By Seymur Kazimov

Exclusive interview with Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.

– In your last article, you wrote about the debate in Munich between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan: “The 30-year conflict is more than two.” In short, you called the Munich event a “fiasco”. What new happened there that you gave such a sharp assessment of the Munich debate. Or do you call “fiasco” all that happened for 30 years behind closed doors?

– I do believe that the debate in Munich was a fiasco, because it set back the cause of peaceful negotiations, with both leaders saying things that would sound deeply unacceptable to the other side in the conflict, with which they need to make peace. But when I wrote that the conflict “is bigger than two men,” it was to make it clear that I do not blame the two leaders personally for this failure. For three decades this conflict has permeated both societies. It is the foundation-stone of modern Armenia and Azerbaijan. The two men in Munich were only expressing views and ideas that are shared by the vast majority of their publics. Behind closed doors the leaders are often much more constructive. So, the structure of this debate was also at fault—both men were speaking to their domestic audiences as much to the one in Munich.

– On March 31, a “presidential election” will be held in an unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh. It is well known that Pashinyan’s support in Karabakh is not strong. What is the aim of victory of his candidate in the “election” – preserving his reputation or focusing on the resolution of the conflict? And what will happen if the “Pashinyan’s candidate” fail?

– Any candidate who wins the election in Karabakh in March will have to work closely with Pashinyan and the government in Yerevan which is the financial and security patron of the Karabakh Armenians. For Pashinyan it was important not to have Bako Saakyan or anyone else associated with the former regime. Equally, Pashinyan will need to be careful in Karabakh, as he is not a “Karabakhtsi” unlike his predecessors. I think this is one reason why he is not being more active in the negotiations.

– Armenia is the only state in the South Caucasus where Russia is “physically” present – from provision of national security to border protection. You say that you do not agree with the famous idea that the key of the conflict resolution is in Russia.

– There are many reasons why Russia’s role is lesser in the Karabakh conflict than in other conflicts. Moscow prioritizes good relations with both Baku and Yerevan, it does not have a separate relationship with the Karabakh Armenians, it has soldiers in Armenia but no “boots on the ground” as it has in Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transdniestria. Finally, there are no ethnic Russians in Karabakh itself. Russia has its interests there of course but let’s not exaggerate them: the key to the conflict lies in the region itself.

– The Ukrainian issue united the international community around a unified position against Russia – from harsh statements to sanctions. As a result, the interest in Azerbaijan and Georgia – the two South Caucasus states affected from occupation, has declined. There are many zones of conflict, and there is speculation that Ukraine will have the same consequences in the future. From this point of view, how do you assess Europe’s policy on conflict resolution directly in its borders, in particular countries of the Eastern Partnership? For example, in the case of Karabakh, I can say that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find someone who is satisfied with the activities of the Minsk Group, both in Azerbaijan and in Armenia.

– The Minsk Group has certainly become less active and dynamic in recent years. This is because the Karabakh conflict has fallen down the international agenda and other conflicts are more urgent. It is also because the main conductors of negotiations are now the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan—they are less interested in using the Minsk Group for mediation. For that reason, I actually hear less criticism of the Minsk Group than before. They are not just regarded as so important as before.

As for the EU, I personally would like to see it put conflict resolution higher up its agenda in the Eastern Partnership agenda. But it is difficult to make that change now. The EU still acts as primarily an economic rather than a political player in the region and we see that in its comparative lack of attention to the conflicts.

– South Ossetia is completely dependent on Russia, while Nagorno-Karabakh is dependent on Armenia. Abkhazia seems a bit more liberal, as you said, it is a “mountain democracy,” and it is not the first election that the “president” resigns at the request of the people. In any case, there are differences in the Kremlin’s attitude toward these bodies. Do you think that there is or should be a difference in Europe’s attitude towards them? You have repeatedly used the term “involvement without recognition” in relation to the EU’s treatment of Abkhazia.

– I certainly see more opportunities for “engagement (NOTE WORD!) without recognition” in Abkhazia than in Karabakh or South Ossetia, which are smaller, more integrated into their “patron states” and also less interested in the European Union. In Abkhazia there is still a social group which is quite cosmopolitan and wants to be separate from both Georgia and Russia which the EU can interact with. Unfortunately, as time goes by, Abkhazia is more integrated into Russia and that internationally-minded group has less influence than before.

– In your opinion, how can the central government of Azerbaijan establish relations with Nagorno-Karabakh in the current situation more effectively in terms of solving the problem?

I think the government of Azerbaijan has missed opportunities to engage in dialogue with the Karabakh Armenians. They can do this in parallel with negotiations with Yerevan and without compromising on their position on territorial integrity. To end a conflict, you need a “hearts and minds” policy and I do not see evidence of that. I should add that there are also reasons to involve Karabakh Azerbaijanis in negotiations. There are questions in the negotiations which need the contribution of both Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijanis and which should not be decided only in Baku and Yerevan.