osce and the Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process

In: Security and Human Rights
Carey Cavanaugh usAmbassador (retired); Professor of Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, University of Kentucky’s Patterson School; Executive-in-Residence, Geneva Centre for Security Policy

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The Minsk Process for Nagorno-Karabakh has directed unprecedented engagement from key world powers on this decades-old dispute. osce’s first peacemaking effort survived a rocky start, evolving into a functional multi-faceted conflict management instrument. While the envisioned “Minsk Conference” was never held, not one of the myriad peace proposals adopted, no status determination for Nagorno-Karabakh ever made, and no refugees or lands returned, the Minsk Process may still be considered a success. Frequent criticism notwithstanding, it has kept Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in a near continuous diplomatic dialogue, restrained large-scale fighting, and belied fears of a significant regional conflagration. That is a noteworthy achievement.

* From 1999–2001, Carey Cavanaugh was the us Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts and osce Minsk Group Co-Chair, and led the Key West Peace Talks on Nagorno-Karabakh.

osce and the Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process


On the tenth day of his presidency George W. Bush received a telephone call from French President Jacques Chirac to convey congratulations and to brief him on an important topic: Nagorno-Karabakh. Chirac had already coordinated with Russian President Vladimir Putin on this dispute a week before Bush formally took office. Furthermore, Bush and Putin had spoken by phone just 1 day earlier, touching on several key issues and noting the importance of developing us-Russian cooperation to facilitate solutions to global problems.

Chirac had met on 26 January 2001 in Paris at the Elysée Palace with Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev following the admission of both states the day before to the Council of Europe where they reaffirmed their commitment to make every effort to find a peaceful solution to the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Chirac’s talks in Paris were building directly upon work that the osce Minsk Group Co-Chairs – France, Russia, and the United States – had been advancing for almost 2 years. A settlement proposal, in fact, that had emerged from a direct dialogue between the Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents. Chirac and Putin believed that these discussions had signaled a potential path forward and the French president conveyed to Bush the latest state of play and his strategy. Kocharyan would be back in France for a formal state visit on 12 February, and Chirac would have both Aliyev and Kocharyan in Paris on 5 March to continue the Nagorno-Karabakh discussion. Putin had already engaged the Armenian and Azerbaijan leaders in Moscow, had met with Aliyev in Baku in January to push the current efforts forward, and would huddle with Chirac in Stockholm on 23 March on this and other matters.

It was now the United States’ turn to take the diplomatic lead. In the tenth week of Bush’s presidency, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (osce) peace talks took place at former us President Harry S Truman’s Little White House in Key West, Florida. As one of his first major acts, the new us Secretary of State Colin Powell directly promoted a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, opening the Key West Peace Talks on 2 April with Presidents Aliyev and Kocharyan, plus the Minsk Group Co-Chairs, seated around Truman’s personal poker table. Once the talks concluded, both presidents flew to Washington, d.c. to meet separately with President Bush in the White House.

The remarkable pace of exchanges and actions detailed above underscores the significant role the osce has played during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh through its Minsk Process. 1 These mediation efforts have garnered unprecedented high-level engagement by the presidents and foreign ministers (or us Secretaries of State) of France, Russia and the United States, as well as countless European prime ministers and foreign ministers.

What was evident in April 2001 as the conflicting parties approached peace remained just as true in April 2016 as an outbreak of fighting along the Line of Contact that separates Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh threatened war. 2 These hostilities instantly engendered a flurry of diplomatic activity. In rapid succession, French President Francois Hollande, Putin, us Vice President Joseph Biden, plus their foreign ministers, the Minsk Group Co-Chair ambassadors, osce Chairperson-in-Office (CiO) and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and other key players quickly used meetings in Washington, Moscow, Vienna, and the region, to engage with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, and key counterparts, to communicate both privately and publicly that peace must be restored. Prompt action by Russia included summoning the chiefs of the Armed Forces General Staff of Azerbaijan and Armenia to Moscow to restore the ceasefire.

For almost 25 years such dialogue and engagement has been almost commonplace, indicative of the importance attached to managing this conflict and the preparedness of the osce’s participating States and the institution itself to provide and facilitate a peace process that might resolve this longstanding dispute. Nagorno-Karabakh remains today a “not-so-frozen conflict” that continues to threaten stability and impede economic growth in the broader Caucasus region.


The aim of this article is to describe and analyze the convoluted evolution and development of the osce Minsk Process, its emergence as a multi-faceted conflict management instrument, as well as its merits today as a mechanism for mediating a peaceful resolution of this dispute. The history and origins of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been well-documented elsewhere and are beyond the intended scope of this article. 3 The analysis elaborated below is focused instead on the mediation process itself. It details how the structure and mandate of the 5 components of the current Minsk Process is quite different from what was originally planned, highlighting that the evolution has brought strengths that have served osce well. In particular, greater cooperation between Russia and the United States, and the strong coordinated involvement of the leadership of those 2 powers, plus France and many other European states, to maintain peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and promote a settlement to the longstanding dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In so doing, the analysis will also probe why the osce Minsk Process has proven more effective at conflict management than conflict resolution. The manifest reasons for this are threefold: (1) the dispute is centered upon 2 competing and largely irreconcilable international principles: respect for territorial integrity and the right of ethnic minorities to self-determination; (2) the inability of a consensus organisation like the osce to impose a solution on participating States; and (3) the limited political will of the parties to make the necessary hard compromises to resolve the conflict. Given that mise-en-scène, the historical developments that led to the current Minsk Process – not surprisingly – fostered a powerful “tool kit” that advances prospective settlements that may only be achieved if embraced by the conflicting parties, but can independently apply significant pressure to dampen the potential for further military action. The article will conclude with a brief examination of whether other mediating parties, individual states or international institutions, might better promote a definitive settlement, as well as the troubling impact of the April 2016 fighting on the ability of the osce Minsk Process to maintain peace in this region.

Development of a New Peace Process

Present from the Beginning

osce has been focused on Nagorno-Karabakh since the early stages of the dispute, even before the Organization’s formal inception. Indeed, this was the first conflict mediation effort undertaken by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (csce), with official delegations visiting the South Caucasus amidst sporadic violence and fighting in February and March 1992. 4

The reports of these exploratory delegations led the csce Council in 1992 to ask the Chairperson-in-Office Jiří Dienstbier to convene a conference on Nagorno-Karabakh that would help facilitate negotiations for a peaceful and comprehensive settlement to resolve this conflict. The Council specified the exact participants of the planned conference, called upon the CiO to appoint the conference’s chairman, and decided that the peace negotiations should take place in Minsk, Belarus. 5 Thus began the so-called “Minsk Process”.

At the same time, United Nations Secretary General (unsg) Boutros Boutros-Ghali briefly tapped former us Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to serve as his special envoy for this dispute. Vance was dispatched to Stepanakert/Xankəndi (the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region) in March 1992, just 10 days after Armenia and Azerbaijan had become un Member States. Boutros-Ghali made clear, however, that Vance’s fact-finding mission was intended to supplement, not supplant, the regional peace facilitation efforts that were already underway. 6

In April 1992, Italian diplomat Mario Raffaelli became chairman of the osce Minsk Conference. Under his leadership, a group of interested parties “kick-started” an informal “Minsk Group” in Rome 2 months later to explore preparations for holding the desired peace conference. 7

The 11 states designated by the csce Council to participate in the “Minsk Conference” proved to be not well suited to coordinate and manage effectively an embryonic negotiation process. Some states were heavily engaged in the Minsk Group (Russia, United States) or decidedly bias (Turkey), while others had sent only local representatives with insufficient interest in the task at hand. Discussions in Rome took place primarily in a 3+1 format (us, Russia, Turkey, plus Italy as chair), and later, upon the inclusion of Armenia and Azerbaijan, a 5+1 format.

A key stumbling block in Rome was determining how to include representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh and what their status would be. The decision calling for a Minsk Conference had spoken only of “interested parties”, and did not address how they would be accommodated in what was already becoming a more complicated process than had been anticipated. The Rome sessions did not go well, nor did later gatherings in Geneva and Stockholm. Increased fighting in the region, however, would prove to be an even greater stumbling block for holding peace negotiations than questions over status. So too would competing efforts to advance a solution. Despite actively engaging in the osce Minsk Group talks in Rome, Russia maintained its own significant independent mediation approach through Russian Ambassador Vladimir Kazimirov (who was a principal in both efforts). us Ambassador John Maresca also traveled separately to the region, but did not advance a separate process. Kazakhstan, though not part of the established Minsk Process, also sought to become involved in peace efforts at the time, seeking to broker a ceasefire along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Further experimentation with the Minsk Group negotiating structures continued in 1993. In January, a new 5+1 negotiating format was proposed (us, Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, plus Nagorno-Karabakh). This approach was rejected initially by Nagorno-Karabakh because of Turkish participation and later by Azerbaijan during a round of discussions in Geneva. There was also a rotation of the Minsk Conference chairman, with Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson taking the lead. He moved toward a “shuttle diplomacy” model that diminished the potential for significant coordinated Minsk Group action, with the Russian and American members typically being the only other Minsk Group diplomats engaging in such trips to the region. April 1993 also saw confidential discussions take place in Moscow between Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh delegations.

Through considerable diplomatic effort, principally by Russia, a ceasefire was brokered in May 1994. This ceasefire froze military forces in place and finally brought some measure of stability to the dispute. Moscow had pushed hard to deploy a significant armed Commonwealth of Independent States (cis) – predominantly Russian – peacekeeping force to the region, but was unable to garner support from Azerbaijan. csce had been weighing the establishment of a broader multinational peacekeeping force. In the end, however, the fighting was stopped without having to place any armed peacekeepers or even formal observers between the conflicting parties. It had also become clear to the outside parties that independent efforts to broker a settlement were unlikely to be successful and that a more consolidated approach would be more effective.

Somewhat Clearer Structure and Mandate

The osce’s commitment and preeminence on Nagorno-Karabakh became manifest at the December 1994 Budapest Summit which called for an “intensification” of action in relation to this conflict and pledged a “redoubling” of efforts. The intent of the Summit was to harmonise the array of separate activities that had been evident for 2 years into “a single coordinated effort” within the framework of the osce. 8 The Summit now called upon the CiO to name “co-chairmen” of the Minsk Conference to ensure an agreed basis for negotiations and to realise full co-ordination in all mediation and negotiation activities. It was understood that Russia would henceforth be a permanent co-chair.

The new Minsk Conference co-chairs were tasked with strengthening the ceasefire, working with the parties to the conflict to develop a basis for negotiations, exploring confidence building measures, and working with the CiO on the establishment of a potential multinational osce peacekeeping force. Toward that end, osce also authorised the establishment of a high-level planning group in Vienna that would make recommendations regarding size, command and control, rules of engagement, and other aspects of such a force.

The Minsk Conference co-chairs were to visit the conflict region jointly, or when appropriate separately, to advance all of these goals. They were also instructed to provide periodic briefings to the osce, the osce Permanent Council, the un Secretary General, the un Security Council, the Minsk Group at the osce, as well as to maintain contact with relevant international and regional organisations, (e.g. International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and to cooperate with the CiO’s personal representative.

Mediation for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has rested ever since firmly in osce hands. 9 This is fitting. The osce has emphasised that it is the world’s largest regional security organisation, working to ensure peace and stability for more than a billion people living between Vancouver and Vladivostok. It is also the richest regional security organisation. These factors alone are testament to why the osce should perform an active conflict mediation role. Just as important is the fact (long acknowledged by the United Nations and enshrined in Articles 33 and 52 of the un Charter) that regional entities can and should be involved in promoting peace. Such institutions and their Member States bring to such engagement a shared history, understanding, and mix of interests that can make them particularly suited to the task at hand. Regional organisations also lessen significantly the substantial preventive diplomacy and mediation burden that fell upon the un with the end of the Cold War. 10

The timing for osce to undertake the mediating role in Nagorno-Karabakh could not have been more opportune. Fighting had halted, the brokered ceasefire held, and time was now available to work on a solution. Furthermore, following the decision to have Russia take a leadership role within the process, there was no longer any significant outside competitor seeking to assume the task. The un had no interest in leading this mediation effort, gladly offering to provide political and technical support for the osce’s actions. This included un Security Council preparedness to authorise the deployment of a multinational osce peacekeeping force upon the conclusion of an accepted political agreement.

Evolving Structure of Engagement

Not surprising, as a first mediation effort by a newly established regional organisation dealing with an active conflict, what was originally envisioned does not remotely match what eventually came to pass. The initial plan set forth by the csce in March 1992 detailed a clear template of who would do what, where and when:

Under the leadership of a single chairman, 11 designated Minsk Conference Members would advance a peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, meeting at a gathering in Minsk, Belarus, as soon as possible, and the csce would assemble a peacekeeping force to implement the political settlement.

Reality, however, in the face of jockeying for diplomatic advantage in the peace process, intensified fighting in the region, questions regarding which nations would contribute and participate in such a peacekeeping force or whether it was even needed, and a lack of clarity on how Nagorno-Karabakh would be represented in the dialogue quickly intruded.

What had been a straightforward plan to advance a peaceful settlement has evolved enormously. Aside from csce/osce remaining the international lead to advance the mediation effort, almost everything else in the original formula changed within the first 5 years of engagement.

The single rotating neutral “Minsk Conference chairman” to shepherd the process gave way in 1994, under considerable Russian pressure that Moscow should lead the effort, resulting in a 2-person co-chairmanship in which 1 state would rotate (the neutral) and the other (Russia) would not. After the first Minsk Conference single chairmen – Italy followed by Sweden – the chairmanship was shared between Sweden and Russia in 1994, and Finland and Russia in 1995–1996. All these states designated separate Minsk Conference chairmen and Minsk Group chairmen. 11 This morphed in early 1997 to a 3-person co-chairmanship (with Russia, France and the United States) in which all three states have become permanent.

The question of Nagorno-Karabakh participation in formal negotiations has largely been addressed by having Armenia and Azerbaijan each represent the interests of their ethnic brethren from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The election of Armenia’s second and third presidents, Robert Kocharyan (1998–2008) and Serzh Sargsyan (2008-present) made this approach easier. Both were born in Stepanakert and played key political roles in the region. Kocharyan had been the nominal “President” of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1994–1997. In 1999, Presidents Aliyev and Kocharyan began a series of direct bilateral meetings to explore a possible solution that eventually fused with the activities of the Minsk Group co-chair nations into a 3+2 negotiating format. 12 Furthermore, mediation work is currently done not by the “Minsk Conference” co-chairs, but by the “Minsk Group” co-chairs. Minsk Conference co-chairs, if they still exist or function at all, are largely undesignated. 13

The engaged osce participating States also changed, as the “Minsk Conference” gave way to meetings of the largely unanticipated “Minsk Group”. This body initially assumed the task of establishing the conditions to hold the originally anticipated peace mediation conference in Minsk. Its 11-member composition, based upon the original csce determination, changed with different states being added or dropped (e.g., Finland, Czechoslovakia) and the inclusion of the osce Troika. 14

Whereas the Minsk Conference had a clearly defined mandate and composition, the osce did not promulgate this to the same extent with the Minsk Group. 15 While this has not posed a particular challenge within the mediation process itself, it has often led to confusion in the press and scholarly community. This can be seen in frequent errors about titles and roles, determining which states are members of the Minsk Group, and understanding who is responsible for what. Adding to this confusion is the aforementioned new trilateral osce “Minsk Process” for Ukraine.

Today, primary diplomatic engagement on Nagorno-Karabakh is conducted by the 3 Minsk Group co-chairs. The Minsk Group itself has largely become a consulting body, although participating States are occasionally used to leverage influence (e.g. by encouraging the regular Minsk Group members to issue statements in support of the co-chairs or CiO activities).

Despite the negotiating framework being designated the “Minsk Process”, there has never been and will likely never be an actual meeting in Minsk of the Minsk Conference or even the Minsk Group. In fact, when the conflicting parties have made substantial progress toward a comprehensive settlement, discussions have centered more around a possible event either on the margins of a major international gathering like an osce Summit or the G-8, or in a key neutral international venue like Geneva or Vienna.

Finally, the osce multinational peacekeeping force that was expected in 1992 to be deployed to the region never materialised (as noted above, the ceasefire achieved in 1994 did not require the use of any peacekeeping force). The types of peacekeeping forces that have been under possible consideration for Nagorno-Karabakh have changed dramatically. Initially, Russia sought a large armed contingent, ostensibly drawn from the Commonwealth of Independent States (but primarily Russian forces). This met resistance in both the region and at csce/osce. Turkey also proposed providing troops. Later there was some thought that no single country should provide more than a third of any peacekeeping force. In 1994, osce considered sending a 3,000-strong multinational peacekeeping force. The hlpg estimated costs for such a force up to $150 million a year – almost 5 times more than the osce’s entire annual budget at the time. Later approaches ranged from a possible substantial osce multinational force to smaller osce forces, with varying composition, duration and responsibilities. 16

In 2001, to support the proposed solution under consideration at Key West, there was general agreement among the Minsk Group co-chairs and the conflicting parties that the settlement would require only a small peacekeeping/observer force for a decidedly limited duration that would have had no members drawn from either the co-chair nations, or neighboring states (most significantly: no participation of Russian, United States or Turkish peacekeepers). 17 While there has been sporadic small-arms fire and occasional loss of life along the Line of Contact and the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, the 1994 ceasefire basically held firm until April 2016, lending support for such a minimal approach.

Current Multi-faceted Mediation Support Structure

Today 5 distinct components comprise the osce Minsk Process mediation effort for Nagorno-Karabakh:

1 osce Chairperson-in-Office (CiO)

The Chairperson-in-Office’s engagement ensures periodic high-level attention regardless of the state of negotiations. Every year, as osce’s leadership rotates, high-level visits take place in the region and yet another European nation’s leadership becomes deeply versed in the history of the conflict and the situation on the ground. CiOs have frequently played a valuable role in helping keep the diplomatic process on track, communicating with osce’s Permanent Council and the Minsk Group co-chairs on developments and potential areas for constructive engagement, and working to dampen tensions. More importantly, they are in place and ready to play a greater leadership role should a solution be found that is acceptable to all parties. 18

2 Minsk Group Co-Chairs: Russia, France, and the United States

The Minsk Group co-chairs offer a constant diplomatic engagement with the parties to the conflict from 3 veto-wielding un Security Council Member States. 19 Such a forum would be the envy of many other unresolved conflicts, where the mediation structure is often only a unsg “good offices” effort, utilising a former foreign minister, ambassador, or a un official. This may be supplemented with a self-selected “friends” group, but rarely do other unresolved conflicts have so intense and central an engagement from as many key international players as is the case with Nagorno-Karabakh. 20

The potential resources that the United States, Russia and France bring to the table in terms of diplomatic power, military influence, and economic might can hardly be overstated. The engagement of these 3 nations has also proven to provide a valued strategic balance of interests that in practical terms has satisfied the conflicting parties and helped maintain peace in the region. Given developments since 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Ukraine, it is hard to envision any international mediation framework for Nagorno-Karabakh without active Russian and us participation that would preserve the interests of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, other key regional players, and the international community.

Concerns have been raised periodically that tensions in Russian-American relations might impede action in the Minsk Group, but cooperation between the 2 has been generally solid in this forum since 1994. Nonetheless, it is true that when this bilateral relationship has been strongest, greater progress has been made (e.g., Key West in 2001, Kazan in 2011). At the same time, in response to the events of April 2016 (a point at which us-Russian relations were sharply divided over a wide range of policy issues, in particular Ukraine and Syria’s civil war), cooperation among the Minsk Group co-chairs was both swift and vigorous.

For almost 20 years, the 3 Minsk Group co-chairs have been engaged, developing proposals, and working with the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to convert ideas into potential solutions. They have maintained a near seamless dialogue which is generally understood to be their principal mandate. The purpose of the osce’s Minsk Process has never been to impose an agreement or outside solution, but to help the parties move toward a mutual accommodation in which compromises by both sides could lead to both a definitive settlement and a lasting peace. The leadership in the region has understood and appreciated this, even if for political reasons this sentiment is not strongly voiced in public.

3 Minsk Group

The Minsk Group is made up of the 3 co-chair nations (Russia, France, and the United States); 6 regular permanent participating States (Belarus, Finland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Turkey); the rotating membership of the osce Troika; 21 plus Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Independent of the co-chairs, the Minsk Group itself is not a significant actor in the current process. Nevertheless, its regular members occasionally play a role on an individual basis on specific issues (such as having Turkey encourage normalisation of relations or the expansion of trade in the region). The Minsk Group might also be tapped as a potential group of donor states for funds or peacekeepers/observers should the need arise as part of a future Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.

4 Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the osce Minsk Conference 22

This individual, who is based in the South Caucasus region, plays a particularly valuable role that has also expanded beyond original expectations. Ambassador Kasprzyk and his team maintain a constant on-the-ground presence in the region. They have been key in monitoring activities along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Line of Contact. 23 This office has also helped facilitate exchanges of prisoners of war and civilian detainees, and the return of the deceased. During visits of the CiO to the region, the Personal Representative’s support is essential. He also provides significant assistance to the Minsk Group co-chairs, especially when they visit Nagorno-Karabakh where they have no diplomatic representation to offer logistical support. He has also joined the co-chairs on key visits and has provided briefings jointly with them to the osce Permanent Council. Finally, this office maintains liaison with the icrc, unhcr, and other international entities operating in the region.

5 High-Level Planning Group (hlpg)

The hlpg was established in December 1994 to assist with the anticipated deployment of peacekeepers to support a settlement. The hlpg is normally staffed by less than 10 military experts seconded by osce participating States. In 1994–1995, it had a staffing of 35 and was very active, developing 4 options for potential peacekeeping/observer operations for Nagorno-Karabakh. 24 Since that time, however, its role has been decidedly limited due to the inability of the conflicting parties to accept a solution to the dispute. hlpg members have participated in the monitoring activities carried out by the Personal Representative and have maintained contact with the un Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

In summary, the osce Minsk Process has evolved into a format that constitutes an unprecedented diplomatic tool-kit. It has drawn support from 3 major world powers, focusing on high-level international engagement, supporting an enduring diplomatic dialogue, and dampening aggression in the region. Its multi-faceted structure offers a flexibility that should be capable of addressing any need or challenge that might arise in the effort to move a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh region forward.

Effective Conflict Management

While it has not achieved a definitive settlement to the conflict, the osce’s Minsk Process for Nagorno-Karabakh has in fact advanced the mission it was given. The mediation effort that began in 1992 and evolved into a 3+2 format by 1997 has been effective. It has kept the parties engaged in a decades-long dialogue, explored and promulgated potential solutions to the dispute, helped maintain the established ceasefire, and belied fears of a significant regional conflagration. 25

The fundamental issue in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute remains centered upon 2 competing and largely irreconcilable international principles: respect for territorial integrity (sovereignty) and the right of ethnic minorities to self-determination (secession). On top of that is the need to resolve conflicts by peaceful means and not by military force. Both parties have repeatedly stated their commitment to seek a peaceful settlement, but they have expressed scant willingness to accept serious compromises on the main issues. Azerbaijan continues to declare that it is prepared to provide the Nagorno-Karabakh region with special autonomous status within Azerbaijan (a status similar to what existed before the original fighting began) and insists upon the return of all occupied territory. Armenia and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh demand that the region be able to freely decide its status – a degree of self-determination that could lead to complete self-governance (independence) or unification into a single Armenian state. These basic stances encompass no common ground.

The Minsk Group co-chairs have advanced several comprehensive plans for the conflicting parties’ consideration. These have addressed in various fashion, the return of occupied lands, return of refugees, a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, lifting of economic blockades, ways to determine the final legal status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, international security guarantees, and the deployment of peacekeepers/observers. Other approaches have also been developed, including one looking at a possible territorial exchange that grew from the direct dialogue from 1999–2001 between the Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents. 26 A variation of this proposal was under consideration at Key West. None have been embraced by all of the conflicting parties.

Any durable political settlement to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh must overcome considerable hurdles. It must accommodate the political, economic, and security interests of the conflicting parties; satisfy general concerns of the Minsk Group co-chair nations (such as type, number, and source of potential peacekeepers); and remain true to the core values enshrined in the un Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. Baher Başer has argued that “one of osce’s biggest shortcomings is the presence of the ‘right for self-determination,’ respect for ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘protecting minorities through autonomy’ in its founding principles”. 27 Moreover, as developments in Kosovo have vividly demonstrated, there is, at present, no international consensus on how to reconcile these competing principles. Absent an enormous impetus for a solution, or a dramatic change in the status-quo, this may simply be too much to expect.

Problem is Not with the osce Mediation Process, but the Conflicting Parties

Some argue that the osce Minsk process is too passive and that the co-chairs should adopt a more aggressive posture to achieve peace. 28 While greater engagement can and should take place when conditions are amenable to move forward, it has not been incumbent upon the Minsk Process to force a deal upon the parties to the conflict. That was never in question and would be unimaginable in a peace process conducted under the auspices of a consensus organisation like the osce where either Armenia or Azerbaijan, as participating States, could object.

A potentially more valid criticism is that 2 of the Minsk process co-chairs – Russia and the United States – are not impartial players. It is true that each has strategic interests in the region and beyond that could be significantly impacted by a settlement. At the same time, it can also be argued that because of those greater interests – as well as the interests of the parties themselves – it would be hard to imagine a mediation format that could achieve a definitive settlement that did not include both Russia and the United States. Other states have offered to mediate this dispute, most recently Iran, Kazakhstan and Georgia. There is no reason to assume that another state (or group of states) could deliver a consensus among the conflicting parties any more than the current structure, or be in a comparable position to exert influence and help restore calm should violence once again break out.

Furthermore, it is not clear that a different international entity would be more capable in obtaining peace. For Russia, both the European Union and nato would be non-starters due to domestic political concerns. The United States would look similarly askance at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (csto) or the Eurasian Economic Union (both of which include Armenia as a member, but not Azerbaijan). Non-governmental organisations could be helpful, but like other individual states, they would lack the clout that has been needed to dampen the conflict and keep the conflicting parties engaged in the settlement process.

While the United Nations might serve as an acceptable alternative, it would offer no greater promise of success. The United Nations’ decades-long history of engagement on Cyprus offers a valuable comparison. There the un Secretary General’s effort has similarly kept violence at a low level, focused high-level attention on the dispute, kept the conflicting parties in a process of continuous dialogue, developed multiple comprehensive plans to resolve the island’s division, and brought to bear significant engagement by other interested parties. Like the osce’s experience with Nagorno-Karabakh, however, despite coming repeatedly close to a settlement, the United Nations has been unable to achieve a breakthrough on Cyprus that is amenable to both communities. 29 Armenia has also regarded the un as bias due to early Security Council resolutions that stress the importance of territorial integrity. Finally, offering no additional benefit, un mediation would almost certainly diminish the degree of active engagement this conflict currently receives from the United States, Russia and France.

The principal problem in achieving a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement has not been the negotiating format, but insufficient political will on the part of the parties themselves. It is their responsibility to engage constructively in this effort, to prepare their populations to embrace a peaceful solution, and when an acceptable settlement is crafted to make the compromises necessary to resolve the dispute.

While both Armenia and Azerbaijan have engaged earnestly in the Minsk process, their public positions regarding a possible settlement remain mutually exclusive. They have not prepared their respective populations to accept a true compromise. On the contrary, the conflicting parties have over the past 15 years hardened their public positions. This can be seen in increased Armenian references to “historic territories” instead of “occupied lands”, as well as Azerbaijan’s massive weapons acquisition program and frequent statements by its leadership regarding Baku’s preparedness to use force. 30

A Pivotal Point

The April 2016 fighting may have set in motion a significant challenge to the osce Minsk Process’ ability to manage the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. 31 Engagement by the 3 Minsk Group co-chair countries quickly reestablished a general ceasefire and obtained agreement from the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to carry out 2 confidence and security building measures (csbms) – the aforementioned decision to permit a minor increase in osce field observers and plans to put in place an incidents investigation mechanism. Nevertheless, following the April clash, ceasefire violations have become an almost daily phenomenon, with more frequent loss of life. Implementation of the 2 csbms has been blocked. Declarations made by Presidents Aliyev and Sargsyan in May and June 2016 to reengage in substantive settlement negotiations have not borne fruit.

What marks the April 2016 clash as a turning point, aside from the use of more substantial weaponry and the considerable loss of life, was Azerbaijan’s seizure of 2 small slices of territory. This minor alteration in the 22-year old Line of Contact fed nationalist sentiments on both states, strengthening opposition to any negotiated compromise or concession. Most notably, it showed Azerbaijan that it is possible – without significant political cost – to use military force to regain lost territory.

Absent a greater commitment by the conflicting parties to accept a compromise, there can be no peace agreement. Each side has called for a more proactive stance from the osce Minsk Group negotiators. Their desire, however, is not that the co-chairs be more assertive in pushing a resolution of the conflict, but that the mediators assign blame to the other side for either not engaging in talks or for initiating hostile activities. They have exhibited scant interest in returning to the bargaining table. The general expectation, widely expressed in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, is that further significant warfare is inevitable. 32

osce’s Minsk Process will continue to utilise the considerable resources at its disposal to forestall fighting and keep the focus of the leaders in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the region of Nagorno-Karabakh on the prize. That prioritisation is the proper one. As Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev emphasised after the April 2016 fighting, “If you ask me to choose between preserving the conflict in a frozen state, that is, not seeking to resolve it quickly, and the value of a human life sacrificed at the altar of the conflict’s resolution, I’d prefer […] the current situation to be preserved rather than blood to be shed”. 33

There is a growing danger, however, that the likelihood of significant violence, coupled with the ever more strident positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding any compromise settlement, may complete the transformation of Nagorno-Karabakh from being a frozen conflict with a potentially productive peace process to becoming a decidedly unfrozen conflict with a frozen peace process.


References to the osce Minsk Process for Nagorno-Karabakh have been muddled by the emergence in 2014 of a new 3-party “Minsk Process” – the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine – which includes osce, Russia and Ukraine. Talks under this format led to the ­September 2014 signing of the “Minsk Protocol”, implementing a ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Since then, there have been multiple rounds of “Minsk peace negotiations” that have included representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s ­Republics, as well as the February 2015 “Minsk Agreements” brokered under the Normandy Format (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine).


The fighting that erupted on 2 April 2016 (the 15th anniversary of the osce Key West Peace Talks) represented the greatest loss of life in this conflict since a durable ceasefire was first established in May 1994. Well over 100 civilians and military personnel were killed, with ­estimates as high as 350 casualties. See “Background Briefing on Nagorno-Karabakh ­Conflict,” us Department of State, Vienna, Austria, 16 May 2016 (


For general background on the region and the conflict see Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York: New York University Press, 2003); for more detail on the panoply of negotiation activities and the current state of play see Philip Remler, Chained to the Caucasus: Peacemaking in Karabakh, 1987–2012 (New York: International Peace Institute, 2016) and Laurence Broers, The Nagorny Karabakh Conflict: Defaulting to War, Chatham House Research Paper, July 2016.


The 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe called upon csce to respond to emerging post-Cold War challenges in Europe. This provided a mandate that supported these initial efforts toward conflict resolution and later led to the establishment of permanent institutional and operational structures, as well as the renaming in December 1994 of csce to osce.


The Minsk Conference was to have 11 participants: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, the United States, plus “interested parties” (i.e., elected and other representatives of the Nagorno-Karabakh region). See “Summary of Conclusions,” csce First Additional Meeting of the Council, Helsinki 24 March 1992. Belarus, then the newest csce member, offered to host this conference and the Council immediately accepted.


Boutros-Ghali communicated this directly to the csce CiO. The un Security Council subsequently issued a statement “commending and supporting” the efforts undertaken within the framework of csce ( un Document S/23904, 12 May 1992) and in its first resolution on Nagorno-Karabakh reconfirmed its “support for the peace process being pursued” within the csce framework ( un Security Council Resolution 822, 30 April 1993).


Maresca provides an almost poetic description of this “kick-start” (his term) at Rome’s Villa Madama, describing the gathering as reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s sonnet, The Embassy. “Highly-trained diplomats, fancily dressed, gathered at a rural villa with little to use but their charm, while far off armies waited for a verbal error with all their instruments for causing pain and laying a land and people to waste. The cost of diplomatic failure was decidedly high.” John J. Maresca, Helsinki Revisited: A Key us Negotiator’s Memoirs on the Development of the csce into the osce , (Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2016). While perhaps an accurate portrayal of the first talks in Rome, Minsk Group members could later be found visiting bleak refugee camps, observing demining operations, and donning Kevlar flak jackets to cross the no man’s land along the Line of Contact, all to ensure those instruments for causing pain and laying peoples and lands to waste that Auden alluded to would remain silent.


See “<!--GreaterThan-->Mandate of the Co-Chairmen of the Conference on Nagorno Karabakh under the auspices of the osce (“Minsk Conference”)", osce Doc. 525/95, Vienna, 22 March 1995. For a ­detailed overview of international engagement see Rexane Dehdashti, Internationale Organisationen als Vermittler in innerstaatlichen Konflikten: Die osze und der Berg Karabach-Konflict (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2000).


Aside from periodic suggestions by Azerbaijan that the United Nations should mediate the conflict, the osce actions largely put an end to “forum shopping” which had been incessant up until 1995. See Tehri Hakala, “The osce Minsk Process: A Balance After 5 Years”, Helsinki Monitor, No. 1, 1998.


From March to December 1992, the un had undertaken 31 missions to trouble spots around the globe; 8 of which had been focused on Nagorno-Karabakh, more than any ­other dispute. See “A Report on Preventive Diplomacy”, un Department of Political ­Affairs, March-December 1992.


See also “Finland as a Mediator in the Karabakh Conflict,” Report by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Tarja Halonen, to the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament on the Activities of Finland as Co-Chairman of the osce Minsk Conference, 11 February 1997.


Minsk Group co-chairs still visit Nagorno-Karabakh and meet with local leaders, but it is widely accepted that the last 2 Armenian presidents have been fully capable of effectively representing the interests of the ethnic Armenians in the region at the negotiating table. The chief opposition to this 3+2 format has come from local Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. For the perspective from Nagorno-Karabakh, see Masis Mayilian, Karabakhskiy Mirniy Protsess: Vzglyad iz Artsakha (Yerevan: De Facto, 2016).


France and Russia raised the profile of their delegations at Key West with the inclusion of Philippe de Suremain (a confidant of President Chirac, and then Ambassador to Iran) and Vyacheslav Trubnikov (first Deputy Foreign Minister and former Head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service). Both participated, however, without clear titles, neither served officially as “Conference”, nor “Group” chairmen. Both states’ earlier designated Minsk Group co-chairs also participated in those peace talks.


Some osce participating States have sought unsuccessfully to become Minsk Group members, most notably the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan.


Questions regarding the mandate and legitimacy of the Minsk Group are raised in detail by former Head of Russia’s mediation mission and its first Minsk Group co-chair Vladimir Kazimirov. See Mir Karabakhu: Posredichestvo Rossiy v Uregulirovaniy Nagorno-Karabakhskogo Konflicta (Moscow: International Relations, 2009).


See John J. Maresca, “Agony of Indifference in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Christian Science Monitor,­ 27 June 1994, p. 19.


The “no co-chair nation, no neighbors formula” advanced in the run up to the 2001 Key West Peace Talks would also have helpfully excluded Iran if a decision had been made to permit non-osce participating States to contribute to a peacekeeping/observer force. Georgian participation, not a particular concern at that time, would also have been blocked.


While not formally part of the Minsk Process, the CiO also has at his disposal a Special Representative for the “South Caucasus”. In addition to assisting the CiO with Nagorno-Karabakh, the Special Representative has also co-chaired the Geneva International Discussions to address consequences of the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia.


France has stressed that its participation in the Minsk Group is as a sovereign nation and not as a representative of the European Union (eu). Nevertheless, as a leader in the eu, Paris’ engagement has been particularly valuable in ensuring that any possible agreement would also take into account broader European concerns. Since 2003, the eu has also maintained a Special Representative (eusr) for the South Caucasus to play an active role in efforts to consolidate peace, stability and the rule of law. The first, Ambassador Heikki Talvitie, had served earlier as a Minsk Conference Co-Chair. The eusr reports directly to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. <!--GreaterThan-->For more on eu activity in the region see Esmira Jafarova, Conflict Resolution in South Caucasus: Challenges to International Efforts (London: Lexington Books, 2015).


Two key exceptions here would be the “Quartet” on the Middle East peace process and the “Contact Group” for the former Yugoslavia, each of which engaged 4 unsc permanent members. For a solid analysis of “friends” groups and their limitations see Teresa Whitfield, Friends Indeed? The United Nations, Groups of Friends and the Resolution of Conflict (Washington, dc: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007).


In 2017, the osce Troika only added Austria, since both Germany and Italy are already regular members of the Minsk Group.


This position was established in August 1995 and has been occupied since July 1996 by Polish Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk (the longest-serving, high-level osce official). He is based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and has field assistants who rotate between Baku, Yerevan, and Stepanakert/Xankəndi. See


These activities generally take place twice a month. Agreement was reached at the 16 May 2016 Vienna Summit and the 20 June 2016 St. Petersburg Summit between the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia to increase the number of staff within the Office of the Personal Representative to carry out responsibilities in the conflict zone. There have been only 6 unarmed osce observers, but that number may now rise to 15. (See President Aliyev’s statement on “Results of St. Petersburg Summit,” 27 June 2016). This measure was proposed in response to the April 2016 fighting.


Three of the hlpg options detailed a mix of armed peacekeeping troops and unarmed military observers; the fourth was for an unarmed military observer mission.


Large-scale fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan could quickly draw in other states. Strategic interests and defense arrangements in the South Caucasus (Russia’s ­commitment to protect Armenia, Turkey’s pledge to defend Azerbaijan, Collective Security Treaty Organization arrangements, and Turkey’s nato membership) introduce complexities that place a major premium on effective conflict management. In 1992, Russian Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov of the cis Joint Armed Forces declared “third party intervention in this dispute could trigger a Third World War”. See Michael P. Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Causes and Implications (Westport: Praeger, 1998), pp. 80–82.


Interestingly, such a territorial exchange was first broached with Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in 1992 during the visit of then un Special Envoy Cyrus Vance. See Paul Goble, “Coping with the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 2, (Summer 1992), pp. 19–26 and “How the Goble Plan was Born and How it Remains a Political Factor,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Report, Vol. 3, No. 23 (9 June 2000).


“Third Party Mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh: Part of the Cure or Part of the Disease,” Journal of Central Asian and Caucasian Studies, Vol. 3, 5, 2008, p. 105.


In April 2016, for example, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan said the effort to strike a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan under the osce umbrella had mostly failed because the leading 3 world powers treated the matter lightly and showed weakness by not pressing for a common solution. See also, Thomas Ambrosio’s discussion of passive versus active mediation stances in “Unfreezing­ the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict? Evaluating Peacemaking Efforts under the Obama Administration”, Ethnopolitics, Vol. 10, No. 1, 93–114, March 2011.


Thomas Franck argues that the unsg “first of all seeks not solutions, but ameliorations to keep the parties … talking under his aegis, rather than fighting” and that to the states of the global system “a negotiation is as good as a solution”. Thomas M. Franck, “Three Major Innovations of International Law in the Twentieth Century”, Quinnipiac Law Review/qlr , Volume 17, Issue 1, 1997, p. 145.


This is somewhat surprising, as the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have at different junctures in this negotiation process approached – in secret – very serious compromises designed to provide all sides with concessions to satisfy their political and security needs and to make a final agreement a “win-win” solution.


See Carey Cavanaugh, “Renewed Conflict Over Nagorno-Karabakh”, Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 30, Council on Foreign Relations (February 2017). Also, “Nagorno-Karabakh’s Gathering War Clouds”, Crisis Group Report No. 244, (June 2017).


This sentiment was also reflected in Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coat’s 11 May 2017 statement to the us Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It noted “both sides’ unwillingness to compromise and mounting domestic pressures suggest that a potential for large-scale hostilities will remain in 2017”. 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the us Intelligence Community, p. 19.


Interview with Sergei Brilev on Rossiya 1 (vgtrk) television, 9 April 2016.

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