Andrei Yepifantsev: "New Karabakh war won't happen due to current international situation"

A little less than a year has passed since the April clashes for Karabakh, during which for the first time since introduction of the ceasefire in 1994 status quo has change and the occupied territories of Azerbaijan were liberated, but tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops on the contact line arise once again, clashes are becoming more frequent and more bloody. Political scientist Andrei Yepifantsev discussed lessons of February and April clashes and prospects of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement in an interview with Vestnik Kavkaza.

- How far did the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict advance over the past 11 months? 

- There was no advancement in terms of practical settlement, although certain things have changed. The severity of military conflict raised: if you compare the situations 5 years ago and what's happening now, it's clear that the level of these fairly regular armed clashes on the frontline has become higher. Accordingly, the danger of military solution, or at least large-scale confrontation, has also seriously increased over the past year, mainly after April clashes. American analysts also say this. Diplomat Carey Cavanaugh said in February that the probability of a serious conflict in the next 12 months is increasing. We see that both sides involved in the conflict, both Baku and Yerevan, remain on the same positions and strengthen them. In other words, it's becoming more and more likely that sides won't reach any compromises. This is especially true when we're talking about Yerevan, since there's a very serious internal consensus that there should be no compromises, no serious, substantive negotiations on Karabakh. In this sense, we can consider recently held referendum on renaming "Nagorno Karabakh Republic" into "Artsakh" as a certain gap with Azerbaijan even at the verbal level - and it's very important for diplomacy. On the one hand, the status of Nagorno Karabakh in the talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group wasn't affected, its position won't change, but it means a lot at the level of people's consolidation. It means that there's nothing to talk about anymore. So how will negotiations continue, if we see such position in Yerevan? What agreements can be reached, if all four UN resolutions are violated, there are no visible prospects for peaceful settlement, there's no field for a compromise.

Azerbaijan has also cemented its position on Nagorno-Karabakh. As far as Karabakh goes, the only thing Baku is ready for is the return of territories around Karabakh. It's also ready to provide Karabakh autonomy within Azerbaijan. In other words, it's the same formula that Baku offered for many years. Azerbaijan even retains the same tactics - in my subjective opinion, Azerbaijan is the initiator of latest short-term, local conflicts on the frontline. At the same time, it's necessary to understand the context: when Armenia imitates the negotiations, but isn't ready for any compromises in reality, Azerbaijan simply has no other way. Turkey and Georgia did the same at one time, Ukraine does it right now, it's a standard practice of unpromising negotiations. Overestimated expectations that Azerbaijani society had after April clashes didn't come true: at that time Azerbaijan thought that after such a large-scale confrontation the entire world will see that the conflict isn't frozen and will begin its settlement and put pressure on Armenia - but it didn't happen. 

The situation in the OSCE Minsk group is still the same, Armenia is still in a very confortable position: no one pushes it, no one forces it to make compromises, or implement the UN resolutions - it demonstratively doesn't fulfill them and nothing happens. Sanctions are imposed against Russia, which isn't a side of the Minsk process on Ukraine, for failure to comply with the conditions that it isn't obliged to comply with, and yet there are not sanctions against Armenia, which doesn't comply with the decisions of the UN Security Council. It's clear why: Russia is Armenia's strategic ally, France and the United States have very strong Armenian diaspora, it can even influence the government in America - these three countries are the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.

Some changes for Azerbaijan are possible. Previous US administration lost its positions, so the position of Armenian diaspora has significantly weakened. Hillary Clinton essentially was the only candidate for Armenian diaspora. This concers both position on the "genocide" and involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Overall, Armenian diaspora is traditionally associated with the democrats. At least two of their influential parliamentarians - Mark Kirk and Bob Dole - lost their posts. During the election campaign Armenian lobby went all in and lost, so we should expect weakening of its influence on American policy, and it may somehow change the US stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, although Donald Trump's position on the conflict is still unclear. We can only speculate what will happen in France after the upcoming elections, but most likely, its interest in the OSCE Minsk Group will decrease, which will strengthen Russia's role. However, this doesn't mean that Azerbaijan should expect any changes, since Russia also wants to preserve the status quo.

Of course, structural changes happened over the year, the stakes are much higher now, but so far we can't see the situation that can actually lead to serious changes. Something may happen when new US administration will determine its position on Nagorno-Karabakh. It won't happen quickly and will happen in the framework of those major issues that worry the United States in the region. In particular, I'm talking about the Iranian problem, which is on Trump's agenda. Perhaps he will try to form an anti-Iranian platform in the international community. Then Azerbaijan will become more relevant for the US. It's necessary to understand what Baku can expect in return. Though it's a dangerous game for Azerbaijan, to a certain extent. It's like walking through a minefield, when it's possible to take a shortcut, but the price may be much higher. 

- Is it dangerous to further delay the negotiations? Is there a threat of resumption of active hostilities with further changes in the status quo?

- I don't think a full-scale conflict will happen at the moment, at least due to current international situation. Only Azerbaijan can initiate the resumption of full-scale hostilities, since it's extremely disadvantageous for Armenia - but right now is not the right time. The international community is still not on Azerbaijan's side. Azerbaijan's only serious political ally in the conflict is Turkey, and its positions are seriously weakened due to its relations with NATO, the United States and Europe, as well as due to the issues of refugees, Kurds and Syria. In fact, Turkey isn't ready to actively help Azerbaijan in the OSCE Minsk, since it simply doesn't have any role in the group. Russia has clearly said that it would maintain the status quo, Europe doesn't want to be involved in the conflicts too much, and the US plant to isolate themselves from external problems, which are not a priority for them. Changes in the West's position allow Azerbaijan to hope that the situation will be more favorable in a fairly short period of time and that it will be possible to take more active position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But now is not the time to begin a large-scale military campaign. Armenia achieved everything it would like to have and can have from the point of view of international situation - a stable status quo under impossibility of legalization of occupation. It doesn't make sense for it to take any military actions.

- What can stimulate transition from diplomatic meetings to implementation of specific steps, such as liberation of occupied territories around Karabakh and return of refugees?

- If we're talking about ideal situation, I see it like this: world oil market returns to the state it was in 10 years ago, "seller's market", in other words, so the dependence of southern Europe on Azerbaijani oil and gas exports increases in the absence of alternatives. In such conditions, if military conflict will resume, Armenia will bomb oil pipelines (it should be noted that Armenia itself talks about this all the time). Europe will be damaged by this and international community will pay more attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, will be actually involved in its resolution. At the same time, we shouldn't expect that this conflict will be settled completely in Baku's favor, current positions of both sides are unreal. Even in ideal situation, the international community will demand significant compromises, such as separating Karabakh, creating a bi-communal state, like Serbs and Croats, broad federalization, in which Armenian and Azerbaijani communities have internal self-government. 

Other scenarios are also possible, sudden deterioration of relations between Russia and Armenia in particular. Theoretically, it's possible. Armenia almost signed association agreement with the EU a few years ago, which is unacceptable for Russia. We see that the Russian-Armenian relations are becoming more and more complicated, since Armenia is largely dissatisfied with Russia's position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the fact that Russia sells weapons to Azerbaijan. During April clashes, Armenia expected that Russia will take a clear pro-Armenian position, but it didn't happen. Even during the presidential elections in the United States, not only Armenian diaspora in the United States, but Armenia as a whole betted on Hillary Clinton, due to dissatisfaction with Russia's position. We hear during talks with Armenians: "we want to balance our position", but it actually means a desire to push Russia against the United States. Now Yerevan says "since there's no Hilary, we must remember that we're strategic allies with Russia", but its remarks were completely different six months ago.

Overall, there are no conditions for transition to concrete steps in the short-term. Conflict with regular monthly clashes will continue.

- Finally, taking into account latest large-scale clashes in February, how how urgent is the problem of peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict today? Will there be transition to implementation of specific steps following a particular scheme, or will active phase of the war resume?

- The Nagorno-Karabakh problem is currently not a priority of the international community. It may sound unpleasant for Baku, but it's not a problem of Ukraine's or Syria's level. Even these problems are no longer in the focus of major countries - the United States deal with their own problems and Europe deals with part of their foreign policy agenda, Germany in particular. Germany's role will grow, but this country doesn't have much to do with the OSCE Minsk Group. It's hard to imagine that France, where people like Trump are likely to win in a few months, will intensify its efforts on Nagorno-Karabakh: it doesn't have as much weight as the US, and Armenian diaspora will continue to restrain any activity. The situation when mediators will say "yes, we support Azerbaijan, but it 's necessary to resolve everything only at the negotiating table" is going to continue. Armenia will just neglect these negotiations, showing to its citizens that no compromises can be reached. This situation can be resolved only after huge structural changes.

Azerbaijan will pay a huge price for any mistake: if Baku will take steps to liberate its territories in such difficult conditions and won't be able to take Nagorno-Karabakh in a short period of time, a week, for example, the country and Azerbaijani elite will pay for it. 

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