Interview: Thomas De Waal On What’s Next For Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian-Azerbaijani Relations

Following the latest fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has retaken control over all seven districts around Karabakh that had been occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s. Azerbaijani…

Following the latest fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has retaken control over all seven districts around Karabakh that had been occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s.

Azerbaijani forces also regained territory in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

A Russian-brokered cease-fire deal has seen the deployment of nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to ensure security in the enclave and its only overland link with Armenia — the so-called Lachin corridor through southwestern Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL Armenian Service Director Harry Tamrazian spoke on December 5 to Carnegie Europe’s noted Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal about the region’s prospects for diplomacy and its changing geopolitics.

RFE/RL: Since the 1990s, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been the mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan in negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, with Azerbaijan having retaken the seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, is the Minsk Group dead? Now, with Azerbaijan having retaken the seven occupied districts around Nagorno-Karabakh in recent fighting, as well as parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, is the Minsk Group finished? Or is there still a role for its co-chairs — the United States, France, and Russia — in order to have a meaningful impact on the process?

Thomas de Waal: I think we’re in a completely different phase of this conflict. We have a cease-fire and truce. But we are very far from a political agreement. And the question of the status of Karabakh, I think, is even more difficult now to solve. As [far as] the Azerbaijani side is concerned, this question [of a special status for Nagorno-Karabakh] is now off the table. It is no longer up for discussion.

But there still need to be negotiations about the future normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And I suppose the Minsk Group is the only format where that is possible at the moment. That’s going to be very difficult.

Thomas de Waal

Thomas de Waal

I think the Minsk Group has suffered a lot of reputational damage in the region — particularly France in Azerbaijan, which I don’t think regards France as an honest mediator anymore.

Russia is now in control. There are big questions as to whether the United States and France can still play an important mediating role. But something has to be done.

Personally, I would like to see some improvements. I would like to see another European power which has more influence in Baku. It would be good, in my view, if that European power replaced France. Perhaps Germany. This is not a reflection on the French mediators. It’s just a reflection of the fact that French domestic politics means that France is no longer so respected in Azerbaijan.

Secondly, I think the United Nations should play a role. It would be helpful if there was a UN Security Council resolution. The UN is sending agencies now to Azerbaijan — to Karabakh. It would be good if the UN was involved. And I would also like to see a role for the European Union, which did not have a political profile 30 years ago, but now, I think, needs to play a role.

But let’s be honest. It’s difficult now to have negotiations. This war has made relations between the two countries even more difficult. So it’s a very difficult place to start.

RFE/RL: Armenians hope that the truce deal signed by Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan on November 9 is just the first step — that everything should be settled within the Minsk Group framework. For example, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. There is nothing about it in these documents signed on November 9.

De Waal: The statement by the [Minsk Group] co-chairs from Tirana mentioned that they want to see substantive negotiations. They also mentioned the basic principles, which means that they are still considering the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

I think that as far as Azerbaijan is concerned, they are no longer looking at Nagorno-Karabakh — [the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region] NKAR — as a territorial unit. Azerbaijani units are in the south of NKAR, or in the Hadrut region, for example. So it will be very difficult, I think, to talk about the territorial autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh. But obviously that, as far as the Armenians are concerned and as far as the Minsk Group is concerned, is the basis for negotiations. Let’s see how things go.

I think what’s important is if both Baku and Yerevan decided it is important to have a full normalization of relations — diplomatic relations, open borders, and so on. If they both decide that that is a strategic goal that they want, then I think it is possible to start negotiating. But if each side thinks it is better to live with the status quo, with a closed border, and they’re not interested in relations, then I see it as very difficult to negotiate.

RFE/RL: What is happening on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh? It seems that Armenia has lost its status as a sponsor or guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh security. Russians are in full control on one hand. But on the other hand, the Russians admit that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan — as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said. We see now that Azerbaijani soldiers are even going shopping in Stepanakert. It’s an unbelievable situation. What is your interpretation of all this?

De Waal: It’s true Russia now emphasizes that the area of de jure Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. But de facto, it’s now a Russian enclave. There are Russian peacekeepers there. Russia has become the security patron, not Armenia. They’re even talking about making Russian the language of Karabakh. I guess Karabakhis already speak Russian. So yes, Karabakh is now basically under Russian control. And for Russia, it’s a strategic asset in the Caucasus which they don’t want to lose — even though they say that technically, of course, it’s part of Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the United States and other states like France can have an influence on the negotiating process — if it starts at all? It seems that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration is willing to actually push through the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status. And two chambers of the French parliament called on the government to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s declaration of independence from Azerbaijan. But the French government has said it will not do so.

De Waal: France and the United States have less influence than they had a few months ago. Russia is very much in the center. And, of course, Russia I think might be interested in an unstable peace which justifies the presence of Russian peacekeepers on the ground. So, no peace/no war, I think, might suit the Russians better than a full peace — which would be an argument for the Russians to leave the region. So I’m sure the new Biden administration wants to do something. But they are starting from a position of weakness.

RFE/RL: What do you think about this transport corridor through southern Armenia that is mentioned in the November 9 truce — a link between Azerbaijan’s exclave of Naxcivan and the rest of Azerbaijan? Apparently it will be controlled by the Russian military. They will set up checkpoints on that road. Is that an encroachment on Armenian sovereignty?

De Waal: I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult for the Armenians, who are being asked to facilitate a corridor across their own territory for Turks and Azerbaijanis to use. Presumably there will also be a north-south road connecting Armenia and Iran. But I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult for Armenia to agree to this. Again, this is one more reason I think why it’s important to have negotiations on a full political agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan — to make that corridor functional.

RFE/RL: What is your advice to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government on what it should do next? Should it resign? And can we blame this colossal failure only on Pashinian? Or are previous Armenian governments also to be blamed for Armenia’s losses?

De Waal: I think this is a bigger failure for 20 years. The failure is on both sides — [Armenia and Azerbaijan] — to negotiate a peace and negotiate a compromise. But certainly, the Armenian side and Mr. Pashinian have also not been talking compromise.

I think it was a big mistake [for Pashinian] to continue to talk about these Azerbaijani territories [around Nagorno-Karabakh] as “liberated” territories, not occupied territories. The world regarded them as occupied territories.

[Former Armenian Prime Minister] Serzh Sarkisian, of course, said once that [the Azerbaijani district of] Agdam “is not our homeland.” So he acknowledged that. But there’s been very little public acknowledgment of that in Armenia. But it’s from both sides, this failure. It’s a strategic failure to talk peace, which is also true from the Azerbaijani side as well. There’s been a very aggressive language all these years from Azerbaijan.

I think it’s a big tragedy. And of course it’s a bigger tragedy now for Armenia because they have lost so much in this war.
I don’t have any advice but to be extremely realistic about the future — that if you live with difficult neighbors you’ve got to construct an extremely realistic policy about how to do that. Don’t live with your dreams but live with your realities. I’m afraid that’s the fate of Armenians.

RFE/RL: Do you think Pashinian should resign from his post as Armenia’s prime minister?

De Waal: I don’t know. That’s not for me to say. Maybe what Armenia needs is new elections. And maybe Pashinian would win those elections. But it’s not for me to speak on behalf of the Armenian people. I think new elections probably would be helpful in this very difficult context for Armenia.


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