Ceasefire 20: Minsk Group activities – failure or success?

May 2014 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Karabakh ceasefire when after nearly three years of fierce fighting guns finally stopped firing and people started talking.

The main international format advancing the negotiations is the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Its co-chairing nations are Russia, the United States and France.

At a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on March 24, 1992, the secretary-general of the organization then called CSCE (Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe) suggested calling a conference on Nagorno-Karabakh under the auspices of the structure. It was then that such a conference was called by CSCE member states’ foreign minister. The participants of that conference were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. The conference was set the task of achieving a ceasefire and beginning political negotiations on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Belarus offered its capital, Minsk, as the venue for the final negotiations, hence the name “Minsk Conference” or “Minsk Group”. But what was planned as a Minsk conference has not taken place to date.

In May 1994, the parties to the conflict managed to reach a ceasefire agreement with the mediation of Russia. Hopes were high then that in the absence of hostilities the parties would also manage to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict within a few years. But the mediation effort has lasted already for two decades and there is no clear sign that the parties are any closer to a peace deal.

The Minsk Group has frequently been criticized for not doing enough to broker a settlement, on the other hand many believe that the very situation in which there is no resumption of hostilities in the Karabakh conflict zone is the biggest achievement of the group.

During its activities the Minsk Group has come up with a number of major packages of peace proposals.

The first official proposal was put forward by the group’s co-chairs in June 1997. It was a so-called “package solution” that implied the sides’ preliminary agreement on all disputed issues at a time. But the parties to the conflict did not accept that option.

The second proposal, called a “phased solution”, was made by the Minsk Group in September 1997. The phased scheme implied that at the first stage a number of territories outside the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Republic (except for the Lachin corridor) would be returned to Azerbaijan and refugees would return there too, and at the second stage it was planned to discuss the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ceding of Shushi and Lachin. The phased variant caused strong protests in Armenia and eventually led to the resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan in early 1998. Robert Kocharyan, a native of Karabakh, came to power in Armenia.

Later that year the international mediators made the third proposal conventionally called “Common State”. This proposal implied the establishment of a confederation consisting of the NKR and Azerbaijan, but it contradicted the Constitution of Azerbaijan. For this reason, Azerbaijan rejected the proposal. The October 1999 parliamentary shootout in Armenia in which eight state officials, including the prime minister and parliament speaker were killed, suspended the negotiations.

More unsuccessful negotiations were held in 2001, and the 2002 “Paris” proposals, which were a synthesis of the “package” and “phased” solutions, were eventually rejected as well.

In 2007, the Minsk Group presented to the parties to the conflict the original version of what would become known as Madrid principles. The mediators said the Basic Principles reflected a reasonable compromise based on the Helsinki Final Act principles of Non-Use of Force, Territorial Integrity, and the Equal Rights and Self-Determination of Peoples. The Basic Principles call for inter alia: return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance; a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will; the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.

Experts believe that the main achievement of the Minsk Group in the past years is the maintenance of peace – the continuing talks do not allow the parties to use their gun again. Besides, it is a platform for discussions, which is very important for Armenia and Azerbaijan that have no relationship otherwise.

But the main “function” of the Minsk Group can be considered maintaining a balance between the world centers of power – Russia, the United States and Europe. As analysts note, the Minsk Group allows the parties to prevent the dominance of one of them, which helps maintain the status quo and eventually peace in the region. Russia tried to take over the initiative in the Karabakh solution at one point, but during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev the attempt essentially failed as the Moscow peace plan was rejected at the Kazan Summit in 2011.

The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship on Karabakh is perhaps the only format in which the presidents of the three powers – the United States, Russia and France – have issued four joint declarations on common approaches. But experts acknowledge that these statements were in reality aimed not so much at achieving the resolution of the conflict as at preventing the settlement according to a plan of only one of the three nations.