Caucasian example - a risk that does not pay off

Dragan Bisenić
Source: Print Screen/YouTube N1

Writing for Kosovo Online: Dragan Bisenic, journalist

The Azerbaijan Government and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh said they had agreed to a Russian-brokered ceasefire, a day after Azerbaijan launched a military operation in the disputed region. Nagorno-Karabakh's human rights commissioner said at least 25 people had been killed and another 138 wounded. The ceasefire included a commitment to participate in talks on the future of the region and the ethnic Armenians living in the area after the violence raised fears of a wider regional conflict.

Azerbaijan demanded "complete withdrawal" of Armenian forces; Armenia called on Russian peacekeepers to intervene. President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said in a statement that his country would only accept surrender, asking the Armenian military formations to "raise the white flag".

Analogies with Balkan examples were immediately drawn. Thus, an expert on the Caucasus, Laurent Brers, stated that "as expected, Azerbaijan launched its own version of Croatia's 'Operation Storm', in order to fully occupy the Armenian-populated Karabakh. Drones and artillery strikes hit targets in Stepanakert and elsewhere." . Another expert from the Carnegie Center, Thomas de Waal, accepts this opinion "except in the part that it was all expected". There was hope that after several weeks of intensive diplomacy by the EU and the US, this had been avoided. But Russia's role (the decision not to act) is probably crucial, de Waal says.

The connection between Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh and Kosovo was established immediately after the beginning of the international recognition of Kosovo. Kosovo's declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 has sparked extensive debate about its possible implications for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with some statements, including some from Armenia, suggesting that it completely changes the situation in the South Caucasus, and others including those from Azerbaijan and some Western governments arguing that it is not applicable to territorial disputes there.

As soon as the recognition of Kosovo's independence began, then-Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan said in an interview with Reuters that Kosovo's independence would strengthen the Armenian demand that the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh be recognized as a state. Sargsyan thus linked the statuses of Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh and concluded that Armenia was thus in a favorable position and that the recognition of Kosovo's independence could be welcomed by Armenia. Three decades later, things have developed in a direction completely opposite to the expectations of the former Armenian Prime Minister.

Russia also mediated the previous ceasefire in the region after the outbreak of the conflict in 2020, and peacekeeping forces are stationed there. Armenia has criticized Russia in recent weeks for failing to convince Azerbaijan to open humanitarian corridors to the disputed region. Both the United States and Russia have condemned Azerbaijan's offensive. Thus, it seems that Azerbaijan won the short war with Armenia, conquering the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Armenian side that ruled that territory should disband its army and hand over its weapons, under the terms of a ceasefire brokered by Russia. There will be plenty to debate here, but Russia and Azerbaijan seem to have played their cards well. Azerbaijan has the territory it has wanted for years. Previously, this would have been a dangerous defeat for Russia, Armenia's traditional ally. But Armenia has distanced itself from Russia in recent months. According to the established ceasefire, it seems that Russian "peacekeepers" will remain in the region — so that Russia does not lose its dignity.

Russia, which started a military operation in Ukraine, now has less room for action than it had before. The role of Turkey in the life of the Caucasus region in general, and especially in relations with Russia, has increased manifold. The Azerbaijani leadership clearly understands everything and uses it in their own interests, and probably everyone would do the same.

Azerbaijani Karabakh became a symbol of the beginning and end of the post-Soviet period. When we spoke almost 25 years ago, prominent French historian Marc Ferro estimated that the upheaval in Europe began with the cry of "Karabakh! Karabakh!".

Thus, a wave of secessionism started towards Europe, in which Kosovo and Metohija found themselves. In that historical movement, Kosovo and Metohija is also the beginning and the end of the post-Yugoslav conflict. Now, all the countries that came out of the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav period have to prove their viability, including Serbia, but also Russia. But Karabakh Kosovo and Metohija, if they have similar dynamics, are not completely identical. Kosovo and Metohija has always been a part of Serbia, while this is not the case with Karabakh, that is, it was not a part of Armenia. Armenia has not even recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as Russia has done in the cases of Ossetia and Abkhazia or Northern Cyprus which is recognized by Turkey. In this sense, although other countries have not recognized these territories, Russia and Turkey have clearly defined that they represent their protectors and that they will defend them in case of necessity.

Nagorno-Karabakh was a territory with great legal ambiguity, unlike Kosovo and Metohija, which was not. Kosovo and Metohija is a part of Serbia according to the Constitution of Serbia and UN Security Council Resolution 1244. In recent years, Azerbaijan adopted a military solution to establish its territorial integrity.

In the case of Serbia, things are different and the determination is to seek a solution through political and diplomatic means.

The balance in Nagorno-Karabakh has been in favor of Armenia for a long time, almost three decades. Armenia's Moscow allies critically point out that Armenia did not use that time, which was favorable for it, to conclude an agreement that would guarantee the safety of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh or define itself more clearly according to the territory that it actually kept under its control. Russian diplomacy, in general, does not look favorably on the passivity of its close partners who are in conflict, if they do not take advantage of favorable opportunities to find a diplomatic solution or do not show enough creativity and flexibility to reach such a solution.

For Pristina, that opportunity is the dialogue being conducted in Brussels, but it has reached an impasse from which there is no clear way out. The way Pristina is positioning itself, putting recognition as a "condition of all conditions", seems to prevent any point of contact with Serbia's position. Last week's failure of dialogue in Brussels is therefore not unexpected, nor surprising.

In any case, the process of territorial control by state entities such as Azerbaijan appears to have prevailed over parastatal entities such as Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukraine is a strong motive for most countries in the world to adopt this position, and Kosovo and Metohija are not doing well there. Attitudes about the "uniqueness" of Kosovo's secession with the help of military action from outside are no longer convincing to anyone. There is another thing. This is the understanding that at this moment the role of Serbia in the plans of the EU, NATO, and the West has increased, and this has an impact on the attitude towards Serbia in the dialogue. For the US, Kosovo is no longer the same as it was 25 or 30 years ago. This is something that the Prime Minister of Kosovo and Metohija may subconsciously see as a danger because at any cost and as soon as possible, he insists on changing the existing balance when it comes to Kosovo and Metohija and the complete rounding of Kosovo's statehood, by Serbia "de facto" recognizing Kosovo.

This was formulated by the President of the Kosovo Assembly in the following words:

"Call it a de facto recognition, it is a recognition of the statehood of Kosovo. Serbia should agree that when you cross the border at Merdar, you are in another country." Along with all that, there is a direct deepening of the confrontation with the European Union and its Envoy Miroslav Lajcak, and indirectly with the USA, which unequivocally and directly supported Lajcak. All this is entering into a risky venture that may not pay off.

Let's go back to the Caucasus again. Just a few months ago, a deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia seemed to be on the way. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan said that Azerbaijan and Armenia could mutually recognize Armenia's territory of 29,800 square kilometers and Azerbaijan's territory of 86,600 square kilometers, which also included enclaves.

A breakthrough in the negotiations took place at the beginning of May when the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and Azerbaijan spent four days in Washington, where they talked together with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Talks began when Blinken, who initiated the summit, met the two Ministers of Foreign Affairs after speaking to them separately.

At the end of these talks, Blinken said that Yerevan and Baku were "close to an agreement". The negotiations were further taken over by the European Union, but Moscow was also included in them all the time. This is a unique and paradoxical situation where the three parties, Russia, the USA, and the EU, which, by the way, have been in the most frequent indirect military conflict in Ukraine for 15 months, are at the same time partners at the diplomatic table on a completely different issue and these negotiations are progressing quite well.

Now all that has failed, even though a diplomatic solution was on the horizon. That should certainly be a lesson for the Brussels dialogue as well. Another analogy that intrigues everyone is the possibility of applying military force in Kosovo on the model of Nagorno-Karabakh, that is, the Croatian operation "Storm" or some kind of widespread violence and repetition of the events of March 2004. For now, it seems that such a scenario is not realistic, but it cannot be ruled out. For now, it is about the selective use of force, the arrests of the Serbs, and the use of violence against them, in order to increase the feeling of insecurity and instill fear in the population. A wider police or military escalation could come into play if KFOR forces continue to show ambiguous behavior as during the May riots, when they tolerated incursions of Kosovo Police Forces into institutions in Serb-majority municipalities.

Pristina considers this practice to be its victory and does not want to give it up, hence the conditions for withdrawal "in pieces", but without complete withdrawal. A certain determination was demonstrated by the US Ambassador in Pristina, Jeff Hovenier when he warned that Kosovo could easily become a "militarized protectorate" if violent actions were taken. Meanwhile, KFOR forces have been strengthened, and as long as the Ukrainian conflict continues, it seems clear that the military will play a significant role in every issue.

Nevertheless, the conflict shows how "frozen" conflicts can quickly thaw. Since many of these frozen conflicts involve the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, the war in Ukraine provides many opportunities for this thaw. That conflict will continue to make the world more dangerous and push countries into larger or smaller arms races. It can be easily assumed that the Balkans will not be exempt from this, and therefore loyalty to the diplomatic path and constructive behavior is the only way to eliminate the dangers that come with sudden eruptions of violence and demonstrations of force.