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Armenia, Azerbaijan Presidents Have to Be Clearer to Public So to Avoid Future War, Says Sabine Freizer

The Kazan summit was a big disappointment, especially because the co-chairs before the summit had expressed a great deal of hope and optimism that there would be an agreement on the basic principles at this summit, said International Crisis Group Europe Program Director Sabine Freizer  in an interview with the Voice of Russia.

“And the fact that the sides couldn’t agree on the basic principles is very disappointing. But even the statement that they did sign is quite worrying, because it says that the two sides have agreed to certain issues, which makes us assume that there are other issues that they fundamentally disagree on. So, it’s not about language in the text or about temporary disagreement — but it’s really still fundamental issues that separate Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“And I think that here we have to go back to the origins of the conflict. Where the two sides fundamentally disagree is on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. For the Armenian side, they want to have an agreement where the right to self-determination and secession of Nagorno-Karabakh will be clear and, on the other hand, for the Azerbaijani side, they want to make sure that Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to remain inside the borders of Azerbaijan or, if it does get independence, this will be once the rest of Azerbaijan agrees to that. So, fundamentally, there is a very clear disconnect between the sides, and the co-chairs have been trying to deal with it by saying let’s have an interim status and postponements of any kind of vote on Nagorno-Karabakh status.

“But, on the one hand, it would be a very good solution, the solution that I believe the co-chairs should continue to promote – but what we see is that neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia are willing to go for that. And it was clear prior to Kazan that they had not been trying to inform their people and to convince their people that the solution was necessary. And I think it’s also very worrying that we still see very radical rhetoric coming particularly from Baku, but also in Armenia. In Armenia we see that people are less and less willing to consider full withdrawal from the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. That is also a very worrying trend. So, it is clear that, if there is going to be an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, the presidency in both Azerbaijan and Armenia has to be much clearer in public, in Baku and in Yerevan, explain to people that this agreement is necessary to avoid a future war,” said Freizer. The interview continues as follows:

What do you think is the major problem why they can’t come to terms? This is an area where people lived side by side – Armenians and Azerbaijanis – and it wasn’t as explosive as it is now. So, why that happened?

Armenians and Azerbaijanis have lived side by side for four centuries. But we have a situation of 20 years of separation, where there are a large number of IDPs, there is territory that is occupied. In addition to that there has been a very negative rhetoric, where people were brought up basically hating each other. And it’s going to take years for people to change that and to again feel trust and confidence with each other. That is why it is clear that, unless the president makes it very clear to the population that something is changed and it is necessary to reach an agreement now, it is going to be very difficult for there to be public support for any compromise.

As I spoke to a number of analysts, they were telling me that there are some fears that the whole situation might explode again. I have my doubt. How do you see that?

I am also concerned that there is a possibility that a war will start again. If this negotiation process fails, it will put us in a very precarious situation. I believe that Russian President Medvedev has played a very important role over the past couple of years. And it’s now questionable whether or not, in the election period, he will be able to continue playing such a hands-on role. But it’s also prone with the French and the Americans who are also going to have elections soon. So, if we don’t get an agreement in the coming couple of months, it’s clear that the negotiations are going to go onto the backburner.  Without an active negotiations process, it’s going to encourage both sides to think more about military conflict. Of course, both countries are spending more and more money on purchasing military equipment. And, when you start doing that, the kind of natural tendency is to have a desire to use it. So, what I’d be worried about is even if neither Baku nor Yerevan are planning the offensive tomorrow then a war may start by accident, because of this increased belligerent rhetoric, increased weaponry that is on the ground and  this kind of natural tendency to want to try it out.

Wouldn’t it be absolutely crazy, with Azerbaijan looking to expand its ties with NATO, and NATO, as far as I know, has got serious reservations about nations with inner conflict, on the one hand? And then on both nations are looking at expanding their ties with the EU. Once the war starts, all their hopes would be dashed.

Correct. I think neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia are too keen to join NATO right now. Of course, they are keen on increasing their ties with NATO, but NATO membership is very far down the line. The same thing is with the EU. None of the countries of the South Caucasus has a clear EU membership commitment. So, it’s very difficult for either NATO or the EU to really put pressure on Azerbaijan or Armenia to resist a war, because they don’t have anything to offer, no clear “carrot” of either NATO or EU membership for these two countries

How about economic considerations? Because as far as I understand Baku is home to considerable oil and gas interests.

It is true that, if Azerbaijan went to war, this would undermine their capacity to export oil and gas. On one hand, it’s possible that the reserves of Azerbaijan will start to diminish, and as they will have less of the qualms to go to war, because they will have less oil and gas to export, but also I think that they feel this could be a quick war, and that they could take back one or three of the occupied territories in a few days, and that this wouldn’t have a direct effect on their pipelines. The second is wrong calculus, because the Armenians are also prepared to retaliate. So, if a war starts, I don’t think it will be a short war. It will be something that will last numerous months and years, which would have an impact on Azerbaijan’s ability to export its reserves.

Did you travel there?

Yes, I’ve been to Karabakh. I haven’t been there for some time, I have to admit. It was a few years ago that I was there. But I did go there, so I’ve seen the realities on the ground. And one additional element that we don’t talk about is the people of Karabakh itself – both Karabakh Azeris and Karabakh Armenians. It’s clear that if there was an agreement on basic principles, it would be necessary to include them more in how to implement this agreement and how to reach a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The process is that first there should be the basic principles and after that the sides will have to sit down and talk about the details and sign Comprehensive Peace Agreement. For that, you’ll need input from Karabakhsis themselves, both the Armenian and Azeris, because they will obviously play a key role in the implementation.

What is their sentiment?

Their sentiment, especially of Karabakh Armenians is more hard-line than the sentiment in Yerevan, because they feel the security threats more clearly. That is why for any peace agreement to work, it will have to have very clear security guarantees, there will need to be deployment of international peacekeepers, so that way people living in Karabakh could feel more confident with the situation. That is also why the interim status is so important – because, again, the people of Karabakh would be able to feel that they have a status, not a full-fledged independent status, but something that would allow them, for example, to be represented abroad and to be able to talk with countries outside the region.

Photo: RFE/RL’s Armenian service