The spectacle was as pathetic a replay of past scenes as one would expect. Great powers calling on two belligerent states to set aside their differences and sign a framework agreement. The belligerents themselves expressing cautious optimism going into the talks. And the talks themselves ending with a communiqué that, in essence, means absolutely nothing. The traditional blame-game concluded proceedings: Azerbaijan repeating its mantras on the injustices of occupation and rattling its sabres a little, Armenia crowing its undying adherence to the principle of national self-determination, and rattling its sabres right back. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.
The problem with these talks, and the Madrid principles, is a lack of political will on all sides, and not just the belligerents’. Armenia, deluding itself with the topographic advantage Karabakh affords it, is quite happy with the status quo, thank you, and would not settle for anything less than its protégé’s official recognition, minus perhaps a few occupied territories. Azerbaijan, drunk on oil and the illusion that wasteful defence spending and vocal bravado automatically equal strategic advantage, clings on to the irrational idea of subordinating a population that does not want to be subordinated, come what may.
The fact that both sides have not been able to square the black-and-white circle that is sovereignty (you cannot have a little bit of sovereignty over a territory just as you cannot be a little bit pregnant), is but part of the story. Moscow itself is playing a dishonest game: pretending to be an honest broker when the Kremlin knows that much of its leverage in the region is based on the divide-and-rule context provided by the Karabakh conflict. Both the United States and France increasingly see the South Caucasus as Russia’s back yard; Moscow made that forceful point back in 2008, in Georgia, and it seems to have been heard in Western capitals. None of the Great Powers care or agree enough, it seems, to collectively start turning the diplomatic thumbscrews that would be required at a minimum to shove Baku and Yerevan into line.
And so, you can be certain to expect more of the same in the future, crossing your fingers that it all doesn’t go pear-shaped when one of the sides decides it’s time to call in the generals: lame exhortations from Western capitals to get it over with, Russian diplomats pretending to be earnestly striving for a solution that would make them regionally superfluous, and locals pretending to be just this close to a durable peace. Meanwhile, officials and politicians on both sides will be able to tell the world with a straight face that they are striving for reconciliation while asserting at home that their peoples are ‘ethnically incompatible’, or that the others better relocate if they want their self-determination. Pathetic indeed.