Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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The Caucasus Imperative

YEREVAN – Summit season is upon us. Following the G-20 meetings in Seoul and the NATO summit in Portugal, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will hold its first summit in 10 years in Astana, Kazakhstan’s spanking new capital city.

This is only the fourth post-Cold War summit convened by the OSCE. The first was held in 1994 in Budapest, the year the group transformed itself into a new, post-détente organization. There were two more, in Lisbon in 1996 and in Istanbul in 1999.

Not coincidentally, the ten-year gap between summits overlaps with Russia’s re-emergence as a global player, following the trauma of the Soviet Union’s collapse. As a result of Russia’s revival, a range of disagreements has arisen within the OSCE – the only pan-European and trans-Atlantic organization that includes old Europe and the post-Soviet states.

On challenges ranging from election monitoring to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, there is no common ground among the 56 member states. Worse, there is serious acrimony between Russia and the rest on many matters, including a new, alternative security architecture, which Russian President Dmitri Medvedev imagines could be placed under the OSCE’s umbrella.

With so much to disagree about and no significant agreements ready to be concluded in Astana, this looks like a case of summitry for summitry’s sake. Without the usual pre-arranged outcomes, the delegations and their leaders will be searching for a success story to present to the world – whether in the OSCE’s human, economic, or security dimensions.

That search could lead to the only conflict in the OSCE in which the organization has a direct role: the dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh. The OSCE serves as mediator – through the Minsk Group co-chairs (the governments of France, Russia, and the United States) – in the most explosive of all the conflicts and security threats in the Caucasus.

To be sure, unlike Georgia’s war with Russia, the two sides in this clash are not so unequal as to draw global attention. But, given Armenia’s alliance with Russia and Azerbaijan’s close ties with Turkey, an eruption over Karabakh could very well escalate regionally.

Perhaps for this reason, there has been talk of a meeting in Astana between the presidents of Russia and France, the US secretary of state, and the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. That prospect holds both great opportunity and serious risks.

There is a reason that no such meeting has been held in the 20 years of the conflict. A meeting of presidents is, after all, the ultimate negotiating forum, and must lead to real, sustainable success. Otherwise, it will appear that no amount of negotiation can help set the Caucasus straight – powerfully undermining a key restraint preventing the two sides from trying again to achieve a military solution.

Resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peacefully requires two parallel steps: a guarantee of non-resumption of military hostilities, and a clear, mutually binding blueprint for reaching a final settlement. In the absence of assurances of such an outcome, a presidential-level meeting should not be tried.

This is especially true at a time when the other main deterrent to renewed violence – the military balance between the two sides – is also being weakened. This year, Azerbaijan’s military budget alone exceeded total state spending in Armenia and Karabakh. That, together with the more than 30 incidents occurring daily on the Line of Contact, does not bode well for peace, particularly given the absence of even a hint of agreement on a document, any document.

An acceptable blueprint might emerge from high-level negotiations in Astana if it were to build on what succeeded in breaking previous negotiating deadlocks: the idea of a referendum in which the war-weary Karabakhis can determine their final status. The beauty of a referendum in these circumstances is that it recognizes the two fundamental principles at the heart of this conflict – self-determination and territorial integrity.

But thus far, there is no agreement on the timing of a referendum. That failure remains the main obstacle to addressing the many other outstanding problems between the parties to the conflict.

In just two months, South Sudan will hold a referendum on independence that was agreed to in 2005. A little more than two years ago, Kosovo voted for independence from Serbia. If, in Astana, a high-level group reinforces the idea of a referendum and sets a mutually acceptable date, this would be a significant achievement. The summit will have succeeded, the OSCE will have succeeded, and Karabakh will cease to be a synonym for conflict, but a laboratory for peace.

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