de Waal: “Armenians should focus on improving Karabakh de-facto”

Expert argues conflict status quo is fragile and threatened

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Friday April 17, 2009

Tom de Waal at CSIS in May 2007. Armenian Reporter

Washington - A program associate for UK-based Conciliation Resources (CR), Tom de Waal is the author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, the only comprehensive study of the Karabakh conflict available in English. For several years CR has been implementing Track 2 initiatives seeking to establish mutual confidence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

On March 10 de Waal gave a phone interview to Armenian Reporter Washington editor Emil Sanamyan about his recently released paper, "The Karabakh Trap: Dangers and dilemmas of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict," a draft of which he presented in Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan prior to the paper's release in early 2008. De Waal last spoke with the Armenian Reporter in May 2007.

Why challenge the status quo?

Armenian Reporter: Your long-held view has been that the current status quo in Karabakh is bad. It also seems to be the central bias of the "Karabakh Trap" paper. Fundamentally, why shouldn't this status quo - with its very limited level of violence for almost 15 years - be cemented and made to last?

Tom de Waal: This is the main line of criticism you hear on the Armenian side: that Karabakh is building up its statehood and no one really wants a war.

I think it is possible that you will see this status quo continue. But a number of reasons make this a dangerous assumption.

First, the cease-fire is based on the good will of the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. And if one side - and we are basically talking about the Azerbaijani side - wants to make things worse, to escalate the level of firepower used across the cease-fire line to increase the number of casualties, they can. And there is nothing that could stop it.

The second point that is not properly appreciated by the Armenian side is that while Karabakh may be de-facto lost to Azerbaijan, and I think some people in Azerbaijan may accept that, it is absolutely unacceptable that the [districts] occupied by Armenian forces outside Karabakh could remain under Armenian control. With the exception of Lachin, [these districts] are totally destroyed and empty, and that is a daily insult to Azerbaijan that these territories are lying empty and in ruins.

If in a place like Cyprus, the matter may be just normalizing the status quo [between Cyprus proper and Turkish-occupied northern third] and building bridges across it, in Karabakh, the factor of the occupied territories and the cease-fire line make things much more unstable.

Additionally, there is the international cost for Armenia diplomatically. It is hard to justify maintaining the occupied territories and this gets condemned in international forums, in resolutions. And obviously there are economic costs for Armenia as well, although those have been mitigated in recent years.

But I believe these are enough reasons and that the status quo needs to change.

Economic trends

Reporter: Overall, you seem to be optimistic as to where Azerbaijan is headed economically and politically and pessimistic vis-à-vis Armenia. There is no mention of the impact of falling oil prices, for example.

de Waal: One might indeed get that sense [from the "Karabakh Trap" paper] - that Azerbaijan is booming and that Armenia is in crisis. But if readers take a closer look, I do note that Azerbaijan's boom will be relatively short-lived, that there is no evidence that they will be using the money wisely, and generally I am skeptical that this boom will be of long-term benefit to Azerbaijan.

And yes, falling oil prices do impact Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijan being a small country, the billions [of dollars] that it will get [from energy sales regardless of price] will still be significant.

And Armenia has had very impressive growth in last 10 years, but everyone accepts that that now is coming to an end [with the effects of the global economic crisis].

Reporter: You do not mention the difference in political systems in Armenia and Azerbaijan. If Armenia has a problematic system, it is at least competitive politically. No political competition is apparent in Azerbaijan. Do you see that as an asset or a risk for Azerbaijan?

de Waal: Azerbaijan is indeed a rigid political system. There is lot more debate in Armenia, in Yerevan. And much less debate in Baku - or Stepanakert for that matter. But at the same time, there is broad consensus in Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue and it is difficult to break that consensus.

Reporter: You were criticized rather harshly by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's Foreign Ministry that your paper had a pro-Azerbaijan bias and even amounted to "war-mongering."

de Waal: This was very unfortunate and I think an irrational reaction. This may be a symptom of a bunker mentality when everything is viewed through a very narrow perspective and this is exacerbated by Karabakh being sidelined from the peace process. I have to note that I have always been a proponent of Karabakh's participation in talks and in decisions that are being made about Karabakh.

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Gala Danilova. HALO Trust

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