Over the past two decades, our region has lived through an amazing transformation. From deeper Euro-Atlantic integration — and in a remarkable breakthrough, Azerbaijan has joined the United Nations Security Council — to major energy and infrastructure projects on global scales to Azerbaijan’s rapid economic development to Baku’s incredible makeover, the progress has been simply astounding.
In equal terms, Azerbaijan’s gravitas has increased with successive U.S. administrations and Congress, as it has become a reliable, steadfast and close ally. Azerbaijan has become a key source and transit point for non-OPEC oil and gas for the West, including Israel, and the key transit point for materiel and troops for International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan. As a moderate-Muslim nation, Azerbaijan, with a tradition of religious and cultural tolerance, stands as a standard to others, a fact that has increased its key role with the U.S., Europe and the West, in general.
Yet, also for more than two decades, one issue remains unchanged and continues to cast a dark shadow over the future and the promise of the Caucasus. Despite international efforts, no real progress has been made toward resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, a major continued threat to the peace and security of Eurasia.
This April marks exactly 20 years since adoption of the first of several United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for restoration of peace and the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijan’s occupied territories. Although the conflict and the international mediation efforts began much earlier, in April of 1993 Armenia’s blatant cross-border attack against the Azerbaijani mountainous region of Kalbajar followed by a thorough ethnic-cleansing campaign proved too much even for the normally patient and distant United Nations Security Council. The Armenian side successfully tested the council’s patience again during the same year resulting in three more resolutions. Although the resolutions remain unimplemented, an unprecedented level of attention by the international community, including the U.S. administration, focused on the region and established a strong body of international law concerning Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani lands and the displacement of roughly 900,000 Azerbaijani civilians.
Yet, even as Azerbaijan, a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council for 2012-13, along with other council members works to address emerging global challenges in the world’s pre-eminent decision-making body, the resolutions on Azerbaijan’s own most pressing issue remains unfulfilled … for decades! There are some who’d argue that with time those resolutions are no longer as relevant. In addition to the fact that the Security Council resolutions are mandatory for implementation and don’t just expire with time, the sad reality remains that while many things have changed in the Caucasus, the concerns, which had produced these documents, are among the few things that have not. Kalbajar, along with a significant portion of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories, are still under Armenian occupation. Almost 1 million members within the displaced communities are still unable to return to their homes, and the regional ties remain disrupted and incomplete. The United States, with the support of Congress, can help to change this dynamic by engaging more actively in the negotiations in support of an international law-based peaceful settlement and by leading the process through the appointment of a high-level, authoritative representative as a mediator.
This unresolved conflict is not only a threat to the peace and security of all of Eurasia, it also presents a substantial opportunity for the region and its future, especially for Armenia itself. Consider how many joint projects and common initiatives were sacrificed because of a clearly unsustainable desire to control a neighboring country’s ethnically cleansed and currently uninhabited territories. This is even more unfortunate since Armenia is undergoing a demographic crisis — a significant reduction in population, particularly among the better educated and more affluent — another consequence of its self-imposed isolation as a result of occupying Azerbaijani lands.
Our region can do much better than this, and all of us in the Caucasus can live prosperously in peace with each other. The two decades of impasse on the settlement against the background of Azerbaijan’s development, close and mutually beneficial integration with Georgia and Turkey and success of major regional projects illustrates the chances missed and highlights the promise yet to be fulfilled. And, of course, implementing those resolutions, even if belatedly, would set a good precedent of respect for international law in our region.
H.E. Elin Suleymanov is the ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the U.S.