Nagorno-Karabakh: War, Peace, Or BATNA?


President Serzh Sarkisian met with Ilham Aliyev in St. Petersburg on June 4, 2009


When Presidents Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan meet in St. Petersburg, they are expected to reach a breakthrough on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the military phase of which was ended 15 years ago by what has become the world’s longest self-maintained cease-fire.

This resolution is expected not just for its own sake, but because it is perceived as a necessary determinant of many other regional processes, including Turkish-Armenian bilateral relations, and even Azerbaijan’s relations with Turkey and Russia, among others.

There are four elements that have always affected the settlement process, and continue to do so:

  • the global and regional interests of the major powers and their present interrelationships;
  • the dominant trends in international relations as manifested in the agendas and decisions of international organizations (such as the UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe);
  • the conflicting sides’ own present political and economic situations;
  • the conflicting sides’ diplomatic approaches, convictions, and capacity to shape the peace process.

Since 1992, during each successive stage of diplomatic activity, these four factors have always been consequential, although never so significant and so fluid as today. Worse, never have they all been in such a state of great and unpredictable flux.

Regionally and globally, the interrelationship among powers has changed dramatically. The most obvious example is the new U.S. administration’s zeal in this region, prompted both by domestic pressures as well as its own outlook.

But other global changes are also significant: Russia and the United States are “resetting” their relationship; the impact of the Russia-Georgia war is still felt; and Europe is promoting the Eastern Partnership with six former Soviet republics, including the three South Caucasus states, among other reasons to find solutions to conflicts that might affect its energy security.

Within international organizations, especially following the very public disagreements on Kosovo’s self-determination, there are conflicting directions. Russia, which opposed what it considered to be the unilateral imposition of sovereignty on Kosovo, is trying to counterbalance this process. But it ended up doing the same itself by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

In other words, while both the West and Russia selectively support independence, they continue to talk about the supremacy of the principle of territorial integrity. This contradictory situation created by conflicting approaches by the major players will require delicate diplomatic maneuvering by the sides and the mediators.

The internal situations in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Karabakh are no less important at these diplomatic crossroads. Despite its oil wealth, Azerbaijan’s economic growth is in decline, as is Armenia’s. Politically, although both appear stable, neither government enjoys deep support among the population, albeit for differing reasons.

In this context, the ultimate question is what is to happen to this no-peace, no-war situation. What is the end game? Is there a viable political solution?

‘Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement’

There are three possible scenarios. One is the continuation of a sustainable status quo. The second is the eruption of war and a new situation on the ground. The third is a negotiated solution.

Although most of the international community, including the mediators, will automatically reject the first scenario as unacceptable and unsustainable, this is not necessarily the case. There are many historical examples when yesterday’s unrealistic alternative became today’s preferred and realistic solution.

The second scenario — war — is difficult to imagine. Armenians have no reason to start a war. If the Azerbaijanis start a war, this will be the third time they will have tried, and they will only succeed if they aim for a “final solution.” That would be a huge risk for Azerbaijan, greater than for the Armenian side.

And finally, there is the third scenario — a negotiated solution. This is obviously the most desirable, but would require producing a document that includes substantive compromises. These negotiations have already gone on for 15 long, intense years, during which five serious proposals were presented. Four were rejected, one is still on the table.

In other words, there is no easy resolution, especially since both sides have what negotiators call a BATNA — the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.

Azerbaijan believes its BATNA is war. Armenia believes its BATNA is today’s status quo.

This is the backdrop to the presidents’ meeting in St. Petersburg. They will of course be mindful that the most fundamental change in the four parameters identified above, since their last meeting, is the pressure resulting from the U.S. push for improved relations between Turkey and Armenia. President Barack Obama stuck his neck out to try to promote these relations. He believed this compensated for his not using the term genocide on April 24. April 24 will come around again next year, however, so the pressure has not disappeared. Relations still need to be improved.

In addition, to be fair, both Armenia and Turkey do in fact want such progress, albeit for differing reasons. Azerbaijan can see the writing on the wall, but remains intransigent. Only progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process can reconcile these disparate requirements.

This is the challenge facing the two presidents. A lasting peace will come when each side acknowledges the other’s minimum requirements, not their minimum demands. Before this can happen, each side must achieve sufficient internal consensus on its bargaining position. This hasn’t happened yet.

The prospects for peace also depend on how well and how quickly disparate local political realities, quickly evolving international relations and radically changing global trends can be juggled and reconfigured.

Vartan Oskanian served from 1998-2008 as foreign minister of the Republic of Armenia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL


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  1. Alla said:

    Read the extract of Wayne Merry’s analysis “Karabakh: is war inevitable?” !!!

    “To retake Karabakh by military means, Azerbaijani forces would need to overcome five objective factors which give the Karabakh Armenians immense defensive strength in depth.

    First is ground or terrain, in that Karabakh is a natural highland fortress currently surrounded by the wide depth of field of the occupied territories.

    Second is firepower, in a man-made fortress of multiple overlapping fields of fire, employing the heavily-mined occupied territories as killing zones before any attacker could reach the edge of Karabakh itself.

    Third is reserves of ample weaponry and munitions so the attackers would run out of young men before the defenders would run out of ammunition, while Karabakh can call on extensive manpower reinforcement from Armenia.

    Fourth is operational art in which the Karabakh Armenians have a clear record of superiority they would exercise in the inherently advantageous role of defenders of a skilfully prepared position.

    Fifth is strategic depth in Russia, which in a showdown would support its permanent security partner, while the American military would no more come to the aid of a failing Azeri offensive than it did in Georgia”

  2. Humay said:

    Smart analysis. This BATNA has been holding us back for quite a while and it will. I am pretty pessimistic, despite both presidents “sweet” smiles..

  3. Sarig said:

    As a footnote to this article, it is important to include background on the “provenance” of the phrase “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” – BATNA.

    BATNA was coined in the book “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The underlying thesis for Fisher/Ury’s approach to negotiation is “principled negotiation” or negotiation with a positive attitude toward settlement where the parties understand each other’s needs and objectives without competitive behavior. The closest example of this type of negotiation is possibly Senator George Mitchell’s mediation process in Northern Ireland.

    According to Fisher/Ury, BATNA – is not merely developing various alternatives for settlement. Rather, BATNA is the one well-developed alternative to the negotiation that serves as the measuring stick comparison for any proposed agreement. A BATNA prevents a party to the negotiation from accepting unfavorable or unfair terms and it also prevents the party from rejecting terms that meet their objectives.

    Here, Armenia’s and NKR’s BATNA of status quo may seem regrettable to many readers – but it is important to understand that BATNA in the context of the various factors at play (noted in Oskanian’s op-ed above). Until the Azerbaijani side understands the security concerns of Armenians in NKR and the Republic of Armenia as a state — it is difficult to imagine a better BATNA for the Armenians under the current circumstances.