By Araz Aslanli
The recent escalation of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which started on 27 September morning, immediately reminded us the mediation efforts for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, especially activities of the OSCE Minsk Group and its Co-Chairs. Azerbaijan and Turkey have increasingly continued their criticisms of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs in recent years. On 14 October, Armenia also started to criticize the Co-Chairs (though in a slightly more controlled way).
Let’s see how the Minsk Group and its Co-Chairmanship were formed, and what they have done for settlement of this conflict.
First mediation initiatives
In fact, the Minsk Process was not the first attempt in search of a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Earlier, on 23 September 1991, at the initiative of the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Zheleznovodsk Declaration (the first ceasefire agreement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) was signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, as Armenia did not comply with the agreement, the Azerbaijani side invited observers from Russia and Kazakhstan to show that the ceasefire was not respected. On 20 November 1991, the helicopter carrying the delegation composed of four high-ranking members of the Azerbaijani government (State Secretary Tofig Ismayilov, Deputy Prime Minister Zulfu Hajiyev, Minister of Internal Affairs Mahammad Asadov and Prosecutor General Ismet Gayibov), law-enforcement and security officials, two Russian army generals, Kazakh and Russian observers (Kazakh Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Sanlal Dasumovich Serikov and other officials) as well as prominent journalists was shot down by fire from the Armenian-controlled area. Everybody in the helicopter lost their lives. Thus, the first ceasefire attempt resulted in fiasco and serious loss of Azerbaijan.
The conflict assumed even more international character after both countries joined the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE, which was re-named to OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) by a decision adopted in the 1994 Budapest Summit) in early 1992. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh was assessed during the Additional Meeting of the CSCE Council of Foreign Ministers held in Helsinki on 24 March 1992. Articles 3-11 of the Final Document of the Additional Meeting addressed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and envisaged organization of a special conference in Minsk, capital of Belarus, for a peaceful settlement of this conflict. Article 9 of the Final Document named 11 countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Russian Federation, Sweden, Turkey and United States of America – to be participants of this conference. Coordination of the Minsk Conference was assigned to Italy and Italian representative Mario Rafaelli was appointed as Chairman of the Conference. The Conference was to be held in Minsk in July 1992. This initiative of the CSCE was also supported by the United Nations. In its meeting held on 26 March 1992, the UN Security Council adopted a decision on non-interfering in the conflict directly and supporting the CSCE’s efforts. On 1 April 1992, a meeting chaired by M. Rafaelli was held in Rome with participation of representatives of the countries that would take part in the Minsk Conference.
Soon after starting of the Minsk Process, Armenia occupied Shusha and Lachin districts of Azerbaijan, on 8 May and 17 May 1992 respectively. At the meeting of the CSCE Committee of Senior Officials held in Helsinki on 21 May 1992, a draft resolution proposed by the US representative, in which territorial integrity of Azerbaijan was emphasized and withdrawal of all foreign military forces from the region was envisaged, was voted for by all 51 countries, except Armenia. Meanwhile, as armed clashes continued, the Minsk Conference did not take place in 1992.
On 20 February 1992, Rome talks started with participation of the representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, USA and Chairman of the Minsk Conference M. Rafaelli. The purpose of these talks was to reach an agreement between the parties on full ceasefire and official start of the Minsk Conference. Although this goal was not achieved, at least it was agreed that observers should come to the region in order to provide ceasefire. However, Armenia launched an attack on Kalbajar district of Azerbaijan on 27 March 1993 and occupied it on 3 April 1993. On 30 April 1993, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 822, which condemned the occupation of Kalbajar and demanded immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying Armenian forces.
On 3 May 1993, under the leadership of the late Russian President B. Yeltsin, Russia, Turkey and USA announced starting of a peace initiative within the framework of the CSCE process. They proposed a plan that envisaged withdrawal of the Armenian forces from Kalbajar by 14 May 1993 and starting of peace talks under the auspices of the CSCE from 17 May 1993. Azerbaijan accepted this plan, but Armenia did not.
Representatives of nine CSCE participating states (Belarus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Turkey and USA) met in Rome on 3-4 June 1993. They adopted an “Emergency Action Plan” on implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 822 and continuation of peace talks under the auspices of the CSCE, and proposed it to the parties. According to the “Emergency Action Plan”, the Armenian side would have started full withdrawal from Kalbajar as of 15 June 1993, the withdrawal process should have been completed by 20 June 1993, and 50 CSCE observers would have been stationed in the area from 1 July 1993. Then, peace talks within the framework of the Minsk Conference should have been resumed not later than 7 August 1993. Azerbaijan accepted and signed this plan. Although Armenia initially said that it would accept this plan, later it intensified its attacks on the Azerbaijani territories, taking advantage of an internal disorder (military coup attempt) in Azerbaijan. As a result of these attacks, Armenia occupied Aghdere district of Azerbaijan on 26-28 June 1993, and major part of Aghdam district of Azerbaijan on 23-24 July 1993. In its meeting held on 29 July 1993, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 853 concerning this issue.
In general, Armenia continued to occupy Azerbaijani territories, the UN Security Council continued to adopt resolutions and the CSCE continued to propose new “emergency action plans” until the end of 1993. In all of these resolutions and “emergency action plans”, territorial integrity of Azerbaijan was emphasized, as well as immediate and unconditional withdrawal from all occupied territories was demanded. However, neither the UN Security Council resolutions, nor “emergency action plans” were implemented.
Post-1994 ceasefire period
Although the CSCE tried to take part in the May 1994 ceasefire process between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the major role in the process was played by Russia.
Until the OSCE Budapest Summit held in December 1994, some changes were made to the structure of the Minsk Group and chairmanship system was replaced by co-chair system. In this Summit, Russia was given permanent co-chair status in the Minsk Group, and it was decided to form a joint NATO-Russia peacekeeping force. By giving permanent co-chair status to Russia, the OSCE reduced Russia’s reactions on the one hand, and tried to prevent this issue from leaving the OSCE framework and going under Russia’s sole control on the other hand.
During the Minsk Process of 1995-1996, different co-chairs were appointed to the Minsk Conference and Minsk Group separately (for example, in late February 1996, Co-Chairs of the Minsk Conference H. Talvitie and V. Lozinski, as well as Minsk Group Co-Chairs V. Kazimirov and R. Niberg visited the region).
Certain changes regarding the Minsk Group Co-Chairs were made after the OSCE Lisbon Summit held in December 1996. Initially, a French representative was appointed as Co-Chair of the Minsk Group in January 1997. Then, another Co-Chair from the USA was added to the Group besides Russian and French Co-Chairs. On 14 February 1997, Danish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Niels Helveg Petersen approved the new Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Thus, triple co-chair system was formed in the OSCE Minsk Group and the settlement process was nearly monopolized by these three Co-Chairs. This situation continued until September 2020.
A number of proposals have been brought to the agenda by Co-Chairs to date. Some of them were in the form of plans, some others in the form of principles. The most resonating ones among them were the three proposals (draft peace agreement) offered to the parties in 1997 and 1998, which included most comprehensive plans for settlement of the conflict. As the first two drafts were accepted by Azerbaijan but rejected by Armenia, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs saw a need for putting forward third draft. The third proposal prepared by the Russian Co-Chair was aimed at eliminating Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and therefore, was not accepted by Azerbaijan.
The Co-Chairs put forward new initiatives and tried to start new processes in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007. In 1999, preparations were underway for signing a peace agreement during the OSCE Istanbul Summit. However, a terror act in the Armenian parliament on 27 October 1999 stopped this process (Speaker of Parliament, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers and 6 MPs were shot dead in the parliament). Meetings held in France and USA in 2001 also did not yield any result. Although the scope of peace talks was broadened during the 2004 Prague Process, no settlement could be achieved at the end.
“Madrid principles” and “Lavrov plan”
On 29 November 2007, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs submitted a new proposal on basic principles for settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (later called “Madrid principles”) to the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both parties accused each other of not complying with the principles. The renewed Madrid principles proposed to the parties in 2009 suffered a similar fate.
After the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, as well as the four-day war in April 2016 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Co-Chairs stated that the status quo was risky and must be changed. Efforts for a resolution were supposedly intensified and new proposals described as “Lavrov plan” were put on the table in 2016. According to this plan, firstly Armenia would withdraw from 5 occupied Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region and then mutual steps would be taken by the parties. While Armenia did not object to this plan, it did not take any step in practice and continued its occupation of Azerbaijani territories. There are some opinions that this situation was not liked by Russia either.
Especially since 2008, Azerbaijan called for the Co-Chairs to make more serious efforts with regard to the settlement of this conflict, compliance with the fundamental norms of the international law, and implementation of the decisions of international organizations, including the UN Security Council, on this matter. During 2010s, both Azerbaijan and Turkey (and from time to time, also Iran) blamed the Co-Chairs for not undertaking any result-oriented work and deliberately contributing to the continuation of the occupation.
While the ongoing non-combatant situation could be seen as a success of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, the common perception was that as if the main task of the Co-Chairs was not solving this problem, but prolonging the lifetime of its deadlock. The Co-Chairs have reacted to Azerbaijan’s raising this issue in the UN, Council of Europe and other international organizations, but they themselves have not taken any serious step towards resolution of this conflict.
After escalation of armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July 2020 (Armenia killed 11 Azerbaijani military servicemen, including 1 general, as well as 1 civilian; even the Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov stated that the escalation occurred because of Armenia’s first attack), Azerbaijani officials called for the Minsk Group Co-Chairs and international organizations to take effective steps and to avoid new provocations by Armenia. Armenia in its turn blamed Azerbaijan for attacks and called for the international organizations. On the eve of the most recent escalation of war, which started on 27 September, Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of preparing for a new war. Despite all this, the Co-Chairs have not taken any serious initiative to stop mutual attacks or to achieve a lasting peace.
The current war will affect not only the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but also that of the Minsk Group and its Co-Chairs. Although neither party has officially made any statement about disabling the Minsk Group or its Co-Chairs, it is obvious that Russia and Turkey de facto play more decisive roles. Probably, when the conflict ends, the peace agreement will be signed through the mediation by Co-Chairs+Turkey or Russia+Turkey. In any case, it is most likely that the present process will bring about the end of the Minsk Group, maybe without ever gathering at a conference in Minsk, which was the original idea in 1992…
Araz Aslanli is Director of the Caucasian Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (QAFSAM).
Read the original article on the London Post.