What Will the Abolition of the OSCE Minsk Group Bring to the South Caucasus?
Eka Javakhishvili, Analyst
After the 44-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, many questions were raised about the effectiveness of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Since 1992, the group of OSCE member states has been leading to encourage a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, but has failed to prevent armed confrontation between the conflict parties. After the 2020 war, Russia assumed the role of the main mediator between the parties, which in effect distanced the OSCE Minsk Group from the ongoing processes. With the mediation of Russia, a ceasefire agreement was signed on November 9, 2020 and the Kremlin set up a convenient trilateral dialogue format (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia) for further negotiations. While Azerbaijan no longer considers it necessary to continue the activities of the OSCE Minsk Group, as it believes that the conflict has already been solved by military means, Official Yerevan is still trying to maintain the format of the Minsk Group in their interests.
On April 8, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced the dissolution of the trio of OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs (Russia, US, France) after a meeting with his Armenian counterpart. He said that the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group from the US and France refused to work with Russia within the Minsk Group format. He added that he did not have any information about the future of the Minsk Group, but that Moscow remained committed to normalizing relations between Baku and Yerevan and implementing all the agreements reached in the tripartite format.
Lavrov made it clear to the international community that Russia is not going to give up to the West its initiative in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In addition, Official Moscow appointed the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair from Russia, Igor Khovaev, as a “Special Representative of the Russian Foreign Minister for the Normalization of Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” In this way, Russia seeks to maintain a privileged position in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks.
Why is Armenia Interested in Maintaining the Minsk Group?
After the meeting with Lavrov, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan stated that the international community continues to see the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship. Yerevan is trying to keep alive the Minsk Group format as it takes into account the interests of Armenia based on the Madrid principles. One of those principles considers the right of nations to self-determination, and thus the determination of the legal and political status of Nagorno-Karabakh by the local population, which corresponds to the interests of the Armenian side. Currently, Yerevan wants the OSCE Minsk Group to not only continue the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but also to be involved in the forthcoming negotiations on a peace agreement with Azerbaijan.
Following Lavrov's statement, France and the United States reaffirmed their readiness to continue to contribute to the establishment of peace between Yerevan and Baku, as co-chairs of the Minsk Group. The French Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Brice Roquefeuil, visited Armenia on April 11 to discuss the issue, and the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair from the United States, Andrew Schofer, visited Yerevan on April 18. Roquefeuil expressed France's desire to maintain the format of the OSCE Minsk Group, while Schofer said that the United States remains committed to its mandate within the OSCE Minsk Group.
Following these processes, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 19. In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the Armenian and Russian leaders underlined the importance of using the potential and experience of the institute of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, in accordance with its international mandate. The leaders of the two countries also stressed the decisive contribution of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to the provision of security in the conflict zone.
Armenia's Softened Position
One of the Madrid principles provides for the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, which is strongly opposed by the Armenian side. However, recent statements from Nikol Pashinyan point to Yerevan's softening stance. Addressing the National Assembly on April 13, the Prime Minister of Armenia said that the international community expects Armenia “to lower the benchmark on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh a little, and to ensure greater international consolidation around Armenia and Artsakh”. He also said that, for Yerevan, the main goal of the negotiations would no longer be an agreement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, but to ensure the security and rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This statement is controversial to the policy that Armenia has been pursuing for the last three decades. It seems that Pashinyan's new approach is the result of a more realistic assessment of the situation in the region and beyond, given the fact that Russia fails to offer real security guarantees to Armenia, and that the opinion of the international community leans in favor of Nagorno-Karabakh being a part of Azerbaijan.
The reaction of Armenian society to Pashinyan's new political initiative was moderately critical, although it was clearly unacceptable to the Armenian opposition forces, which exclude the possibility of Nagorno-Karabakh being part of Azerbaijan with any status. Pashinyan's initiative also sparked outrage in the de facto parliament of unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh, which assessed the move as “crossing red lines.”
Increasing EU Involvement in Conflict Resolution
Recently, the European Union has become more active in resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. On April 6, a fruitful meeting between the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia was held in Brussels, where Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan agreed to convene a joint border commission by the end of April and to instruct their ministers of foreign affairs to work on the preparation of a future peace treaty. The meeting was mediated by the President of the European Council Charles Michel. It was the second meeting in Brussels mediated by the European Union: the first took place in December 2021. This indicates that the EU is trying to become more active in ensuring security in the South Caucasus. Brussels wants to balance Russia's leading positions in the region, but the EU is also interested in Azerbaijan's growing role in the process of diversifying Europe's energy sources. In parallel with the rejection of Russian energy resources, Europe plans to receive additional volumes of natural gas from Azerbaijan. Therefore, the issue of ensuring stability and security in the South Caucasus is becoming even more important.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have always emphasized Russia's contribution to the trilateral agreements. However, during his last speech in parliament, Pashinyan paid greater attention to the efforts of the EU and the President of the European Council Charles Michel, who initiated the talks between Pashinyan and Aliyev twice. Pashinyan also spoke with Charles Michel before meeting with Putin, who expressed support for the Armenian Prime Minister in building a peaceful, stable and secure South Caucasus.
The Armenian prime minister also indirectly criticized the Russian peacekeepers in a speech to parliament, saying the incident on March 24, when Azerbaijani military forces entered an Armenian village in Nagorno-Karabakh, was under their responsibility. Pashinyan also criticized the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which he accused of inaction.
At first glance, the abolition of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs format suggests that the levers of conflict resolution in the South Caucasus will be left only to Russia. However, if we take into consideration the fact that Russia is waging a war in Ukraine and is in international isolation, Russia's influence in the South Caucasus will likely be significantly weakened. This will inevitably lead to an increase in the involvement of Western structures in resolving regional conflicts. These developments could give impetus to the formation of a broader, international coalition on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, in which, along with Russia, Western states and structures will play key roles. The changed security dynamics in the region will have a significant impact on Georgia, which is also interested in the establishment of lasting peace and stability in the region and focusing on further economic development.
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