To break stalemate with Armenia Turkey should resolve Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

By Lamİya Adİlgizi, İstanbul

If Turkey wants to ease the current stalemate with Armenia, it should work with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia to begin to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, says prominent American-Armenian scholar Ronald Grigor Suny from Michigan University.


“Nagorno-Karabakh is the nut. It is a very difficult problem that prevents them from reaching an agreement and I understand why it is difficult for both Armenia and Azerbaijan to actually solve the problem,” Suny said in a special interview with Sunday's Zaman.Ronald Grigor Suny


The fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkey's neighbors to the east, remains unresolved is considered to be a potential threat to stability in the region. Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic Armenian-majority enclave inside Azerbaijan over which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a deadly conflict for more than two decades. The conflict escalated into a full-scale war in the early 1990s when Armenian-backed forces under the command of current Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijani territories, including Nagorno-Karabakh, killing some 30,000 people. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes before a cease-fire was signed in 1994, although there is still no peace treaty.


Mentioning a proposal he made few years ago to the governments of both Armenia and Azerbaijan and which was later published in the Middle East Journal, Suny thinks that there is another way to solve this issue.


According to Suny's proposal, which was not accepted by either side when presented to them, Nagorno-Karabakh should de-jure remain in Azerbaijan and be recognized as an official part of the territory of Azerbaijan, which is the accepted position according to international law. But at the same time, he says that it should be de-facto recognized as a special area with absolutely full autonomy which will be run and governed by the people of that region.


In the last census conducted during the Soviet time in late 1980s, at least 78 percent of population in Nagorno-Karabakh was Armenian. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is fully populated by ethnic Armenians while neighboring provinces occupied by Armenia are largely empty.


The proposal, as Suny noted, also included a provision that the Azerbaijanis forced to leave Nagorno-Karabakh should be allowed to return.


“But nobody liked this proposal. Armenia did not like it, as it meant that Nagorno-Karabakh would remain within Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis did not like that it gave full autonomy and self-governance to Armenians,” Suny said. He added that many people in the former Soviet Union are afraid of autonomy and federalism because of what happened in the former Soviet Union, since it led to the collapse.


“Now we have lived for over 20 years with this frozen conflict. The outcome is that Nagorno-Karabakh became Armenian. It is run by Armenians and it was rebuilt by Armenians. They don't want to give it up, they are afraid of losing, as Armenia is a very small country. All of these factors are part of their national ethnic consciousness. For Azerbaijanis, too, it is difficult to give up Nagorno-Karabakh. It is their “black garden,” it is a very beautiful part of their country and many people from Baku have summer homes there -- 25 percent of population of Nagorno-Karabakh was Azerbaijani, etc. So it is a very difficult situation. My view is that our proposal won't work, because nobody wants it,” Suny says, adding, however, that there are alternative ways to resolve the issue. Talking about his “new and better” way of thinking, Suny said he has even discussed this with intellectuals in Washington that perhaps we should think about the whole region from Russia through the Caucasus into Turkey and even to the Middle East as one grand region in which different cultures come together without confrontation.


“National territory is less important. The economy, a flow of culture and migration, these are more important and this is the only long term solution to the impossible problem of today,” Suny notes.


Solution to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict


The Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been striving to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a territorial dispute between Baku and Yerevan, for 21 years; however, no conclusive results have yet been achieved, making the Minsk Group a failure and an institution with an unfinished mission.


Suny says the conflict is still not resolved because, “Real people have a real interest in not solving the problem.”


“There are people in Nagorno-Karabakh who think, ‘We are doing OK, we are rebuilding Nagorno-Karabakh, anyway it is already Armenian, so why change it.' People in Yerevan [the capital city of Armenia], including the leadership, which comes from Nagorno-Karabakh, also think that way. Azerbaijan is building a new country. You can see the booming economy and so again, people think, ‘We are doing fine, there's no need to start a war,'” Suny added.


Talking about how to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Suny said that both sides must keep talking and not turn their backs on negotiation. He suggested bringing regional powers such as Turkey and Russia and, as a global power, the US, into the discussions that he thinks should be happening. Suny says that the solution to this decades-long conflict lies in the step by step settlement and resolution of small problems that exist, like opening borders, which would make it easier to move between the countries and develop economic ties.


”Don't worry so much about the ultimate solution. It is difficult to know what will happen to Nagorno-Karabakh in the future, it may become less important. If borders are open and people are moving and trading, then is it that important who is actually sovereign, or where the borders are between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh? Maybe not,” Suny said. He added, “I say yavaş- yavaş [slowly in Azerbaijani], kamats-kamats [slowly in Armenian], you go and try step by step to solve small problems that will keep people from killing each other.”


Often described as “frozen,” the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict nevertheless is frequently on the verge of becoming a renewed war. Skirmishes that could rage out of control pose a significant risk of turning the so-called ceasefire into a full-fledged war, more so than a deliberate attack by either side. Hundreds, often thousands of ceasefire violations happen each month and dozens are killed and injured every year, according to a report released by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on Sept. 26. The report underlines that the most serious skirmishes over the past year have taken place far from Nagorno-Karabakh or the occupied territories. In July 2013, for example, firefights twice forced the closure of a road connecting Armenia to Georgia and in August, there were skirmishes along the hitherto mostly quiet border of Nakhichevan, an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Iran, Armenia and Turkey.


Urging both sides to re-educate people, Suny says that what intellectuals should do is to think more positively about the other side.


“At the moment when I read press from both Armenia and Azerbaijan I only see talk of how evil the other side is. They are terrible, they are not human beings; that is not going to help at all, and so on,” Suny said. He added: “Intellectuals in these countries are serving national purposes rather than educating the people in a new way. And when someone tries to do it in a new way they are either repressed or heavily condemned.”


‘Russia is central'


Russia is a very important part of the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Suny says; however, at the moment, Russia has no great incentive to try to solve the issue, he adds.


The South Caucasus, a region of considerable geostrategic importance at the crossroads between East and West, was always seen by its northern neighbor, Russia, as its backyard and Russia has always been able to remain the most influential player in the region, particularly in economic and military terms. None of the countries of the region -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – can be the caption of its soul.


“After the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia demonstrated that it is the principle player in the South Caucasus, no question. Russia is back and there is no solution to the Abkhazia or South Ossetia, or the Nagorno-Karabakh problem without Russia,” Suny said.


In August 2008, provoked by Georgian military operation, Russia deepened its occupation in northern separatist region of South Ossetia, and bombed Georgian towns in a major escalation of a conflict that has left dozens of civilians dead and wounded. As a result, Tbilisi, although supported by its staunch ally the US during the war and later on, lost control of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were later recognized as independent states by Russia.


Suny says the same goes for the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, as Russia uses it as a lever in the region. “They may sell arms to Azerbaijan while remaining very close allies with Armenians. They can play this role,” Suny said.


But Turkey could also play a very dynamic and positive role in the South Caucasus, as Turkey has influence with its friend and ally Azerbaijan, according to Suny. He thinks that Turkey and Armenia miscalculated their rapprochement policy started in late 2009, initiated by Turkey's soccer diplomacy and ended with the failure to ratify the Zurich agreement that aimed to reestablish diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia due to outstanding political and moral issues that keep two sides apart.


“One issue is the relationship with Azerbaijan and the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is a frozen conflict is clearly a big problem for Azerbaijan, as well as the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and other parts of Azerbaijan by Armenians. Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani lobby want to keep Turkey from getting closer to Armenia. On the other side, it is very important to Armenia to maintain Armenian control and sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and to have some kind of official recognition of the events of 1915 as a genocide. So even though it would be good to open borders, both sides have an interest in preventing reconciliation.”


Relations with Azerbaijan are the backbone of Turkey's Caucasus policy and solidarity between the two nations is considerably robust. In 1993, during the Nagorno Karabakh war, Turkey closed its land border with Armenia to support its ally, Azerbaijan. Despite the efforts of international powers and civil society to help both sides reopen the borders since then, there has been no improvement; Turkey and Armenia have failed to approve the twin protocols signed in Zurich on Oct. 10, 2009. Turkey insisted that Armenia settle its dispute with Azerbaijan as a precondition to the ratifying the Zurich protocols, even though the protocols did not refer to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Currently, Ankara and Baku have followed a policy of attempting to economically isolate Armenia by omitting Yerevan from regional economic projects, considering it a major incentive to reaching an agreement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of more than two decades peacefully.


Tosday's Saman