Karabakh's Crisis: Iran's Mediation and the Aftermath

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Dr. Mahmoud Vaezi
14 December 2008


With the start of 2008, the crisis in Karabakh entered its third decade. During the 20-year crisis around 50,000 people from the two sides have been killed, and another several hundred thousand have been displaced. During this time, various efforts have been made to settle the crisis, but they have not yet led to an equitable solution because of the divergence of interests among different internal and foreign actors. This article will review these efforts, especially Iran's mediation in 1992, which was the first serious step to manage the crisis, and evaluate the past, present and future situation of the crisis.

Emergence of the Crisis and Iran's Mediation

Gorbachev's failure to answer increasing ethnic demands resulting from the ethnic policies of the former Soviet Union led to bloody disputes between Armenians and Azeris in the capital city of Karabakh (Stepanakert) in late January 1988. Armed civil groups of nationalist Armenians attacked those parts of the city inhabited by Azeris. The crisis escalated as young Azeri civil forces attacked an Armenian neighborhood in Sumgait on 26 February 1988, during which shops and houses belonging to Armenians were set on fire. On 12 June 1988, Karabakh's parliament voted unanimously for the complete secession of Karabakh from Azerbaijan and its annexation to Armenia. Azerbaijan's parliament rejected the decision. Following this, Armenia's parliament declared Karabakh an integral part of the Republic of Armenia.

In March 1989, Karabakh's Armenians demanded a referendum to allow Karabakh's people to exert their right of self-determination. However, the Azeris believed that the entire population of the Republic of Azerbaijan should express its voices about the request of the country’s Armenian minority. Thus, the two parties very quickly lost their hope to the various solutions that Moscow had presented. With the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan in late 1991, Karabakh's crisis suddenly transformed into an international crisis in which many actors played a role. From January to September 1992, we witnessed an escalation of the Karabakh dispute that led to the partial conquest of Karabakh and the occupation of Shusha and Lachin by Armenians- two strategic cities, one in Karabakh and the other, outside of Karabakh in Azerbaijan. This period is the most difficult one in the history of Karabakh's dispute, fraught with major, extensive military and political developments.

Agreements concluded as a result of a meeting between the Armenian and Azeri presidents in late November 1992 in Moscow not only were not implemented but also complicated the situation even more because of the political rivalry in Baku. A decision made by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in its late January 1993 session for the peaceful resolution of Karabakh's dispute and the subsequent visit of its delegation to the region in mid-February bore no fruit. The defeat of Azeri forces in the regions surrounding Stepanakert and the seizure of the greater part of Karabakh by the Armenians, on the one hand, and the fall of Khoujali on 26 February, on the other hand, led ultimately political developments in to the resignation of the Azeri President Ayaz Motallebov on 6 March and the emergence of internal political tensions in Azerbaijan.

From a political point of view, Baku's provisory and unstable government was not able to make serious decisions about Karabakh in an atmosphere fraught with political disputes. From a military point of view, there was disequilibrium in the war front as well as political differences and competition over seizing power, which had a negative impact on the war front. Various political groups also exploited the military situation to further their own goals. Meanwhile, Armenia’s forces were gaining hope from their successive victories. Contrary to Azerbaijan, which had political disunity, there was relative stability and political unity in Armenia, where none of the parties and political groups allowed existing differences to go beyond a certain limit to endanger the republic’s political stability.

Because of their successes on the war front, Karabakh’s forces showed no flexibility for politically settling the crisis, and Armenian officials either could not influence them or agreed with their inflexible policies. During this period, military developments have had a deep impact on political approaches. For this reason, peaceful efforts carried out up to that time had no success. In such an atmosphere, the Islamic Republic of Iran began its mediatory efforts for peacefully settling the Karabakh dispute. Some observers mention five motives for Iran's mediation in the Karabakh conflict: First, Iran is aiming at a rapid solution to the conflict, for obvious security reasons. Second, prolongation of the conflict would lead to an even greater flight of refugees from the war-torn neighboring areas. Third, a balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan is another goal of Iran's mediating policy. Fourth, the Azeri-Armenian conflict is preventing Iran from making full use of its newly acquired access to Europe. Fifth, Iran needs to contain Turkish influence in the region.

Iran's mediatory efforts took place in several stages, which are discussed below.

First Stage: Consolidation of Mediation

As military activities increased, the region was awaiting bloody events with extensive consequences. In February 1992, Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, held negotiations with the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia about the peaceful settlement of Karabakh dispute. He declared Iran’s readiness to provide any assistance necessary in order to decrease tensions.

Following these steps, high-ranking representatives from Azerbaijan and Armenia visited Tehran in August for negotiations and consultations with Iranian authorities. The head of the Armenian delegation was Papazian, an advisor to the president, and the head of Azeri delegation was Albert Salamov, the deputy foreign minister. They negotiated directly with this article’s author (who at that time was a deputy foreign minister in Iran) during several sessions. These negotiations were very important for Iran because after such a difficult period of military clashes had passed, an evaluation of the demands put forth by the two sides and of their interests for the peaceful settlement of conflict could be made.

One of the formal challenges posing a serious obstacle in this round of negotiations was the presence and participation of Karabakh forces in the next round of negotiations to implement future decisions. The Armenian delegation believed that the main party that should take part in the negotiations over Karabakh about the were the Karabakh authorities themselves because they had to participate personally in negotiations and decide their own future. The role of the Armenian government would be only to help the negotiations advance.

The Azeri delegation, on the other hand, believed that first, because Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan’s territory, the presence of Karabakh authorities as a party to negotiations would imply the recognition of their claim of independence. Secondly, Karabakh had fought against Azerbaijan as Armenia’s proxy, and if it had not been for comprehensive Armenian support, the conflict would not have expanded to such levels. Therefore, the Azeri delegation believed, the main party to the Karabakh dispute should be Armenia itself, and if an agreement would be made with Armenia that would result in Armenia’s non-intervention in Karabakh’s affairs, an adequate solution for the conflict could be found.

The Armenian delegation did not deny its moral and political support for Karabakh. However, it believed that if Armenia ended this support, Azerbaijan's hostile policies towards Armenians inhabiting Karabakh would become so harsh that no single Armenian would remain in Karabakh. Given the serious differences between the views of the Armenian and Azerbaijani delegations, the Islamic Republic of Iran proposed that the two sides use negotiations in the future to determine the legal status of Karabakh’s autonomy.

As a result of these negotiations, the delegations formulated a 14-point statement. It included many issues such as the removing of the blockade, the return of refugees to their country, as well as the overall settlement of the dispute by using a general formula for different stages. The parties agreed that after the approval of the two presidents, the statement would be issued as the “Tehran Statement.” One of its paragraphs stipulated that the two sides should determine the legal status of Karabakh’s autonomy in the future through negotiations. This paragraph was rejected by the Azerbaijani president, and consequently the agreements made in Tehran were not implemented.

After this opposition by the Azerbaijani president of the statement which was, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, during their talks with Iran’s foreign minister, declared their willingness for the continuation of the efforts made in Tehran, including Iran's mediation in the Karabakh dispute. This request, which is considered the main and most important factor in every effort for mediation, paved the way for the Iranian official mediatory efforts to enter a new stage. Given Iran's situation, the two sides expected that Tehran's lead could help pave the way for an effective compromise.

Following this expression of willingness by the Azeri and Armenian parties to comply to the demands for Iran's mediation, this article’s author was officially introduced as the mediator to continue previous efforts. The experience obtained from the negotiations between the Azeri and Armenian delegations in Tehran proved to the Iranian Mediatory Delegation that it needed to become more familiar with regional realities, in particular the stances taken by Karabakh’s leaders, whose presence at that time in the negotiations was impossible. The Iranian mediatory delegation also needed to ensure that decisions and agreements that would be proposed in future negotiations would conform to the views of high-ranking authorities of all countries involved. They therefore adopted a plan of periodical visits and shuttle diplomacy to overcome existing problems.

Second Stage: Shuttle Diplomacy

The second stage of Iran's mediation began in March 1992. An Iranian delegation headed by the author made several visits to Baku, Yerevan, Stepanakert and Nakhchivan. During these visits, intensive negotiations about the Karabakh conflict were carried out with many qualified and relevant authorities, including high-ranking individuals such as the presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ministers of defense, national security advisors and speakers of parliament from the two republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. These negotiations aimed at diminishing the gap between the stances of the two sides and at setting the stage for further improvement of the relationship between the parties involved in the Karabakh dispute.

During these visits and negotiations with various levels of authorities of the three involved parties, stances, views and the degree of flexibility of all of the concerned parties were closely examined. As a result, before holding direct negotiations between the Azeri and Armenian delegations, their views had become relatively close to each other, and Iran’s Mediatory Delegation realized the extent to which the parties involved were ready to adjust their positions and managed developments based on this information.

The Iranian mediatory delegation tried to use every means for making the positions of the two sides closer to each other. Under Soviet rule, there had been a direct line of communication among Communist Party's leaders, which continued to exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Iranian mediatory delegation, in addition to consultations and direct negotiations, used this valuable communication line whenever the situation became complicated or an important problem required the exchange of views at a higher level.

The Iranian mediatory delegation was aware of Russia’s negative and positive roles in the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh dispute, given Moscow’s vast influence in the military and civilian affairs of both countries. Therefore, the Iranian delegation visited Moscow to conduct consultations, completed its efforts and attracted likely Russian cooperation for improving common efforts in the future; the bilateral meetings also made Russian officials more aware of previous attempts and future plans to resolve the Karabakh dispute. In these negotiations, efforts made by Iran to end the Karabakh dispute were appreciated by Moscow.

However, although Russian officials, particularly the Russian foreign minister, welcomed the activities of the Iranian mediatory delegation and expressed their best wishes for the success of its mediatory efforts, they did not go further. Meanwhile, given the geographical location of Georgia in the region and its influence in the settlement of dispute, the Iranian delegation also visited Tbilisi and informed Georgian officials about Iran’s attempts to resolve the crisis. Similarly, officials at Iran’s foreign ministry and various ambassadors of the Islamic Republic of Iran consulted with authorities in the countries that were interested in future developments in the Caucasus.

a) The Plan of the Iranian Mediatory Delegation for the Settlement of the Karabakh Dispute:

Iran's attempts were initially focused on reducing the intensity of war and on setting the stage for reaching an agreement for a transitory ceasefire. One of the other plans of the mediatory delegation was to assure that the involved parties did not use the opportunity of a ceasefire to arm themselves. As mentioned earlier, Azerbaijan was reluctant to even include Karabakh representatives in the negotiations; a move that Baku believed would show implicit recognition of Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. Armenia believed that without the presence of Karabakh’s leaders in the negotiations, decisions would not have any authority and would be fruitless. Moreover, Karabakh representatives did not agree to participate in the meetings as observers or at the lower political levels. This problem created serious challenges for the negotiations and reaching an agreement.

After holding preliminary negotiations with the leaders of the three involved parties, the Iranian mediatory delegation presented its suggestions that were aimed at obtaining more information about the parties’ positions and limitations. These suggestions contained a general plan for reaching a settlement. They were generally accepted by the involved parties. However, because of the fluidity of events, the existence of domestic pressure groups, interventions by some regional powers, and parties non-compliance with their pledges, it could not be expected that all of these suggestions would be enforced in a short period of time.The most important suggestions to reach a compromise or break initial deadlock were formulated in a 13- point plan including:

- A transitory and then permanent ceasefire

- Deployment of observers to monitor the ceasefire and to comply with agreements

- Exchanging prisoners and the bodies of killed soldiers

- Removing economic sanctions imposed on Karabakh by Azerbaijan

- Opening of transportation and communication routes to or within Karabakh

- Forming committees for the return of displaced people concurrent with the removal of sanctions

- Humanitarian aid to Karabakh

- Beginning negotiations for the determination of Karabakh’s legal status.

b) The Establishment of a Transitory Ceasefire:

The first round of the establishment of a transitory ceasefire, which had the approval of the three parties involved in the Karabakh dispute, was enforced from 21 March 1992. The mediatory delegation emphasized the importance of the temporary ceasefire as a necessary step in establishing confidence among the parties and providing an opportunity to cool down the dispute.

Efforts made by the Iranian mediatory delegation to transform the transitory ceasefire to a permanent one had little success because of concerns expressed by both sides about the creation of an opportunity for the other side to rearm and strengthen its forces. Iran's plan was devised to maintain the ceasefire with the help of peacekeeping forces comprising Iranian and Russian forces, which would monitor the ceasefire in the region, and their cooperation with the OSCE's peacekeeping forces and the U.N. However, this plan was not materialized because of the failure to reach a permanent ceasefire.

One of the effective attempts made by the Iranian delegation was to deploy some representatives to Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert to monitor the ceasefire and to coordinate with the officials from the three parties to implement agreements. These representatives reported regularly and quickly to the mediatory delegation about events, their activities and violations of the ceasefire.



The establishment of the first ceasefire after a round of bloody battles created hope for the return of peace and stability among the warring parties and civilians in the region. The most important message of the ceasefire was that the involved parties were convinced that reaching an agreement on the important issues of dispute would be possible only through negotiations. The establishment of the temporary ceasefire, from the Iranian delegation’s point of view, was one of the most important factors for building confidence in the relationship among the involved parties and could play a major role in future missions of the mediatory delegation.

Third Stage: the Tehran Summit

After achieving some success in the second stage of mediation by reducing the intensity of fighting, produced a transitory ceasefire and prepared a plan generally agreed upon by all the parties, the Iranian mediatory delegation visited the region in May 1992 and held meetings with the authorities of Azerbaijan and Armenia, including their presidents. During these meetings, Iran’s team emphasized the need to finalize and operationalize Iran's plan that had been prepared in the second stage of mediation. As a result of the efforts and negotiations made by the Iranian delegation, the presidents of the two countries agreed to visit Tehran to participate in a trilateral meeting with the presence of the Iranian president. It was also agreed that the second transitory ceasefire would be established in May 1992. Mechanisms planned for implementing this ceasefire were identical to the first one. Because of Azerbaijan's opposition to the presence of Karabakh leaders in the Tehran Summit, the Armenian delegation expressed the views of Karabakh leaders.

The Iranian mediatory delegation believed that to obtain results essential for the settlement of the dispute, it would be necessary that the leaders of both countries approve the decisions officially and publicly so that a new phase to settle the Karabakh dispute could begin. For this reason, Armenian President Terpetrossian and Azerbaijan’s caretaker President Yaghoub Mahammadov visited Tehran in May 1992 at the invitation of Iran’s President Hashemi Rafsanjani to participate in the trilateral meeting. As a result of the intensive, 2-day negotiations in Tehran, the three presidents signed an agreement on May 2, 1992, which was called the Tehran Summit Declaration.

The Tehran Summit can be analyzed from different perspectives. First, it culminated Iran's political efforts to reach an agreement, however transitory and short lived. Second, it reflected Iran's efforts in the regional and international levels to establish peace and stability commensurate with Iran’s greater role in the region. Third, the Tehran Summit was the first diplomatic effort of this kind held at the highest level between the mediator and the authorities of two involved countries. Later, this procedure was repeated frequently, particularly in Moscow.

The Tehran Summit Declaration contained delicate points mentioned by the mediatory delegation. Moreover, the presence of both Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents increased the credibility of its signing. The main points of this declaration were as follows:

- Appreciation of the efforts made by the IRI, other countries and international organizations to establish peace

- Regular and continuous meetings between high-ranking military officials to create regional security arrangements

- Emphasis on the settlement of all bilateral problems based on international law and the principles of the OSCE

- Finding a solution for the problems of Azeri and Armenian displaced people

- Emphasis on observing human rights as well as the rights of minorities in both countries

- Emphasis made by the two sides on peace and stability in the fronts as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh:

- Requesting the Iranian side to again send Mr. Vaezi to the region in order to continue mediatory efforts

- Expressing the two leaders' support for enforcing ceasefire

- Expressing hope by the two sides for the continuation of Iran's mediatory efforts aimed at obtaining full peace and security in the region until a final result may be reached.

Despite effective preparations, the Tehran Summit, which culminated in Iran's efforts to end one of the most complicated disputes within the former Soviet Union, was unable to materialize its positive results and achievements because of the unilateral action of Karabakh Armenians in capturing Shusha. In spite of this unforeseen development in the scene of military operations, the IRI’s positive efforts continued.

However, the close link between problems and the new military developments; the changing military formations of the two sides; changes created in the occupied regions; an increasing number of displaced people, prisoners and casualties; the uninterrupted flow of weapons to the disputed region; and most importantly, Azerbaijan's distrust of Armenia had made the mediation far more difficult. Under these circumstances, every mediatory effort faced obstacles. Nevertheless, the Tehran Summit proved a political fact that was Iran's responsibility for addressing developments in its neighboring regions.

The seizure of Shusha, which occurred only several hours after the signature of summit declaration, surprised the Armenian and Azeri high-ranking delegations, which were still in Tehran. The primary perception at that time suggested that the Armenian side as a whole, including Armenians inhabiting in Karabakh and Yerevan, had not adhered to the ceasefire. This inevitable event, brought about by the logic of war, transformed the war situation. The seizure of Shusha led to the subsequent seizure of Lachin, and this finally led to the opening of the famous Shusha-Lachin-Goris corridor, which directly links Karabakh to Armenia.

The other side of this development related to Azerbaijan's political situation. Karabakh's developments have always been a factor for transforming Azerbaijan’s domestic situation. The period that had led to the seizure of Shusha and Lachin paved the way for the People’s Front to leap to political power. The withdrawal of military and paramilitary forces from Shusha, which was considered the Azeris' strategic trench in Karabakh and their main military base, politically damaged the People’s Front government, making them unable to compromise. While the Tehran Summit was progressing, the main goal of the designers of Shusha’s fall was to defeat Iran’s mediatory efforts. In this regard, two points of view are worth mentioning. Some believe that Russia plotted to, along with Karabakh forces, set the stage for Shusha’s fall. Others believe that the treason made by Azerbaijan's People Front supported by Turkey led to the fall of Shusha. After the seizure of Shusha, it was revealed that Azerbaijan's military forces, which were mostly proponents of the People’s Front, had deserted their positions and fortifications only one day before the fall of the city. In his report to Azeri people about the causes of the fall of Shusha, Azerbaijan's caretaker President Yaghoub Mohammadov said an important sector of defense forces had left the city on 7 March, one day before the Armenian attacks.

Given these events, the agreement made at the Tehran Summit was not applicable. Since then, Iran's approach to mediation of the dispute has been distinguished from the period prior to the Tehran Summit. This distinction was the result of the domestic impact of the dispute and the political behavior of regional actors after the Tehran Summit. The distinguishing feature of Iran's approach, in both external and internal dimensions, was the lack of vitality, given the speed of the trend of events. In fact, developments after the seizure of Shusha and Lachin were so fast and serious that the form and nature of the conflict completely changed. As a result, Iran could not keep up with these developments as it had during the previous period.

When Karabakh became an important and determining factor in Azerbaijan’s domestic scene, Azerbaijan was no longer able to deal with the dispute. In Baku, the political focus was no longer on ending the non-obedience of separatist Armenians. Rather, it centered on internal disputes involving rival political groups. The fall of Shusha and shortly afterwards that of Lachin led to the overthrow of the unstable government of Yaghoub Mohammadov and to the coming to power of the People Front. After the fall of Shusha, Iran’s mediatory delegation continued its activities, but with the formation of a government by the People’s Front and, given Turkey’s vast influence on this group and the People’s Front’s opposition to Iran, there was no longer any chance for Iran’s mediatory delegation to continue its activities. After 6 months of peace-seeking efforts, these activities stopped.

The Russian Approach towards Iran's Mediation

Because of the Caucuses’ importance to Russia, Moscow seriously considered every action that increased its influence in the region. Iranian diplomatic moves in the Karabakh dispute, which were independent, attracted Moscow's attention more than other diplomatic movements.

Russia had failed in its own earlier efforts to settle the Karabakh dispute. The Iranian Mediatory Delegation went to Moscow after preliminary negotiations in the capitals of the region and preparing a plan for the settlement of the dispute. Aware of Russia’s sensitivity to developments in the Caucasus, Tehran wished to conduct some negotiations with Russian officials. The Russian foreign minister initially supported all efforts to solve the Karabakh problem made by any country or international organization and then added that he was pleased to see Iran's active participation in this issue. Then, he expressed hope for the success of Iran's efforts. Contact with Russia, in this first stage, ended officially without building any basis for further cooperation and exchange of views.

Iran was interested in working with Russia for joint action, but it seemed that Moscow was suspicious of Iran’s mediatory efforts. The reasons for this suspicion were numerous. The first reason stemmed from a geopolitical perception. Russia was looking for an answer to its geopolitical problem in its diplomatic efforts for the settlement of Karabakh dispute. The vacuum created from the collapse of the Soviet Union was naturally filled by other countries. The political environment could not remain in a vacuum. Therefore, Russia suspected every effort, including Iran's attempts, to restore political order in the republics of the former Soviet Union.

Russia was also interested in limiting Iran's role in bilateral consultations. Russia never wanted Iran to play a role beyond ordinary and diplomatic behaviors in the Caucasus. This point of view was not confined to Iran. The Russians had a similar view about other actors such as Turkey and even the OSCE. However, the OSCE, because of its international credit and weight, along with the membership of Russia in the organization, enjoyed a better position and therefore could have more participation in the process of the dispute.

Russia constantly suspected Iran’s role in the mediation process. It could not accept that Iranian efforts would remove tensions. However, the process of these Moscow-Tehran consultations, which did not involve any political moves, continued between the two countries.

Nevertheless, at the same time, after the third phase of the dispute (the seizure of Shusha and Lachin by Karabakh’s Armenian forces and the increase of the OSCE's participation), Russia tried to approach Iran to use its influence in this process in a limited way.

The change of government in Azerbaijan brought about new developments in the dispute. The Azeris tried to diversify effective parameters and to increase their maneuvering power. Attempts for employing Afghan mercenaries and concluding oil contracts with some Western companies were among the most important axes of Azerbajian's activities aimed at exerting pressure on the Armenians. Under these circumstances, the Russians redirected their attention towards Iran, having in mind that Tehran was in a position to persuade the Afghan prime minister to call up his mercenaries from Azerbaijan. This perception of Iran's role was utilitarian and marginal. This approach is still valid among Russian officials regarding Iran's role in Karabakh dispute.

International Mediatory Efforts in the Karabakh Dispute

1- Mediation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe: the Minsk Group

Azerbaijan and Armenia were gained OSCE membership in the organization’s second Summit held on 30-31 January 1992 in Prague. In this summit it was agreed that a delegation be sent to the Karabakh region to study the situation and the possibility of establishing a ceasefire and deploying monitoring groups. On 24 March, the OSCE’s Foreign Ministries’ Council met in Helsinki and decided to hold a conference in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to reach a final settlement of the Karabakh dispute. Russia, the United States, Finland, Italy, Turkey, France, Sweden, Hungry and Belarus (as the host country) were selected to participate in this conference.

The region of Lachin, which was outside of mountainous Karabakh, was seized by the Armenians on May 19, 1992. This move was condemned by many regional countries and international organizations, including the OSCE. Azerbaijan published a statement and announced that it would not be ready to negotiate before the Armenians’ withdrawal from Lachin. For this reason, the negotiations carried out by the Minsk Group had no result. After the victory of Azeri military forces in some areas of eastern Karabakh, the conditions for resuming negotiations were realized, and from June to September 1992, frequent sessions were held in Rome. These sessions, which were headed by Mario Rafaeli, an Italian diplomat, aimed to halt the disputes and normalize life for civilians.

The most important dispute in these negotiations was over the presence of Karabakh representatives in the negotiations. Azerbaijan opposed any arrangements implying the recognition of Karabakh Armenians as an independent entity and accepted the presence of Karabakh Armenians representatives only as a part of Azerbaijan’s delegation.

The absence of Karabakh representatives in the negotiations meant that no results were obtained. Azerbaijan and Turkey rejected direct negotiations with Karabakh representatives as the main party of the dispute and consistently recognized Armenia as the only involved party. Although Armenia implicitly declared that it was not the main party to the conflict, in practice it had been active in supporting Karabakh in all of the peace negotiations.

In the summer of 1992, the Azeris emphasized the evacuation of Shusha and Lachin as the pre-condition to restart the negotiations. For their part, Armenian officials had made the withdrawal of Azeri forces from eastern Karabakh a prerequisite to beginning the negotiations. After that, a significant decrease was seen in the Minsk Group’s activities, which subsequently was unable to reduce the fighting. As a result, Armenia’s representative to the U.N. demanded that the U.N.’s secretary general Boutrous Ghali in mid–October send some observers to the region to help establish a ceasefire.

After the failure of its attempts, the Minsk Group concluded that reaching an understanding with Russia would be necessary to settle the dispute; therefore, the Group decided to open its mediatory efforts up to Russia. For this reason, some consultations and negotiations for the settlement of the dispute were carried out between Russia and the Minsk Group from January to March 1994. One of the most contentious issues discussed between Russia and the Minsk Group was the formation of a peace-keeping force for monitoring the agreements related to Karabakh. The Russians believed that the mediation of the Minsk Group was ineffective because it had no leverage for implementing ceasefire.

The Russians wanted to determine the composition of the peace–keeping forces on its own. Russia expected that the Minsk Group would accord Moscow the political legitimacy to deploy its forces to the Karabakh region and wanted to the Group to give it this mandate. Russia’s resistance and insistence over the composition of the peace-keeping forces derived from this fact that given the background and record of this dispute and the long time needed to restore stability and peace in Karabakh, the Minsk Group avoided according such legitimacy to Russia and tried instead to reach a mutual understanding with Russia.

One of the other obstacles preventing the Minsk Group from reaching any compromises in the Karabakh dispute was the lack of a collective agreement, even a transitory one, among the involved parties. Of course, there were some convergences among some of the members of the Minsk Group. Some of its Western members and Turkey supported Azerbaijan, while Russia and Armenia sympathized with Karabakh. However, the main problem was that there was no consensus between these two incongruous camps .

After the signature of the Protocol of Bishkek on May 5, 1994 through the mediation of the Common wealth of Independent States(CIS)' Inter-parliamantary Group and a representative of the Russian president, the ceasefire agreement was signed on 9 May to provide an opportunity to reach a political agreement. After that, joint efforts made by Russia and the Minsk Group were based on the signature of this peace agreement.

To streamline the activities of the Minsk Group, a new mechanism that was devised was the creation of a triple co-chairmanship with the participation of the ambassadors of Russia, the U.S., and France. With Washington’s entrance into the mediatory efforts, a change occurred in the process of negotiations.

During the G-8 Summit in Saint Petersburg, the foreign ministers urged Azerbaijan and Armenia to show their political will to end their dispute in 2006.

2- The Minsk Group’s Plans to Settle the Karabakh Dispute

After several meetings, the Minsk Group, within the framework of its activities, proposed several peace plans to the involved parties as follows :

1) General Peace Plan: This plan was presented in June 1997. Based on this plan, Karabakh’s legal status and the evacuation of the occupied regions were to be enforced concurrently. The Azeris opposed this plan, but the Armenians viewed it positively.

2) Phased Peace Plan: This plan was presented in October 1997. According to this plan, in the first phase the occupied regions would be evacuated, then negotiations about the legal status would begin. Azeris favored this plan, but the Armenians rejected it. This plan had the following specifications: evacuation of the six occupied regions, the deployment of peace-keeping forces, removing economic embargo on Armenia, freeing Shusha and Lachin while simultaneously determining Karabakh’s legal status.

3) Public State Plan: With the failure of the two initial plans, the peace negotiations halted. Robert Kocharian, one of the leaders of Karabakh, replaced Petrossian. Contrary to initial negative evaluations, the Minsk Group resumed the mediation process November 1998. This group presented a plan for a public state. Based on this plan, Karabakh would remain part of Azerbaijan but would have a horizontal relation with Baku. This plan, if it had been realized, would have transformed Azerbaijan into a confederation. Because of this, Azerbaijan strongly opposed the plan, while referring to its national interests and the standards of international laws. On the contrary, Armenia welcomed the plan, which had been designed mainly by Russia.

The plan prescribed the creation of two states in the form of a federation or confederation.

Until 1995, Russia had supported the idea of confederation. But after close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Georgia on the one hand, and Western countries and institutions on the other hand, Russia relinquished the idea.

4) Great Alliance Contract: Having visited Karabakh and negotiated with Azeri and Armenian officials, the chairmen of the Minsk Group held specialized sessions in 2005 to provide new suggestions and to animate the negotiations’ process. After that, they declared their hope for the settlement of the dispute. On 6 January 2006, the Baku-based Azadliq newspaper, quoting one of the officials at Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry, presented in detail a plan under the name "Great Alliance Contract.” The plan included the withdrawal of Karabakh forces from the occupied regions except for Lachin and the postponement of the determination of Karabakh’s legal status until 2021. Given the ambiguities existing in this plan, it also was unable to remove the likelihood of further disputes.

5) The Peace Plan of the Minsk Group: In August 2006, the chairmen of the Minsk Group presented their final peace plan. This plan included the withdrawal of Armenian military forces from Azerbaijan's occupied territories near Nagorno-Karabakh; establishing diplomatic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan; recognition of the special status of Lachin and Kalbajar; including an existing corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh; demilitarization of these territories; and holding an election or a referendum for determining the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mathew Braisa, the U.S. chairman of the Minsk Group, said the main problem was how to reach an agreement on the timing of the withdrawal of military forces and on holding a referendum.

Armenia’s Foreign Minister, Eskanian stated that if Lachin enjoyed a political status similar to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian forces would withdraw from Karabakh. He also believed that because of security considerations, Kalbajar should be evacuated only after holding a referendum and the final determination of Karabakh’s political status.

On the other hand, Azeri Foreign Minister Mohammad Yarov believed that holding a referendum without the repatriation of displaced Azeris was meaningless. He also emphasized that according the maximum degree of autonomy to Karabakh would be the only solution for the dispute.

3 – An Appraisal of the Minsk Group’s Mediation

The Minsk Group was established in 1992 with the goal of ending the Karabakh dispute and continued its activities under a triple co-chairmanship in 1997. Its activities proceeded slowly because of differences among its leaders. The three countries leading the group each pursued their own international and regional interests, and it is too difficult for them to reach a common stance.

Another point is that given the goals and rivalries of Russia and the United States in the region, it can be claimed that both benefit from the continuation of the dispute and therefore do not make serious efforts to settling the dispute. However, in a general appraisal of the three stages of the Minsk Group’s mediatory efforts, which lasted about fifteen years and during which widespread efforts were carried out at different levels, we should say that these efforts were effective in narrowing the distance between competing views and reducing the intensity of fighting on different occasions, but in the first and second stages, they failed to reach their goal of establishing a ceasefire. Nevertheless, this group’s attempts helped the sustainability of the ceasefire. In the third stage, the group’s efforts focused on proposing three peace plans aimed at preparing a peace agreement. To reach this end, frequent meetings were arranged, but during recent years, the Minsk group’s mediatory efforts were faced with frustration and inertia, and ultimately no result was obtained.

Russia regards the Caucasus as within its zone of influence and does not welcome any action that would lead to the weakening of its traditional influence and to the strengthening of other actors. If the Minsk Group’s mediation had resulted in the final settlement of the Karabakh dispute, the consequences of these peaceful attempts would have undoubtedly had positive effects in the political, social, cultural and security spheres. For this reason, Russia, a member of OSCE and the Minsk Group, did not show its willingness to settle the dispute in this framework, and even when the Minsk Group decided to mediate jointly with Russia, no serious development occurred toward settling the dispute. The challenge between Russia and the OSCE in the Caucasus is a basic confrontation between Russia and the West for acquiring more influence. Russia has tried to settle political–security problems of this region independently or in the framework of the CIS.

Russia’s dual approach toward the Minsk Group’s mediation – holding membership in the group but not taking any positive steps to support its goals – led to the defeat of the Minsk Group’s mediatory efforts.

Armenia’s former president Leon Terpetrossian regarded the continuation of the crisis as the result of the challenge between the two main mediators, Russia and the OSCE.

In the first and second stages of its mediatory efforts, the Minsk Group had no regular contacts with Iran. The main reason for this was that Iran was not a member of this group. Another possible reason was America’s negative and suspicious attitude toward Iran’s political behavior. This attitude had a significant effect on the behavior of the Minsk Group toward Iran.

In its third stage of mediation, the Minsk Group concluded that the inflexibility of the involved parties on one hand and Russia’s parallel attempts on the other had led to the lack of progress in negotiations’ process For this reason, the Minsk Group changed its stance toward Iran, and its representative made a trip to Iran to negotiate with Iranian political officials and to set the stage for limited contacts and consultations. As a result, Iran’s representative was invited to participate as an observer in one of the meetings of the Minsk Group.

Mediation of the Russian Federation

Before the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia declared independence, the bulk of efforts made for the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh crisis were within the framework of the Soviet Union and the responsibility zone of Russia. The first attempt for the political settlement of the dispute was made by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakhstani President Noorsoltan Nazarbayev on 23 September 1991, which did not have any positive results. In late November 1991, through Russia’s efforts, negotiations carried out in Moscow by Armenian President Leon Terpetrossian and Azerbaijani President Ayaz Motallebov had relatively positive results, but because of domestic problems in Azerbaijan, the resulting agreements were never implemented.

In mid-1991, after appointing Vladimir Kazimirov as the Russian president’s representative in Karabakh affairs, Russia began intensive efforts to maintain its status in the Caucasus. In September 2003, Kazimirov, who was an expert on Azerbaijan-Armenia relations affairs, announced four concurrent levels of Russia’s tactics for engaging in the Karabakh dispute: as an OSCE member, as a U.N. member, as an independent mediator and in the framework of bilateral consultations. This classification was based on Russia’s appraisal of the role of each of these factors at the international and regional levels. In fact, Russia had defined four levels of mediation in its peace-building efforts and among which it paid more attention to those peace efforts in which the role of Russia was more prominent.

On 19 September 1992 a two-month ceasefire agreement was signed by the defense ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Souchi, with the mediation of Russia’s defense minister. After the establishment of the ceasefire, the Russian mediatory delegation made several visits to the region until November 1992 to negotiate with the involved parties. In early April 1993, Kalbajar region, which is situated outside of Karabakh, was seized by the Armenians in an escalation of the war. This led to the issuance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 822. On 17 June 1993, the bombing of the cities of Aghdam and Stepanakert stopped, also thanks to Russia’s mediation. However, on 26 June, Aghdam was captured by Armenian forces. With the re- escalation of fighting, the Armenians were able to capture various cities. Numerous visits to the region by the Russian mediatory delegation were not able to prevent the fighting.

The Second Stage: Joint Mediation of Russia and the CIS’s Inter-Parliamentary Group to Establish a Permanent Ceasefire

With the passage of time, various factors created a more favorable situation for mediation: Unsuccessful mediatory attempts and the fact that U.N. Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 had failed to change the situation; the exhaustion of Azeri military forces; Armenia’s adverse economic situation; and Armenian forces’ seizure of all the regions in Karabakh and a part of Azerbaijan’s territory outside of Karabakh, which covered 20 percent of Azerbaijan.

The Peace Group of the CIS’s Inter-Parliamentary Group, which was headed by the speaker of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, along with the representative of Russia’s president, visited Stepanakert, Baku and Yerevan from March 31 to April 3, 1994 to find a solution for the Karabakh dispute. As a result of the negotiations with the involved parties, it was agreed that the next session would be held in Bishkek. On May 4-5 1994, some negotiations were carried out through the mediation of Russia as well as the speaker of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament as the Chairman of CIS’s Inter parliamentary group; the speakers of the Azerbaijan and Armenia parliaments; and the Azeri and Armenian representatives of Mountainous Karabakh to settle the Karabakh dispute. These talks led to the signature of an agreement known as Protocol of Bishkek. According to the Protocol of Bishkek on May 9-12 1994, which was made through the mediation of Russia, the defense ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia and the representatives of Karabakh separatists carried out some negotiations, which led to the signature of the ceasefire agreement that is still valid. The establishment of the ceasefire was the most important development in the process of the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh dispute after 1991. The ceasefire agreement was supported by the majority of regional countries, major countries of the world, and regional and international organizations. The involved parties agreed that the ceasefire would remain valid until the signature of a comprehensive peace agreement for Karabakh.

The Third Stage: Russia’s Mediation through Direct Negotiations

After the establishment of the ceasefire, the atmosphere of the negotiations changed. All mediators and actors in this region paid attention to the important point that Russian power and influence in the region had increased to the extent that it had been able to realize its goals. The political, security and military means that Russia enjoyed in the region distinguished it from the other mediators. The presence of Russian military forces on former Soviet Union bases in the region, along with its deliverance of arms and munitions to the involved forces in the dispute to push affairs in the direction of their own goals, was a determining instrument that the Russians had in their hands. To clarify this issue, we should pay attention to the remarks made by A. Tuleyaf, the Minister of Cooperation among CIS Countries, in one of his reports on February 13, 1997, which was also published in the press. In his remarks, Tuleyaf confirmed that Russia had illegally delivered to Armenia military equipment worth $1 billion between January 1993 and December 1996. Given the very close relations between Karabakh Armenians and the Republic of Armenia, strengthening Armenia had a direct effect on Karabakh’s power and the dispute itself.

Russian mediatory tactics during the stage when Karabakh comprehensive peace agreements had to be prepared were to regulate bilateral talks between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, but in the rest of the mediation levels, including the Minsk Group, the U.N. Security Council negotiations and ad hoc sessions, the Russian delegation had an active presence. In the first week of November 1995, a series of negotiations was conducted in Moscow to prepare a comprehensive political agreement to establish peace in Karabakh, but the problem of the Lachin Corridor led the negotiations to a deadlock and delayed them for a while.

On September 3, 1996, Armenian deputy foreign minister Vartan Eskanian considered the peace plan for resolving disputes between Russia and Chechnya as a suitable model on which to base a Karabakh peace plan. These statements made it more difficult to settle the Karabakh dispute. The remarks made in late 1997 by Armenia’s president Leon Terpetrossian about the need to accept the staged OSCE plan for the Karabakh dispute, along with his famous article in Russian newspapers suggesting that the independence of Karabakh or its annexation to Armenia were not realistic, and the staged peace plan should be accepted to prevent the deterioration of situation in Armenia were concurrent with the withdrawal of Armenian forces from a small part of Azerbaijan’s territory. Therefore, a wave of popular protest and the opposition of political parties followed in such a way that Terpetrossian was forced to resign in February 1998. On 3 March 1998, Robert Kocharian, who had just been appointed Armenia’s prime minister, was elected president.

The election of Kocharian, who was born in Karabakh and was the leader of Karabakh for some time, sparked very negative reactions from Azerbaijanis. They called him an Azerbaijani and considered his government a warmongering one. This development created a relatively long pause in the process of peace negotiations. However, contrary to negative appraisals made largely in Baku, Kocharian and his government were committed to the ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire remained in force, and after the consolidation of the Kocharian government, peace negotiations began again. The Russian initiative in this stage was to arrange direct negotiations between the two presidents to prepare the Karabakh peace plan.

After the pause occurred during the process of the peaceful settlement of the dispute, a series of direct bilateral negotiations between Kocharian and Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev were arranged to reach an agreement on a comprehensive Karabakh peace plan. On 1 August 2001, the two presidents met each other in Suchi, Russia with Russia’s mediation. At the end of this meeting, Aliev and Kocharian confirmed that in the present situation there was no possibility to break the deadlock.

The Russian initiative for direct bilateral negotiations was able to create a momentum for the process of the peaceful settlement of the dispute and to break the deadlock. Direct negotiations between the two presidents were welcomed by other mediators such as the Minsk Group, the United States and France. By October 1999, around ten rounds of face-to-face negotiations between the two presidents taken place, thanks to attempts made by mediators, and the way was paved for presenting a comprehensive plan for establishing peace in Karabakh at the OSCE summit on November 18, 1999.

The terrorist act occurred on October 27, 1999in Yerevan, during which the speaker of the Armenian parliament Demirchian and Armenia’s Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian were killed, destroyed chances for agreements to be concluded between the two presidents at the OSCE summit. A new standstill emerged in the process of the settlement of the Karabakh dispute. After a while, through attempts made by mediators, direct negotiations between the two presidents resumed, and after the Yerevan event, they continued their negotiations in seven more rounds. It is noteworthy that two rounds of such talks were held in the border area of Azerbaijan (Nakhchivan) and Armenia.

Although direct negotiations between the two presidents have kept the ceasefire in force and prevented military operations, they have been unsuccessful in realizing the main goal of the negotiations, which is the conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement. Some analysts believe that certain interested powers in the region including Russia have no serious intention to establish peace and consider the state of “no war, no peace” to be the best option for them to reach their regional objectives. It is necessary to note that because of the existence of political pressure groups in both countries, their presidents have very little flexibility on this matter. This could be one of the other factors that have led to a full deadlock in negotiations.

Vladimir Kazimirov, who headed Russia's intermediary mission to Nagorno-Karabakh from 1992 to 1996, suggests: "The only way to a political breakthrough in Karabakh and to the earliest possible withdrawal from the occupied lands is to completely abandon the chimera of a forceful resolution to the conflict. The sides should ensure comprehensive conditions for the non-resumption of hostilities under the mediation of the international community." In this way, he believes that Baku's calls for revenge and a future war look highly unpromising.

At the same time, Fuad Ahmadov, an Azerbaijani political scientist, criticizes Kazimirov's remarks and writes: "Amid the background of Kazimirov’s openly pro-Armenian stance, his calls for guarantees for the non-resumption of military actions are viewed in Baku as Moscow’s intention to officially extend protection to Armenia." He adds that such statements could deal a blow to Russia’s image in the region and to its mediatory role. This exchange of views demonstrates how difficult it is to bring peace to this region.

In sum, concerning Russia's mediation in the Karabakh dispute, it might be suggested that initially Russian geopolitical interests took priority over its obligation to resolve the dispute and therefore took advantage of the mediation as an instrument to advance its interests in the region. This very Russian attitude was considered one of the main reasons for the failure of mediatory efforts made by the international organizations. In a later stage, because of its military and political weakness as well as a shift in its foreign policy priorities in the “near abroad,” Russia came to the conclusion that it was unable to maintain its monopoly over the Caspian Sea Basin and its resources. Hence, it decided to back a kind of unreliable stability in order to both enjoy the benefits arising from international projects on oil and transportation and to leave a space for exerting its influence in the region, if necessary, by using the leverage of unresolved disputes.

Now Russia believes that Karabakh representatives should take part in peace negotiations, and in relation to this, it has proposed a plan similar to the East Timor plan for the resolution of the dispute. Currently, Russia seeks to manage or resolve the crisis with a "no failure, no concession," formula which was manifested in the Astaneh summit in a meeting between the leaders of the two countries.

Recently the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev, met on June 6, 2008 on the sidelines of a CIS summit in St.Petersburg to discuss prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijani foreign minister Mammadyarov suggested that Azerbaijan's commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully, rather than militarily, itself constitutes a concession, and that the only other concession it would agree to would be to grant Nagorno-Karabakh any conceivable level of autonomy within Azerbaijan. In that context, the example he cited was that of Tatarstan within the Russian Federation.

Reasons for the Failure of Peace Negotiations and Plans

Despite the passage of more than 15 years from the beginning of peace negotiations and mediatory activities that involved regional and extra-regional powers as well as the Minsk Group, and after a 13-year ceasefire between the two countries, the Karabakh dispute has not yet led to a logical resolution, and Baku and Yerevan have not signed any peace agreement.

Reviewing the ups and downs of the dispute and the efforts made for its resolution during the past 20 years reveals the main causes of the failure of the two sides, governments and mediators. Among them, the following can be mentioned:

1-Complexity of the dispute’s dimensions: The Karabakh dispute, contrary to other similar disputes, is very complicated and its resolution requires management, patience and collective rationality. The dimensions of the dispute have expanded to such an extent that they have become intertwined with the interests of some international and regional great powers. Therefore, the will of the two countries is not enough to end the dispute. However, it is a necessary condition.

Another reason for the complexity of the dispute is that the two international law principles of "territorial integrity" and "self-determination" have confronted each other in this dispute. Referring to the principle of self-determination, Armenians are seeking independence or the separation of Karabakh from Azerbaijan and believe that they must play a role in their destiny. On the other hand, Azeris believe that Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan and that its secession is contrary to the internationally accepted principle of "territorial integrity.”

2- The two sides' inflexible stances: During negotiations, the leaders of both countries showed inflexibility in their stances and did not try to bring their demands closer to each other. The Azeri side, while emphasizing the inseparability of Karabakh from Azerbaijan, believes in a gradual and step-by-step settlement of the dispute. On the other hand, Armenia stresses the determination of Karabakh's legal status, considering it a necessary condition for withdrawing from the occupied territories. Armenia emphasizes that the dispute should be resolved in a package deal.

This inflexibility also exists among the people in both countries. Public opinion is not ready to back down because of the region’s historical background and nationalist sentiments. However, resolving the dispute requires the public’s approval.

3 - Unequal situation in negotiations: Since establishing the ceasefire in 1994 and during the 13-year negotiations, Armenia has had an upper hand in the negotiations because it seized 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. In other words, Azerbaijan was considered the losing side. Therefore, negotiations were not able to guarantee the demands of both sides on an equitable basis.

4- The lack of neutrality of the mediators: The great powers involved in the mediatory efforts, especially the U.S., Russia and France (the Minsk Group co-chairmanship) each pursue their own interests and also have not observed neutrality in the process of negotiations. Russia was accused of supporting the Armenians, France had traditionally close links with the Armenians, and the U.S. played a dual role. Despite the efforts made by Russia to gain the confidence of Azeri leaders and people by adopting a more moderate policy, especially during the second round of Putin's presidency, Azeris still regard Moscow Yerevan’s ally.

The U.S., for its part, allowed Karabakh to have a political representative on its soil and imposed sanctions against Baku. Such actions put the neutrality of these countries, which claimed to pursue an equitable solution to the dispute, under question and have not contributed to gaining the confidence of the two sides.