Commentary: Astrakhan Summit, or Much Ado About Nothing


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Negotiations to resolve the Karabagh conflict have been moving at a snail’s pace; so slowly, indeed, that any insignificant progress is amplified in the media and hailed by the major powers with inordinate gusto.

Since the Russian-Georgian War over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the US and the European Union have resigned to the fact that most frozen conflicts resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union should be left to Russian initiative, with the tacit understanding that the latter will be mindful of the West’s energy interests in the Caucasus region.

Thus, there seems to be no incentive for the parties to resolve the frozen conflicts. Those frozen conflicts may erupt any time into open warfare, should the interest of any party be compromised.

Russia, as well as the Western powers, has been trying to tone down the bellicose rhetoric emanating from Baku. It is reported that even President Barack Obama personally has advised Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev that there is no military solution to the Karabagh problem. Regardless, Baku authorities continue their battle cries at their leisure.

The summit held in the Russian city of Astrakhan on October 27 was the seventh one undertaken by Russia’s president, who brought together Presidents Serge Sargisian and Aliyev.

Incidentally, Mr. Aliyev had a sideshow in Astrakhan, when he attended the dedication of a monument to his father, Heydar Aliyev, as he had done earlier in Kiev, keeping up with the Stalinist tradition of his father.

The summit drew much attention from all quarters. The first optimistic comment came from Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian who cited three important achievements at the summit: a) the reaffirmation of Meindorf Declaration principles of November 2, 2008; b) that the parties have agreed to reinforce mutual confidence through diplomatic channels and c) to exchange POWs and bodies of slain soldiers.

All three points are infinitesimally tiny steps towards any progress; the only meaningful agreement seems to be the exchange of prisoners, which is normal practice after each conflict. At least it is a relief for Armenia, because Azerbaijan thumbs its nose at the Geneva Convention and treats the POWs brutally. A case in point is the capture and murder of a disoriented Armenian shepherd by the Azeri side.

Nalbandian’s positive assessment was echoed in Baku (surprisingly!), Ankara, Paris and Washington.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a declaration characterizing the summit as a step “towards confidence-building” and wishing that it extends beyond “humanitarian boundaries to cover other areas.” The French Foreign Ministry, in turn, has hailed the agreement between the parties “to exchange prisoners and bodies of slain soldiers through the Organization for Security and Cooperation [OSCE] Minsk group and the International Red Cross.”

Mr. Phillip Crowley expressed his appreciation on behalf of the US State Department and emphasized that the agreement reached at Astrakhan, through Mr. Medvedev’s initiative will further consolidate the ceasefire agreement of 1994.

Every time there is a positive movement in the negotiations, Baku authorities routinely torpedo all hopes. Indeed, it has become almost a ceremonial process for Azerbaijan to breech the ceasefire agreement — and this time was no exception. Even before the delegations had left for their respective capitals, the Azeris triggered a skirmish at the contact point.

Adding insult to injury, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Defense Safar Abiyev has decided not to betray his bosses’ war-mongering tradition. Almost simultaneously to the Astrakhan meeting Abiyev was visiting China (October 25-29). During his visit to Beijing, Mr. Abiyev stated, “should the peaceful negotiations not yield results, Azerbaijan will resort to all means, including the army, to restore the country’s territorial integrity.”

Unfortunately, Azeri officials do not feel restrained and they dampen all hopes of a peaceful solution by such rhetoric. The Minsk Group co-chairs never counter Azeri war threats. Either they keep silent or issue warnings to both sides, which is tantamount to encouraging Baku to continue its reckless conduct with impunity.

Even worse, the OSCE representatives recently referred to Nagorno Karabagh’s capital, Stepanakert, in its Azeri name, Khankendi, and they referred to Karabagh as Azeri territory occupied by the Armenians. Karabagh has never been part of Azerbaijan’s territory, even in the Stalin era.

The Armenian parliament, in its turn, has devised its own scare tactic; through Raffi Hovhannissian’s Heritage Party, a draft resolution has been brought to the parliament floor. Every time Baku authorities fall out of line, the draft law is placed on the parliament’s agenda for discussion. The proposal calls for the recognition of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic by Armenia and invites the international community to follow suit.

The proposal was debated during the Astrakhan Summit to pressure Baku to compromise. But at the conclusion of the summit, the Republican Party representative Galoust Sahakyan moved that the debate be postponed until December 9, not to prejudice the ongoing negotiations.

On December 9, another summit is scheduled to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan. But no party is holding its breath that something more positive can emerge from that summit either. Most probably the parties will go through the same motions, the same rhetoric will be repeated and the negotiations will return to square one.

With all the best intentions Astrakhan Summit cannot be characterized as anything but “much ado about nothing.”

Will Astana be its carbon copy?

Let’s wait and see.