is situated in a rather important from the geopolitical perspective region of Caucasus, lots of states could do with gaining more inﬂuence in the region. That said, the degree of motivation and commitment between them diﬀered dramatically and some had only half a mind to act as mediators, which resulted in a high degree of ‘third party’ turnover. Thus, the eﬀorts to mediate the conﬂict were far from coherent. In addition, the abundance of mediators crippled their usual leverage for pushing the disputants towards a (proposed) agreement: the disputants are less inclined to turn down a settlement proposal if they realise that another opportunity to settle the dispute may not present itself in the near future, but with a wide selection of mediators and multiple proposals advocated by them, the disputants were able to reject those proposals quite painlessly (Betts 1999).
Whilst these arguments are surely not devoid of sense and these problems could indeed have undermined the eﬃciency of the mediating process, it is worth noting that a long-lasting ceaseﬁre was achieved despite the aforementioned ﬂaws, and all that the mediators have achieved after overcoming the ﬂaws is a stalemate.
There are certain traditionally accepted preconditions for holding successful negotiations in such circumstances: (i) the stalemate should be ‘mutually hurting’ (ii) the disputants should realise that a zero-sum outcome is not the only possible one.
The concept of a mutually hurting stalemate was initially proposed by Zartman (1985, 2000). The idea behind this concept is that the conﬂicting parties are ready for a negotiated settlement when a peace settlement is a better option than continuing the conﬂict; for example, when the disputing parties are waging a costly war at which neither side seems to preponderate. Unfortunately, it is very unclear what constitutes a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ after the violence has ceased: both sides accept the status quo and neither wants to change it unless in its own favour, and such a situation may continue for quite a long time. Still, the ending of direct violence does not represent the end of the conﬂict. As the root cause of conﬂict, a source which had led to violence in the ﬁrst place, is not eliminated, violence may return. Thus, it may be inexcusable to stop all mediating eﬀorts until the right moment of mutually hurting stalemate, which may in fact come and go unnoticed. At the same time, it is rather arguable whether the mediators can deliberately create the right moment by convincing the disputants of a hurting stalemate (see Druckman 1986), and, even more importantly, whether it is safe to do so.
Another goal for mediators beside either ﬁnding or creating the right moment for negotiations is to convince the disputants to adopt a positive-sum (where the parties can reach a mutually agreeable consensus) rather than a zero-sum approach (where one party gains only if the other loses).
Here it is important to realise that the conﬂict over Nagorno-Karabakh is one of those centuries-long disputes over who was the ﬁrst to occupy the territory. Because all of the parties in such conﬂicts want no less than for historical justice to be served, the confrontation between them may drag on for generations as ideological battles replace armed ones when a bunch of historians from both sides, driven by what appears to be an irrepressible sense of patriotism, manipulate historical facts to the point of absurdity in another futile attempt to answer this ever-important question of who indeed was the ﬁrst.
Remarkably, the answer to this question, if ever found, will be of no practical consequene anyway because changing the existing borders in accordance to where they used to be hundreds or even thousands years ago would mean redrawing the whole world map, which is both impossible and unreasonable. Nevertheless, although there is nothing in the international law suggesting that matters of distant past are to be taken into account (nor that they should be completely ignored either, it if comes to that), there are still the two conﬂicting principles of territorial integrity and the right to self-determination, which represent basically the same dispute between those who want things as they used to be an inordinate number of years ago and those who want things remain as they are.
Although there is no panacea solution, even for such cases there is a number of possible compomise-based solutions which include power-sharing agreements, autonomies, federalism, consociationalism etc (see Ramsbotham et al. 2005). In the case of Kosovo, the international community even went so far as to recognise Kosovo’s independence. The question is: do these ‘solutions’, even if they are negotiated, accepted and implemented, put an end to a conﬂict? Do they ever?
Last month Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev came to Kazan, a Russian city lying on the Volga River, to negotiate under the auspices of the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conﬂict. But they never did.
Betts, W.: 1999, Third Party Mediation: An Obstacle to Peace in Nagorno Karabakh, SAIS Review pp. 161–183.
Druckman, D.: 1986, Four cases of conﬂict management: lessons learned, in D. Behdamane and J. MacDonald (eds), Perspectives on Negotiation: Four Case Studies and Interpretations, Centre for the Study of Foreign Aﬀairs, Washington, DC.
Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T. and Miall, H.: 2005, Contemporary conﬂict resolution, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Zartman, I.: 1985, Ripe for Resolution: Conﬂict and Intervention in Africa, Oxford University Press, New York.
Zartman, I.: 2000, Ripeness: The Hurting Stalemate and Beyond, in P. Stern and D. Druckman (eds), International Conﬂict Resolution after the Cold War, National Academy Press, Washington.