Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Minsk Group Is Meaningless

The OSCE’s peace effort in Nagorno-Karabakh is outdated and unhelpful. Laying it to rest can pave the way for real reconciliation and reconstruction.

By , a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Former Swiss foreign minister meets with OSCE Minsk Group members.
Then-Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter (center) poses with Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders and members of the OSCE Minsk Group before talks about the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Bern, Switzerland, on Dec. 19, 2015. PETER KLAUNZER/AFP via Getty Images

Just as generals proverbially prepare for the last war, diplomats often prepare for the last peace—or at least for the last peace initiative. Usually, they fail for the same reason: Things have changed. So it is with the Minsk Group, established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the 1990s to hold a peace conference on the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Minsk—hence its name.

For 30 years, the Minsk Group failed to produce results; the recent victory by Azerbaijani military forces—ending Armenia’s occupation—leaves it with nothing left to do. It is now bankrupt and dead. The sooner it is buried, the sooner energies for real peace and reconciliation, not to mention physical reconstruction, can be turned to the future rather than the past.

The Minsk Group was initially set up by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (which had not yet become the OSCE) in March 1992. In March 1995, the OSCE established a co-chairmanship between Russia and the United States; France was added in 1997, making it tripartite.

Just as generals proverbially prepare for the last war, diplomats often prepare for the last peace—or at least for the last peace initiative. Usually, they fail for the same reason: Things have changed. So it is with the Minsk Group, established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the 1990s to hold a peace conference on the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Minsk—hence its name.

For 30 years, the Minsk Group failed to produce results; the recent victory by Azerbaijani military forces—ending Armenia’s occupation—leaves it with nothing left to do. It is now bankrupt and dead. The sooner it is buried, the sooner energies for real peace and reconciliation, not to mention physical reconstruction, can be turned to the future rather than the past.


The Minsk Group was initially set up by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (which had not yet become the OSCE) in March 1992. In March 1995, the OSCE established a co-chairmanship between Russia and the United States; France was added in 1997, making it tripartite.

It is usually forgotten that the Minsk Group also had eight other members in addition to the co-chairs. The reason why this is usually forgotten is the co-chairs rarely, if ever, consulted with other members of the group, apparently never asking them to do anything. These members—besides Armenia and Azerbaijan—were Belarus, Finland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Turkey.

In the late 1990s, the Minsk Group came up with three plans the warring parties rejected. The first, in July 1997, was called the comprehensive proposal (informally called the “package deal”), comprising one agreement to end armed hostilities and another proposing a political endpoint for settling the region’s status.

For 30 years, the Minsk Group failed to produce results; the recent victory by Azerbaijani military forces—ending Armenia’s occupation—leaves it with nothing left to do.

In response to Armenia and Azerbaijan’s rejection, the Minsk Group in September 1997 proposed a new agreement (known as the “step-by-step approach”) that aimed only at ending armed conflict through a specified sequence of tactical and logistical steps. It was likewise rejected by the Armenian government under then-Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan.

Finally, in November 1998, the Minsk Group proposed yet another comprehensive agreement (the “common state deal”) that provided for the creation of Nagorno-Karabakh as a so-called “state-territorial formation” within Azerbaijan’s own “internationally recognized borders.” The proposal would essentially have given Nagorno-Karabakh all the trappings of state sovereignty, including its own passport, currency, national guard, and police forces. Azerbaijani forces would have been barred from entering Nagorno-Karabakh without the latter’s approval, yet residents of Nagorno-Karabakh would have had the right to participate in Azerbaijani elections and its parliament.

In history, a “common state” political form generally does not survive long. The Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, for example, which is sometimes pointed to as a precedent, lasted little more than one month in 1918. The Azerbaijani side rejected the Minsk Group’s proposal for a “common state” with Nagorno-Karabakh as unworkable.

This led to the OSCE’s “Madrid Principles” for settling the conflict, so called because its original version of the principles was presented to the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers at the November 2007 OSCE ministerial conference held in Madrid. As modified in 2009, they called for: (1) Azerbaijani control to be established over the seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh; (2) an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh that would provide “guarantees for security and self-governance;” (3) a corridor linking it with Armenia; (4) a “legally binding expression of will” of the population to determine its final legal status; (5) the return of all internally displaced persons; and (6) the implementation of a peacekeeping operation.

The so-called Kazan formula was added in 2011 under Russian mediation, according to which Armenia would return five of the seven adjacent occupied districts around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, followed later by the last two (Lachin and Kalbajar, which border Armenia proper). In return, Azerbaijan would lift its economic blockade of Armenia, where agreements on economic and humanitarian cooperation, demilitarization, and nonuse of force would be signed and peacekeepers would be deployed.

Inspection of the Madrid Principles reveals their first, third, and sixth points are faits accomplis and the fifth point is becoming one. The second point no longer applies because the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) no longer exists: Azerbaijani troops took back control over significant parts of the old NKAO (including the major city Shusha) that are not, at present, maintained by Russian peacekeepers. For this reason, the fourth point is also outdated. There is no longer any administrative unit inside Azerbaijan called “Nagorno-Karabakh” for any final legal status to be determined.

Above all, the Madrid Principles were entirely stipulated and predicated on a peaceful resolution of the conflict; however, the resolution that occurred last fall was not peaceful. Azerbaijan compelled Armenia to withdraw by applying military force as authorized by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter on a state’s right to defend its sovereign territory. Four U.N. Security Council resolutions from 1993 denoted the Armenian military presence as “occupation” and explicitly affirmed Azerbaijani sovereignty over the occupied territories.

Moreover, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan himself explicitly vacated the Madrid Principles in 2020, insisting the so-called “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh” should be a party to negotiations with Azerbaijan, without any participation by Azerbaijani citizens who were displaced from the occupied territories. This declaration represented an explicit renunciation not only of the Madrid Proposals in particular but of the Minsk Group’s very terms of reference, which said when representatives of the Armenian population occupying Nagorno-Karabakh (and Azerbaijan’s seven other occupied administrative districts) would eventually be invited to participate in negotiations, this would take place only with the participation, as well, of representatives of the Azerbaijani internally displaced persons who had been ethnically cleansed from the region. This condition (there were others) announced by Pashinyan in his declaration thus effectively renounced OSCE mediation.


Given the situation on the ground, the Madrid Principles cannot be invoked to justify a continuing OSCE role. Events have overtaken 30 years of diplomatic inertia. It is highly unlikely the OSCE can find another role, not only because the Minsk Group has lost whatever little influence it may once have had, but because this is no longer the 1990s.

Armenians and Azerbaijanis no longer live in a post-Soviet world. The South Caucasus countries are no longer post-Soviet newly independent states. In addition, two of the three Minsk Group co-chairs—France and the United States—have lost influence in the region, although for different reasons.

French President Emmanuel Macron has irremediably discredited France as a Minsk Group co-chair by taking Armenia’s side in public declarations, thus breaching necessary diplomatic neutrality. He blamed Turkey for disinhibiting (“décomplexant”) Azerbaijan regarding “what would be a reconquest of Upper Karabakh, something that we would never accept” and declared, “I say to Armenia and to Armenians that France will play its role.” This was ostensibly said to prevent such a “reconquest” from coming to pass. (France has long had a large, highly educated, and culturally influential Armenian diaspora, including famous French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour.)

The United States began a diplomatic retrenchment away from the South Caucasus during the first Obama administration, after the putative Turkish-Armenian rapprochement’s failure. U.S. public opinion and even elite opinion are occupied with different concerns now, whether these be internecine domestic politics or the hegemonic challenge from China. In addition, the Armenian lobby’s strong representation among key appointees in the Biden administration does not augur well, at a minimum, for an Azerbaijani perception of U.S. evenhandedness.

Further, it is extremely difficult to find any argument why Russia, which brokered the cease-fire between the two sides and has its troops in place as so-called peacekeepers, should let in any of the Western powers, such as France or the United States, for participation in any settlement.

The only way to resolve the conflict once and for all is a formal peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

For the Minsk Group to have any role at all, it would require not only new co-chairs but also new terms of reference. But events are moving and will continue to move too fast for cumbersome large-scale, multilateral OSCE diplomacy to keep up. Proposals for economic and political cooperation in the region itself, including but not limited to Turkey’s “six-way platform” proposal (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey), are much more vital and dynamic than political schemata sketched in foreign ministries thousands of miles from the scene.

In addition, U.S. Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland, who represented the United States as one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group in 2017, has let the cat out of the bag by explaining exactly how it worked. His words are so remarkably candid they merit extended citation: “We stayed in five-star hotels where we were usually assigned suites on the executive floor that gave us access to a private dining room and full bar at no additional expense. We always sought out the best restaurants in the cities where we found ourselves. We lived well while we showed the OSCE flag and reminded Baku and Yerevan that the Minsk Group exists. But to be blunt, very, very little ever got accomplished.”


The only way to resolve the conflict once and for all is a formal peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In diplomatic practice, this is how wars end. State frontiers are authoritatively delimited and formally mutually recognized. Even Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s president from 1991 to 1998, noted Armenia is the only country in the world that fails to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity—and he sees circumstances that will compel his country to do so.

Azerbaijan’s population is more than three times that of Armenia, and its gross domestic product is more than four times as large. It has established relative diplomatic autonomy as a “middle power” while, in the global arena, Armenia remains reliant exclusively on Russia. The only other political or strategic support for Yerevan is the Armenian diaspora, although the European Union has just announced it will give Armenia $3 billion in financial assistance.

This diaspora has been among the most militaristic elements in Armenian political life for a quarter of a century, but its members live elsewhere and do not suffer the consequences of the policies they encourage Yerevan to pursue. As Jirair Libaridian, who served as a chief advisor to Ter-Petrosyan in the 1990s, recognized, the outcome of the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War is in part due to the catastrophic influence of Armenian diaspora positions that “have been maximalist and to say the least, have not contributed to a more realistic assessment of the situation” in the region. A reality check and readjustment of Armenia’s strategic vision are necessary. Otherwise, according to Libaridian, the “likely consequence of continuing the thinking that led us to this historical loss is that the war may be renewed … and we may lose whatever is left.”

Robert M. Cutler is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Twitter: @RobertMCutler

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