The world powers that brought the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan together last week for talks on a thorny territorial dispute hoped they would take a crucial step toward peace, Reuters reports.
Instead, the failure to agree on a blueprint for a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict appears to have brought the Caucasus neighbours one step closer to a new war in a volatile energy corridor linking the Caspian Sea region to the West.
An international push for a peace deal, trumped for nearly 20 years by bellicose rhetoric and resistance on both sides to even perceived concessions, could lose steam as elections threaten to change the geopolitical landscape.
“With every year, with every month in which the conflict remains unresolved, we have an increasingly shaky situation … where any number of things could spark an accidental conflict,” said Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus Program Director at the International Crisis Group.
Armenian-backed forces wrested Nagorno-Karabakh from Azeri control in the deadliest war to break out as the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago. When the conflict ended in a ceasefire in 1994, 30,000 had been killed and about a million had been driven from their homes.
Seventeen years later, a de-facto government runs the rugged territory and surrounding lands with support from Armenia, but without recognition of its independence claim.
Mediation by UN Security Council powerhouses Russia, France and the United States (through the Minsk Group) has produced many meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan but no final agreement on the main elements of a resolution, let alone a peace deal.
Skirmishes and sniper fire kill soldiers regularly on both sides of the frozen frontline. Azerbaijan, angry over losing control of a chunk of its territory, has persistently threatened to take it back by force if no resolution is reached.
The latest warning came after Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan, meeting in Russia on Friday, dashed hopes for agreement on a framework document, called the Basic Principles, that would set the stage for settlement talks.
In Baku on Sunday, Aliyev staged Azerbaijan’s biggest military parade since the Soviet collapse, announced an increase in defense spending and vowed to use “any possible means” to restore its territorial integrity.
Aliyev can exploit the leverage he has over international mediators wary of a new Caucasus war after Russia’s conflict with pro-Western Georgia in 2008, and must also satisfy Azeris hungry for assurance their humiliation will be redressed. But analysts say the threats do not mean Azerbaijan is on the verge of restarting hostilities that could draw in its ally Turkey, a NATO member, as well as Russia, which has a military base and strong ties with Armenia. They add the lack of progress in talks stokes tension which could easily spiral out of control, however, and Azerbaijan’s determination could harden as time passes without a deal.
“In the long term, Baku’s frustration is real and there is a breaking point where there will be a move to military means,” said Svante Cornell, research director at the Washington-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
In February, the International Crisis Group said escalating skirmishes on the frontline, where 25 people were killed in 2010, combined with a “spiralling arms race” and the lack of progress in talks has increased the threat of war.
With tensions high, observers say the chances of success in the internationally mediated talks are shrinking as elections approach in all three mediating nations as well as Armenia, which means several of the key players could be out of office.
Diplomats had cast Friday’s meeting, held in Kazan, Russia, and hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, as a crucial step.
At a G8 summit last month, US and French Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy joined Medvedev in urging the sides to finalize the Basic Principles and “prepare their populations for peace, not war.”
Medvedev, seeking to shed predecessor Vladimir Putin’s shadow and eager to claim success as a peacemaker after the war with Georgia, has hosted Aliyev and Sargsyan nine times for talks on Nagorno-Karabakh since he took office in 2008.
“Time is beginning to run out on Medvedev’s personal peace initiative,” said Tom de Waal, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Putin may return to Russia’s presidency in the March 2012 election, and presidential elections in the United States and France also loom next year.
“It becomes more difficult in 2012 to make a deal,” he said.
Meanwhile, the value of “cosmetic-looking” meetings between the presidents will decline swiftly in the absence of tangible progress, encouraging hawks on both sides, Sheets said.
“If it’s only an imitation of a peace process, that’s probably just as counterproductive as no talks at all in some ways.”