The Unfinished Agenda of the Minsk Group

357

By Edmond Y. Azadian

One the first tasks of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been to contact the chairperson-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde, to reactivate the group to resume tackling its residual agenda items, which include developments in Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasus.

All these issues have one country in common: Russia.

President Biden has already called President Vladimir Putin of Russia, discussing a reset between the two countries.

From all appearances, it looks like the conversation had a sour end, since President Biden had touched on the incarceration of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

In the meantime, a French Foreign Ministry delegation has visited Armenia and Azerbaijan twice, offering economic aid to both countries and helping launch projects in the region.

By precipitating a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia pushed forward their own agendas, settling their forces in the region, particularly in Azerbaijan, where both countries had no earlier presence.

One of the purposes of this haste for war and disastrous peace was to bypass the Minsk Group of the OSCE, which had been tasked with handling the Karabakh conflict for the last three decades.

The previous US administration had little interest in foreign wars or traditional alliances and pact. Now that the tumultuous election process is over in the US, Washington and Paris have been reclaiming their place at the negotiation table to take care of the remaining items on the agenda.

In the case of the Karabakh conflict, a single issue remains to be resolved: the legal status of the enclave.

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan is intentionally not returning Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and detainees, to clog up the agenda and delay negotiation on the status of Karabakh. The POWs are being kept hostage in Azerbaijan to be used as bargaining chips by Baku.

Indeed, the ceasefire declaration signed on November 9 between the three countries calls for military forces of the warring parties to remain in the positions that they held on the date of the ceasefire. Azerbaijan wants to see Karabakh’s defense forces move out of Stepanakert. With the strategic Shushi already in its hands, overtaking Stepanakert won’t cost it much effort.

Once Azerbaijan’s artificial hurdle is removed, the Minsk Group co-chairs will have to work on the status issue. Armenia, however, has to press for accountability from Azerbaijan for its violation of one of the basic principles of the Minsk Group, which excludes the use of military force to resolve the conflict.

Russia has acquiesced to the fact that the question of status has been left on the agenda but it believes that its resolution should be postponed until a future, as-yet-undetermined date, to be taken up by the Minsk Group.

Since other issues have been settled instantaneously — Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and Russia’s peacekeeping forces — there is no reason to postpone the issue of status.

The Caucasus is one of the tinderboxes of the globe as the interests of many major and minor powers converge in the area and the parties during their tussles are inclined to short-change Armenia’s interests.

The war brought catastrophe to Armenia but it also caused heavy damage to neighboring Iran, which was completely left out of the game; Turkey, as a surrogate power for the West, moved closer to Iran’s border. Azerbaijan, by recapturing territories from Armenia, created a much longer border with Iran, and therefore offers a wider playing field for Israeli spying and interference for the former.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, during the victory parade of December 10, in Baku even hinted at Iran’s dismemberment.

The Iranian regime was alarmed and that is why its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, embarked on a charm offensive tour of the region, to play catch up. In each capital, he said what his hosts wanted to hear. In Baku, he congratulated the Azerbaijani government on recovering its territories. In Yerevan, he offered economic cooperation. In Ankara, he invited President Erdogan to visit Tehran and in Moscow, he reminded President Putin that Iran has been a friendly force in the region.

Iran has also pledged to help improve relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but thus far, it has not found takers.

Now Iran has to gear itself to face the Biden Administration’s demands to revisit the nuclear deal it had agreed to with the Obama administration, which had been rescinded by Trump.

There are indications that this time around, President Biden will make good on his pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide if Ankara does not pre-empt it with a sweet deal that Washington cannot refuse. Thus far, the Biden administration has been observing an ominous silence with Ankara. The president has called many capitals — friend and foe alike — and has not yet responded to President Erdogan’s request for a phone conversation.

After sidelining Iran — and for that matter Russia — in the region, Ankara is trying to impose its will further afield.

As a matter of fact, it has come up with an economic program or “Platform of the Six” involving Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Armenia. The latter is invited to join, provided that it drops its hostility against Azerbaijan and Turkey, according to a foreign ministry official in Ankara.

The above development program along with the unblocking of all communication and transportation in the region, proposed by the November 9 declaration, pose a double-edged sword for Armenia.

Under the condition of the blockade, Armenia has already forged its economy over the last 30 years.

Armenia has to be wary of any Turkish proposal, not out of paranoia, but out of historical experience. An opinion piece was published in the Washington Post on January 28, by Asli Aydintasbas. The piece pretty much outlines the parameters of Erdogan’s rapprochement to President Biden. It seems that the premise of Erdogan’s new policy will be to convince Washington that Turkey has become a major power and can act on its own. “Increasingly self-confident and with growing domestic defense capabilities, Turkeys’ strongman is no longer interested in being a loyal member of the West. He believes that Turkey should pursue its own destiny — with himself at the helm,” the article states.

However, the writer believes this to be a hard sell and states other tactics to which Erdogan may resort by writing: “A big reset may be elusive. But one area where positive momentum in Turkish-US ties can happen is the periphery — in ancient conflicts like Cyprus and Armenia. In anticipation of the Biden administration, Ankara has recently embarked on a charm offensive towards the European Union and reached out to regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. After a year of hardline politics, Turkey is also encouraging the United Nations to restart the Cyprus Talks on the decades-long division of the island. More surprisingly, a senior Erdogan advisor told me that Ankara is ready to normalize relations with Armenia.”

We have seen the recent “love letters” exchanged between Erdogan and President Emmanuel Macron of France, a month after Erdogan had publicly advised his French counterpart to get his head examined.

While the issue of Cyprus began with the 1974 invasion of the island by Turkey and its subsequent occupation of 40 percent of the land, Turkey has not given in an inch, but every time international pressure increases on Ankara, the Turks feign readiness for negotiation, only to end up with the same result.

Armenia has also fallen in that trap before, once during the football diplomacy between Presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Abdullah Gul and another during the signing of the Zurich protocols in 2009.

Every time the major powers swallow Turkish excuses and shy away from their intentions, so as not to disrupt Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia. Turkey is preparing the diplomatic world for another round of mock dialogue with Armenia.

Lragir.am reported on January 31 that the expert on US-Armenian relations, Souren Sargsyan, has advised Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to call and congratulate President Biden. On the other hand, “he has warned [Pashinyan] to stay away from negotiations with Turkey. If any process of Armenian-Turkish relations is initiated, Biden will refrain from recognizing the Armenian Genocide and that’s what Turkey wants.”

Once burnt, twice shy.

Armenia should not fall for the lies again, because that has been Turkey’s tactic to deflect outside pressure to recognize the Genocide.

On the contrary, Armenia has nothing to gain from establishing relations with Turkey, particularly when the latter just recently unleashed its weapons and hired jihadists to wreak havoc on Armenia and Artsakh. Armenia has to set the bar very high by requesting recognition of the Genocide by Turkey and put that country on the defensive. If Turkey wants to set up a joint commission, the task of that commission has to be to assess the amount of compensation Turkey owes to Armenia.

Now that Foggy Bottom has signaled its desire to reactive the Minsk Group, all these developments will also reflect on the decisions of the other co-chairs who intend to take Moscow and Ankara to task for having precipitated the Karabakh war for their own selfish ends.

It is time to address the Minsk Group’s unfinished agenda.

The Armenian Mirror-Spectator