Analysis by a region-based observer.
Azerbaijan continues on the path of flaming the Karabakh conflict in three directions: sharpening the political message; flexing its military muscle; and keeping it tense at the front-line through constant firing and provocations.
The other day, Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister Araz Azimov declared that a referendum determining Karabakh’s political status, if ever applied, can only be held on the entire territory of Azerbaijan. The same week, Azerbaijan conducted joint military exercises with Turkey, while persistently violating the cease-fire and claiming the lives of Armenian soldiers.
None of these policies may be new. But taken together, they may point to a beginning. After all, now that the Armenian elections are over, for Azerbaijan, the countdown for a change in the Karabakh status quo, peacefully or militarily, has commenced and this frontal drive is aimed at both shaping the narrative and keeping Armenia and the mediators on the edge. After last year’s April war, Azerbaijan assumed it had the political and military momentum but understood that not much can be expected during a critical Armenian election cycle. Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan is firmly in power now, and there is nothing to stop him from delivering on his Karabakh pronouncements.
Both sides have their red lines and limitations for a negotiated settlement. Armenia’s red line is that it cannot return all seven territories around Karabakh to Azerbaijan (a corridor of certain width is always an exception) without a de jure recognition of Karabakh’s factual self-determination. The limitation is, that in the case of the return of five regions, it must be done in exchange for an interim status for Karabakh mirroring the current status quo and recognized by all, and a well-defined and unambiguous path for a free expression of will in a specified near future.
Azerbaijan’s red line is that it cannot accept any language on Karabakh’s status that will contradict the article two of its constitution, which stipulates that any change of border requires a nation-wide referendum. The limitation is that in the case of the acquisition of the five regions, it cannot let the fate of the other remaining two (Kelbajar and Lachin minus corridor) uncertain, or tied to a vaguely articulated status prospect.
The mediators understand that crossing the red-line for either side will result in serious domestic upheaval which may unravel the whole process. Instead, the mediators will opt to playing on both side’s limitations by providing enough trappings to stretch those limits to accommodate an outcome that is minimally acceptable to both sides. A challenging feat.
In this kind of complicated overlapping negotiating dilemmas, considering that Azerbaijan sees the use of military force as an alternative option to change the current status quo, it is Armenia, however, that will constantly be pushed and forced to operate within its red zone or, at best, to see its limitations undermined and overstepped.
The threat of war hanging over its head, Armenia will be offered the following: A referendum to determine Karabakh’s political status without specifying by who, where and when. An interim status, mirroring the current status quo but acknowledged by all. The return of five regions to Azerbaijan upon signing of the peace agreement. The return of the remaining Kelbajar and Lachin regions (maintaining a narrow corridor) in a clearly specified period and not contingent to any other development. Of course, certain security guarantees and a road map for the return of the internally displaced persons [which is how Azerbaijan refers to the refugees from Karabakh and adjacent regions] will be made part of the final agreement.
Can or should Armenia agree to something along these lines? Will it ever be acceptable to the Armenian people? In case of rejection, will there be a war and can Armenians sustain another war?
These are all questions that the Armenian people will be faced with, sooner or later, but most likely during this year.