Last week, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met for the first time in almost two years.
The summit was important, because these two countries have been involved in a “frozen conflict” for two decades, ever since signing a ceasefire in 1994.
The discussions were held under the auspices of the Minsk Group, created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France. At the conclusion, the co-chairs issued a statement that the presidents had:
- Agreed to advance negotiations toward a peaceful settlement;
- Instructed their foreign ministers to cooperate with the co-chairs to build on the work done to date, with the aim of intensifying the peace process; and,
- Agreed to meet again in the months ahead.
In addition, the co-chairs agreed to hold working sessions in Kiev on Dec. 5-6, on the margins of an OSCE Ministerial meeting.
For many Armenians in Southern California with families and friends in the affected area, progress in the talks should be welcome news. Armenia’s borders with both Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed because of this conflict.
Today, Armenia is the poorest country in the South Caucasus and its population has decreased 40 percent since the conflict began in 1988. A settlement to the conflict holds the promise of greater prosperity in that country.
Azerbaijan has also felt the effects. Armenia occupies approximately 20 percent of what is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions. This has resulted in the displacement of one million Azerbaijanis from their homes.
The United States also has interests in the area – domestically and internationally.
Domestically, Armenians have been immigrating to the United States since the 1890s; today, 1.4 million Americans can trace their heritage to Armenia. They have a great interest in what happens in their ancestral homeland.
Internationally, America’s major ally in the Middle East, Israel, gets 60 percent of its oil imports from Azerbaijan. European allies, including Greece and Italy, are patiently awaiting the construction of the Trans Anatolian Pipeline that will bring desperately needed natural gas from Azerbaijan to their countries.
A renewal of the fighting could threaten these important economic lifelines. In addition, approximately 40 percent of all air freight for our troops in Afghanistan transit Azerbaijan.
This route, called the Northern Distribution Network, will be crucial in the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. Azerbaijani troops have fought side by side with Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moscow uses the continuing conflict between the two countries as an excuse for maintaining its largest military presence outside of Russia.
Its 102nd military base at Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia, already holds thousands of Russian soldiers and its air base at Yerevan airport is being expanded to provide space for two dozen combat helicopters and a fuel depot. It is already the home to MIG-29 fighter jets. Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Gyumri on Dec. 2.
At the same time, Russia was congratulating the Minsk process for progress in the negotiations; Putin announced he planned to establish a joint air defense system with Armenia.
It is in the United States’ interest to bring the conflict to a close, to deprive Russia (a close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad) of a reason for expanding its influence in these newly independent states.
The rough outline for a deal has been known for years. The Minsk Group Basic Principles call for a withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani districts bordering on the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh; the granting of an “interim status” to the enclave that guarantees security and self-governance; eventual determination of the enclave’s future status; creation of a land corridor to link the enclave with the Republic of Armenia; the return of displaced persons and refugees to their homes; and international security guarantees.
The devil is in the details: what kind of interim status? How will the enclave’s future status be determined? Where would the land corridor be? What kind of security guarantee (especially since the Russian peacekeeping force next door in Georgia eventually resulted in that state losing 20 percent of its territory)?
Prior to the meeting, the Azerbaijan delegation to the OSCE issued a statement in which they accepted the Basic Principles as the basis for negotiation. They then stated the parties had spent enough time deliberating and interpreting the principles, and said it was time to work on a draft of a comprehensive peace agreement.
At the conclusion of the Vienna summit, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan described the talks as “positive” and as heralding “in all likelihood, the start of a new phase of negotiations.” Such optimism is welcomed by all.
James J. Coyle is the Director of Global Education at Chapman University and is the chair of the Eurasian committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy.