Internet press-conference of Sabine Freizer, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council for Armenian media

On April 30 an Internet press-conference for Armenian media with senior  fellow in Atlantic Council was held on following topics:  Security issues in South Caucasus in the context of new integration processes.
These "first-hand" comments Armenian journalists will publish in their media outlets.
The internet press-conference with Sabine Freizer was organized within the framework of the project “Topical Dialogues on the New Integration Agenda of Armenia” of  the “Region” Research Center supported by U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section.
David Stepanyan, 
- Do you think that the sharp increase in the number of deaths of soldiers on the frontline and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border is a real threat to the status quo, established in 1994?
- Yes I believe that the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is as dangerous at is has ever been since 1994. Chances for a further deterioration of the security situation are growing as fighting in 2013-2015 is more frequent, kills more soldiers and civilians, is spread over a growing terrain (including along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border far from Nagorno-Karabakh), involves more sophisticated weaponry and linked to more bold incursions into enemy terrain. As Armenian and Azerbaijani defense sources provide contradictory casualty figures, and the OSCE monitoring group only has some 6 field observers, determining the exact number casualties in 2014 is extremely difficult. Military budgets in both countries continue to increase, as does belligerent rhetoric. Ministries of Defense of Azerbaijan and Armenia no longer have a direct communications line and Baku is resistant to security building measures such as the re-activation of a communications hotline, establishment of a prevention and monitoring mechanism (as exists in South Ossetia) or pull back of snipers until the Armenian sides shows that it is serious about withdrawal of occupied territories.
But the biggest problem is that trust in finding a compromise solution is at one of its weakest points since 1994. The Basic Principles being negotiated between the sides since 2004-2005 have been undermined by developments in Ukraine and Crimea.
- Can a significant imbalance in the volume of imports of arms by Azerbaijan and Armenia lead to a breakdown of the status quo in Karabakh? Which countries are today the most interested ones in this regard?
- Yes a serious imbalance in volume of arms imports by Azerbaijan and Armenia could lead to a breakdown of the status quo in Karabakh but I don’t see this happening yet. I don’t think that there are any countries in the neighborhood that are interested to see a war start now. 
- The official representatives of the European Union repeatedly made clear their unwillingness to give security guarantees to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. A similar view was expressed repeatedly in the United States, however, at the official level. Can Armenia’s choice for Eurasian Union be considered an alternative in this context given that such a guarantee is formally provided to Armenia due to its membership to the CSTO?
- Armenia has secured bilateral security guarantees from Russia and Azerbaijan also has security arrangements with Turkey. I think that these bilateral arrangements are much stronger than anything that the CSTO can offer. For now the CSTO is untested in a conflict setting and its not entirely sure how it would react if a serious armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh re-ignited. 
- Do you think that the situation around Ukraine has become another source of challenges for the recognized and unrecognized countries in the South Caucasus?
- Yes I believe that the situation around Ukraine and especially Russia’s annexation of Crimea has made the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict more difficult. According to the on the Basic Principles that were under discussion since 2004-2005 a settlement was supposed to be based on three fundamental elements: the non-use of force, territorial integrity and the right to self-determination. These have all been undermined to different degrees in Crimea. Most importantly for the Armenian side, a popular vote or referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status and strong international security guarantees for the retreating Armenian forces, was supposed to be part of the Basic Principles deal. Now with the violation of the Budapest Memorandum in Ukraine, and the organization of referendum in Crimea that did not follow any modalities agreed to with Kiyv, consensus on what security guarantees and referendums as a way to resolve status questions may look like is no longer so clear.  
Also even though the US Minsk Group co-chair claims that the war in Ukraine has not undermined solidarity and cooperation between the US and Russia in the Minsk Group, in 2014 Russia played a more dominant role in the peace talks especially as evident when Russian President Putin called to Sochi the Azerbaijani and Armenian Presidents without any high level French or US presence last August. 
Armen Minasyan, 
– What is in your opinion of the security situation in the region at the moment, in light of the confrontation between Russia and the West? Do you believe that the inability of the parties to negotiate will bring a further escalation of the situation, and, eventually, lead to a new Cold War?
-From the geopolitical perspective security in the wider European region has been seriously undermined during the past 18 months. Most importantly trust between Russia, the US and EU has broken down.  The three parties no longer seem to be interpreting international law and the OSCE Final Act in the same way. Hopefully all parties will meet their Minsk 2 commitments and peace can be restored in eastern Ukraine to begin building up a political and economic environment for life to return to normal in the region. Unfortunately these days we are seeing a resumption of heavy weapons use around Mariupol and many reports that Russia is building up its forces on the border with Ukraine so it is unclear what the immediate future will bring. While the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has become more difficult in this geopolitical environment, I don’t think that the US, Russia or the EU have an interest to undermine the status quo in the South Caucasus while their efforts are focused on Ukraine.  
- Do you think that the resumption of large-scale military actions is possible in the light of recent provocative actions by Azerbaijan on the frontline?
- (See above re chances of a re-start of armed conflict)
- Will there be an escalation of other frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet territory, in your opinion?
- The situation is probably most unclear in Moldova where public support for the EU and the Eurasia Economic Union is almost equal, Transnistria is increasingly isolated and the population of Gagauzia is very influenced by pro-Russian groups. While I don’t want to say that there is a real likelihood for escalation of fighting in any of the post-Soviet conflict areas, clearly the geopolitical conflict between Russia and the EU/US is more acute in Moldova/Transnistria than elsewhere. As mentioned above the situation is also very precarious in and around Nagorno-Karabakh but I see this as much due to local/regional factors as to the geopolitical environment. 
– The confrontation between global actors "beats" the small countries that are trying not to go or not to be involved in global processes the hardest. Is there a behavioral algorithm for small countries to avoid losses if possible or to minimize them?
-It is understandable that smaller countries, like those in the South Caucasus, do not wish to become embroiled in the larger geopolitical conflict now pitting Russia against the US/EU. However it is very difficult to avoid being pulled in. Already Armenia has chosen to join the Eurasia Economic Union while Georgia is starting to implement its obligations under the EU Association Agreement and DCFTA. Azerbaijan is the only country in the South Caucasus which is trying to avoid making substantial commitments to the EU or the EEU and to retain a multi-vector foreign policy but it is under pressure to more clearly choose its allies. The only algorithm for small countries that I could suggest is to build up democratic, stable institutions that are accountable first and foremost to local citizens – and not to any oligarchical or external interests. It is only when countries control their governing institutions that they can withstand outside pressures. 
Karine Asatryan, 
 - A year ago, you mentioned that Russia, led by its national imperialist foreign policy, is not interested in contributing to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process. Given that Russia and Turkey are currently trying to develop a closer relationship, what are the possible developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
- Russia and Turkey are indeed building up their political and economic ties even while they have fundamental disagreements over foreign policy issues like the conflict in Syria. Turkey does not currently play an official role in the OSCE Minsk Group and I don’t think that Russia really considers it to be an important conflict resolution actor in the South Caucasus. So far when Turkey has tried to contribute to normalization in the South Caucasus, like it did promoting sea access to Abkhazia, it has tended to do so without much public visibility. Take also the example of Crimea where Turkey has natural allies amongst the Tatars but Ankara has employed silent diplomacy with Moscow to express their concerns about their rights’ protection. Even though Turkey has a clear interest to see movement towards the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, I doubt that Russia has much interest to cooperate with Ankara to achieve any change. Only if there is a real serious resumption of fighting do I imagine that Ankara and Moscow will come together to try to avoid being pulled into a war that would put them on opposite sides.     
Gagik Baghdasaryan,
-Do you expect an extrapolation of tensions between the West and Russia in the South Caucasus region, creation of new boundary delimitations and sources of tension?
- No not in the South Caucasus. Instead I think that we are likely to see tensions persisting in eastern Ukraine and possibly also moving to Moldova/Transnistria (see above for more).
- How solid is the position of the OSCE Minsk Group in the Karabakh conflict regulation and whether such a solidarity is possible in the current situation?
- The US Minsk Group co-chair claims that the war in Ukraine has not undermined solidarity and cooperation between the US and Russia in the Minsk Group. Yet in 2014 Russia played a more dominant role in the peace talks especially as evident when Russian President Putin called to Sochi the Azerbaijani and Armenian Presidents without any high level French or US presence last August. More worryingly I think that the Basic Principles have been seriously undermined by Russia’s annexation of Crimea (see above). As the Basic Principles have been the main text discussed between the parties since 2004, the question is what to negotiate if the principles are no longer a solid starting point. 
The Azerbaijani side continues to question to effectiveness of the OSCE Minsk Group and to call for a change in discussion formats. To keep things on track Azerbaijan is apparently open to the idea of shifting from the talk on basic principles to a broader focus on a finding a comprehensive peace settlement while the Armenian sides seeks codification of Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination before moving forward. 
At the same time the OSCE Group mediators (with the Swiss who had the OSCE chairmanship in 2014) are seeking ways to open up discussions on conflict resolution to a broader range of participants.  Already in Minsk May 2014 the co-chairs publicly called for more people-to-people efforts, If “structured negotiations” on technical issues (such as water use, telecommunications, infrastructure) could be started this would be a way to keep unity in the OSCE MG and to make progress towards conflict settlement.  
- Do you think that Azerbaijan might decide to resume large-scale military actions in the conflict zone without obtaining permission from one or more regional or world powers?
- I don’t believe that Azerbaijan, or Armenia, is planning to resume large-scale military actions in the conflict zone but I am concerned that with all the developments over the past 12-18 months the chance of a resumption of way by accident keeps increasing. This slide into all-out war can definitely happen without the acquiescence of other regional powers. 
- How will the geopolitical configuration in the region change in case of a solution of the Iranian nuclear issue? Is an overall comprehensive solution to this problem possible?
- Sorry don’t know. 
Artak Barseghyan, Public radio of Armenia
- Ms. Freizer, how would you evaluate the geopolitical importance of the South Caucasus in the light of the rapidly changing political processes on the international arena?
- While I may consider that the South Caucasus has geopolitical importance today, unfortunately among many policy making circles the region is still seen as peripheral. This has not fundamentally changed with the past year’s developments in Ukraine and increased Russia – US/EU tensions. Russia, and US/EU, are both using soft power to extend their influence in the South Caucasus especially via trade -- the Eastern Partnership and the Eurasia Economic Union. But this is not transforming into hard security rivalries and I don’t believe that we are likely to see a resumption of the 2008 Georgia-Russia war or a Crimea scenario in the South Caucasus soon.   
The South Caucasus can serve as key global transport and transit route but the unresolved conflicts have in many ways scuttled this potential. The overwhelming insecurity caused by war in Syria, Libya and now Yemen, also keep policy makers focused on the Middle East. 
- How probable is the actual preservation and continuation of the current status quo in the Karabakh conflict settlement to you?
- The preservation of the current status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict become more and more difficult every year as the sides become more and more resistant to compromise, societies less and less used to co-existence, military arsenals more developed and front lines inch closer and closer. This all makes the chance of a war by accident all the greater. 
Chances for a further deterioration of the security situation are growing as fighting in 2013-2015 is more frequent, kills more soldiers and civilians, is spread over a growing terrain (including along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border far from Nagorno-Karabakh), involves more sophisticated weaponry and linked to more bold incursions into enemy terrain.
- On what conditions it is possible to achieve a peaceful solution to the problem on mutually acceptable/agreeable terms? 
-For the past ten years I have believed that the Basic Principles offer an excellent compromise to serve as a basis for a peaceful solution to the conflict. I still think that this is the best format for a mutually agreed solution. However it has also become evident over the past decade that even if the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia could agree to this formula they do not believe that they could sell it to their people and neighboring countries may make certain demands – like the deployment of their peacekeepers – which are unacceptable for one or several conflicting parties. 
Therefore at this point in time I believe that the leaders should reaffirm their support of the Basic Principles, as they have already done many times, and open up the discussion now to a wide group of experts to discuss the technical implementation of the principles. Some Azerbaijani and Armenian experts have already during the past few years discussed for example what the Lachin corridor might look like or how a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status could be organized. These experts should now be brought in and bring their ideas to the OSCE Minsk Group mediated talks. These structured and issue specific talks would eventually help fill in the details needed for a comprehensive peace agreement.
Tatevik Ghazaryan, 
- Ms. Freizer, is there a country or a conflict that you consider a threat to the security of the South Caucasus region?
-The geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US/EU can threaten South Caucasus security but as mentioned above at this point I think that the two sides are using soft power and not hard military means to extend their influence and potentially threaten regional security. 
- How would you describe the role and aims of the United States of America in this region, especially in Armenia? Has that role changed after Armenia's entrance into the Eurasian Economic Union?
- The United States is not exerting a lot of influence in the South Caucasus. It is mainly been interested in the region as a transit point to Central Asia/Afghanistan, for energy to travel to the EU, and to control trafficking of all forms. It has largely handed the lead over to the EU.  The US is not implementing any policies of comparable ambition with the Eastern Partnership in the South Caucasus. 
In the US Armenia remains on the agenda because of the diaspora based there but as we recently saw with the inability of President Obama to acknowledge the Armenian genocide the influence of this lobby group is not particularly strong.  
What probably disappointed most EU policy makers most about Armenia’s decision to drop its efforts to sign an EU Association Agreement (AA) and instead join the Eurasia Economic Union was the way the decision was made apparently overnight. Of course there were signs that Yerevan needed to take into consideration Russian interests before but the sudden volte face when the AA was about to be signed undermined the Armenian side’s position as trustworthy negotiators. 
- Do you see any perspectives for the Karabakh conflict resolution in the near future?
- (please see above) 
Araks Martirosyan, “168 hours” newspaper, 
-  In your latest interviews you described the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone as being "dangerous" and "explosive” not excluding the possibility of an accidental outbreak of war. In your previous interviews you spoke about the Russian factor, as well. Despite the Western sanctions, the economic crisis, the Ukrainian war, Russia strengthens its position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia through the ratification of various integration contracts. How should the West react to the instability in the region caused by Russia? How should the West attempt to neutralize threats when you claim/argue that the Russian Federation confines Armenia to EEC, far from EU, through increasing the tension in the Nagorno-Karabakh zone by maintaining influence in the region?
- The US/EU should maintain a dialogue with Armenia and not discount it totally as a Russian periphery. For example it is positive that talks are ongoing between Brussels and Yerevan on the signature of a document to replace the Association Agreement that Armenia turned down in 2013 in favor of the EEC. The EU should continue to assist Armenia build stable institutions based on the rule of law and accountable to local citizens. At the same time it should make its conditions much clearer and where it sees that Armenia is “faking reforms” it should not shy away from openly critical statements. In Armenia at least, the best way to ensure some room for independent decision making from Russia is to secure strong, respected and legitimate local institutions.  
- If the West-Russia negotiations have positive outcome, is it possible to expect reasonable developments or at least peacetime in the conflict zone? 
- Even though the US Minsk Group co-chair claims that the war in Ukraine has not undermined solidarity and cooperation between the US and Russia in the Minsk Group, in 2014 Russia played a more dominant role in the peace talks especially as evident when Russian President Putin called to Sochi the Azerbaijani and Armenian Presidents without any high level French or US presence last August. However I still believe that Russia is not interested in an outbreak of all out war in or around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Therefore especially if there is an improvement in Russia-US/EU relations it is possible that Moscow will allow the broadening of discussions on resolving the conflict to a wider group of experts and deepening of talks to address technical issues. As I recommend above, I see this as the best way forward in the negotiations today. 
- There are some positive developments in Iran: How will Iran's "blockade" impact on regional security? Could Iran have a positive role in the Karabakh conflict settlement process, as one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group offered?
-Sorry I don’t have an answer to this question.
Anahit Danielyan,
- Ms. Freizer, why do not you visit Nagorno-Karabakh anymore, as you did before, when you were having various meetings? Why have you stopped to visit? Isn’t Nagorno Karabakh in the scope of your organization interests anymore?
-Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to visit Nagorno-Karabakh for several years but I still retain very strong impressions from my past trips, including the criticism that I received from refugees now living in Mardakert. To understand a conflict, I believe that it is very important to travel to the region and to speak with decision makers and to listen to common people.  I had that opportunity in Nagorno-Karabakh and hope that I will again. When I came to Nagorno-Karabakh I was working with the International Crisis Group which published several reports on the conflict but no longer has a project dedicated to the South Caucasus. The think tank where I am now a senior fellow, the Atlantic Council, does not have the same resources as ICG did to do extensive field work and I now work on the whole Europe – Central Asia region which gives me less time to travel in the Caucasus. 

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