The protracted Nagorny Karabakh conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which dates back to 1988, remains a source of potential instability for the South Caucasus region and for neighboring countries. The peace process is essentially at a standstill, with the situation on the ground characterized by a tense, heavily armed Line of Contact, and counterproductive negative rhetoric coming from both sides.

In advance of the tenth anniversary of the Key West talks on Nagorny Karabakh, Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, Jeff Goldstein of the Open Society Institute, and Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal discussed how lessons learned from the history of the peace process can be applied to today’s dialogue. Carnegie’s Ambassador James F. Collins moderated.  

Key West Peace Talks

The lead-up to the 2001 Key West peace talks was marked by optimism, Cavanaugh said, but despite initiating a number of positive developments, the talks failed to generate an agreement. 

  • Leadership from the Top: In the months before the Key West talks, both Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev recognized the need for a definitive solution to the conflict and personally took the lead in negotiating a peace process. This push for progress from the top allowed the international OSCE Minsk Group heading the negotiations to work with ideas developed by the leaders themselves, Cavanaugh said. 
  • Cooperation Among Co-Chairs: Understanding that no single power was in a position to deliver a peace settlement, the co-chairs of the Minsk Group—Russia, France, and the United States—demonstrated an unprecedented level of cooperation, Cavanaugh added. Support from neighboring countries was also important, he added: Turkey, for example, played an instrumental role in the peace process in the run-up to Key West.  
  • No Competing International Crises: The absence of a competing international crisis, as well as the availability of money for a potential settlement, ensured that Nagorny Karabakh was a priority for the international community, Cavanaugh explained. This is not the case today, as the global community faces unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, a struggling global economy, and natural and nuclear crises in Japan. Cavanaugh also noted that the world financial situation was better at the beginning of the century, making it easier to secure funds from the international community for a post-conflict settlement. 
  • The Failure of Key West: The Key West talks failed because the leaders of both Azerbaijan and Armenia failed to prepare the ground for a compromise with their respective publics, said Cavanaugh. While a compromise agreement was discussed privately, it remained absent from public discourse in both countries. This continues to be a key problem today, the panelists agreed.   
  • Armenian Parliament Shooting: The 1999 shooting in the Armenian Parliament, which killed the country’s Prime Minister and seven other officials, was not tied to the Nagorny Karabakh process but nevertheless affected it, Cavanaugh argued. The shooting triggered fears of domestic risks and assassinations among political leaders on both sides. This in turn impeded the ability of the leadership to move forward with the process, Cavanaugh said.

After Key West

Negotiations were put on hold after Key West. Hopes that Azerbaijan’s new president, Ilham Aliev, would re-engage in the peace process were dashed when Aliev and his Armenian counterpart appeared to settle on a tacit agreement to preserve the status quo shortly after Aliev became president in 2003. Despite the unstable situation in Nagorny Karabakh, neither side was willing to face the domestic political risks of working toward a compromise, Goldstein said. Meanwhile, foreign ministers on both sides continued a pro-forma dialogue with the Minsk Group co-chairs, with little progress.  

  • Proposed Referendum: With the leadership no longer as invested in the peace process, the Minsk Group co-chairs developed their own plan, which proposed that the eventual status of Nagorny Karabakh be decided in a referendum.
  • Problems with the Referendum: There was deliberate ambiguity regarding several important aspects of the referendum, including who would be able to vote, but the proposal became deadlocked when Armenia and Azerbaijan insisted on clarifying these ambiguities, each to its own advantage, added Goldstein.

Current Situation

  • Volatile situation: De Waal reminded the audience that the maintenance of the ceasefire essentially depends on the goodwill of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • Deadlock: Both governments lack domestic political legitimacy and are therefore hesitant to take political risks by working toward a compromise on Nagorny Karabakh, Goldstein explained. Instead, both Armenia and Azerbaijan use the issue as a tool to build popular support at home.
  • Hardening positions: Both sides’ positions have hardened since the Key West talks, said de Waal. On the one hand, the Armenian side sees Kosovo, Sudan, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia as potential precedents for an independent Karabakh. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is richer and more confident than it was ten years ago and its army carries more political clout because of the high military budget. De Waal called for a “rhetoric ceasefire” by both sides, and emphasized the need for a stronger reaction from the international community to belligerent remarks.


There is harmony within the OSCE Minsk Group and members of the Group remain cooperative, de Waal said. He suggested encouraging other actors, like the European Union, to play a secondary, supportive role in the negotiating process. A stronger informal, track two dialogue is also needed to encourage a deal.

Collins said that the international community should not only be concerned about the risk of renewed conflict but should begin to count the cost to the region of a continuation of the status quo.

Current U.S. Co-chair of the Minsk Group Robert Bradtke, who was in the audience, ended the session by saying that although Nagorny Karabakh receives little coverage in the international media, the conflict is not frozen and the situation remains unstable. The United States remains actively engaged, Bradtke added. He has personally made sixteen visits to the region and been invited to all four meetings chaired by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia.