And Unlikely Peacemaker: Will The Pope Bring Resolution In The Caucasus?

REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

James J. Coyle Director of Global Education, Chapman University
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Hope for peace may be coming to the Caucasus. The Holy See has announced Pope Francis has accepted the invitation of the Catholicos of all Armenians, His Holiness Karekin II, to visit Armenia in June. The pope is also scheduled to visit Georgia and Azerbaijan on  September 30-October 2 at the invitation of the governments of those states.

The papal visits could not come at a more important time. On April 2, fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan broke out on the contact line between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. Over 75 soldiers and many civilians were killed in the worst outbreak of violence since the two sides signed a ceasefire in 1994. The Minsk group, and two of its co-chairs France and the United States, failed to restore the peace. The only effective movement was from the third co-chair, Russia, acting in a unilateral capacity. This is unfortunate.

The Minsk group is the negotiating body charged by the international community to negotiate a peace between the two sides. While it is strong in international representation, its influence is weak in the region. The outline of that peace has been known — and accepted by the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia — since 2007. The “Madrid Principles” call for the following:

  • 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.

Russia has considerable weight in the area. It owns a large, 5000-man military base in Armenia, and sells weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Beyond all doubt, we are interested — maybe more than the other foreign partners of these two countries — in this conflict being settled as soon as possible,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia carries considerable baggage, however; primarily because of its support to separatists in neighboring Georgia, as well as in Moldova and Ukraine. The West should share the diplomatic lead, because Western interests are at stake. The area is a geopolitical tinderbox:  wedged between Turkey, Russia and Iran, this area could easily become a proxy war between any of these contending forces. Oil and gas pipelines running from Azerbaijan westwards bypassing both Russia and Iran offer Europe an alternative to the Russian energy monopoly. The countries are an easy day’s drive from Moscow, and sit astride the new Silk Road to Central Asia.

A lasting peace will not be easy to achieve. Negotiators have been arguing about various interpretations of the Madrid principles for almost a decade. The problem is a lack of mutual trust between the two sides. The current generation of fighters has inherited the conflict from their forbearers.

The current conflict began in 1988, in the ashes of the imploding Soviet Union. Fighting killed 30,000, and displaced almost a million, mostly Azerbaijanis. Both sides have suffered: Azerbaijan has lost 20 percent of its internationally recognized territory, and Armenia has lost the chance to share in the area’s economic development. The energy pipeline, whose most direct route from the Caspian would have taken it through Armenia, was routed through Georgia. Today, Georgia collects money from the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan in two forms: transit fees and tax revenues from the country’s largest taxpayer. By contrast, Armenia had to sell its energy distribution network to the Russians, to stay financially afloat.

The United States and France need to be more actively involved to protect the West’s interests in the peace process.  Lacking any movement from the White House or the Elysee Palace, however, a visit from the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is a good second choice.