After six weeks of fighting over the controversial Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Armenia and Azerbaijan have initially agreed on a weak ceasefire. However, this is unlikely to be fixed in the long term. As Baku celebrates its territorial achievements, many Armenians reacted indignantly to the news and stormed parliament and other government buildings to demand answers to a deal they consider treason. A peace settlement that will satisfy both sides does not yet seem in sight.
A lasting peace settlement is more important than ever today. This is mainly because the great powers' involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh has increased the commitment to a solution: Russia and Turkey may have both helped broker the existing ceasefire, but it is uncertain whether their interests in Nagorno-Karabakh will overlap – and beyond – will continue to align. An unfinished peace in Nagorno-Karabakh probably makes the current situation more, not less, dangerous. After Russia and Turkey are drawn into the hostilities, sooner or later they may be urged to compete against each other.
Fortunately, a more peaceful future is possible – it just requires a deeper look into the past.
For decades, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute has been treated as a bilateral zero-sum game. In reality, it is part of a crescent of frozen, smoldering, and occasionally incandescent conflict zones that stretch east from Ukraine across the Caucasus and Caspian Sea to south to Syria and could make headlines in the months and years to come. Each of these conflicts involves an occupation of external actors – from Russia to various NATO members – in a complicated tangle.
The conflicts in this arc – Transnistria, Crimea, Donbass, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh and the southern edge of Turkey – are all unique. However, they share the trait that they are structurally difficult to solve, illustrating how difficult it is to achieve peace when irreconcilable claims collide. In all of these disputes, there are few win-win scenarios for a long-term solution. In addition, some of these conflicts, such as Karabakh, pose a distant threat to stability.
Given that multiple stalemates threaten long-term regional security, it may be time to bring all of the Central Eurasian conflicts together into negotiations on a single deal that forces all actors – including the great powers – to do a little for each other to give and receive overall net profit. Far from high idealism, there is a historical model for such an improbable peace: In Europe, the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815 resolved the many interlocking challenges that arose from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars – for large and small European powers equally.
Prince Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, France's Foreign Minister and negotiator during the Congress of Vienna, briefly summarized his core principle. In order for a settlement to work, he is said to have said: “Everyone has to go unhappy and have to make sacrifices. From these partial sacrifices the harmony of all must be awakened to life, the greater good. "
The Congress of Vienna followed the intense Napoleonic wars that turned geopolitical precautions before the French Revolution of 1789 upside down. It involved a comprehensive exchange of territory from the Netherlands to present-day Ukraine, for which freedom of navigation was secured along the most important transport routes of its time – the Rhine and Danube – and provides a strong historical precedent for overcoming several violent disputes through complicated cross-swaps.
Precisely because different players needed a face-friendly way out of the deadlock, these multilateral swaps offered a practical approach to overcome a zero-sum game. In such agreements, governments have the opportunity to secure a price that will otherwise never be available. Some irredentists might be attracted by historical opportunities. In addition, a larger settlement can help declare victims to a suspicious population. It is still a difficult sale but easier to defend than a direct concession.
In the two centuries since, the Congress of Vienna has been the subject of historical intrigue and veneration. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote his doctoral thesis on the event and shared many of his own realistic beliefs. Although there are major differences today between 19th century Europe and modern Eurasia, there are still enough core parallels to make the Congress of Vienna relevant.
The current impasse from Crimea to Karabakh is structural and has developed cumulatively in the 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, which, as historian Ronald Grigor Suny put it, “is still dissolving”. The Congress of Vienna, on the other hand, followed decades of hard-fought war. Modern parties in Eurasian conflict areas are either democratic or in various authoritarian forms, while the Congress of Vienna was mainly attended by unabashed monarchs. Today people are encouraged by the idea of self-determination, which had not yet debuted in 1814. And there are new players on the global stage who, like the United States and China, can complicate matters by exerting their own influence.
Contextual specifics aside, the overarching challenge underlying the territorial disputes of 1814 in Europe and the conflicts of Eurasia in 2020 remains the same. Then and now, leaders struggled with how various de facto territorial acquisitions could be integrated into a de jure system, hoping to restore a functioning, stable and ideally prosperous order. As Kissinger noted, the central question of the Congress of Vienna was how to restore legitimacy. Failure to establish such an order is risky and costly. It is risky in that unresolved conflicts can spark more wars and cost lives, poverty, insecurity and military spending. Without a larger settlement, there is still a risk of destabilization.
In Karabakh today, a Talleyrand model could outperform the current zero-sum game between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenians find it inconceivable to abandon the core of Karabakh; Too much Armenian identity is being invested in the region. But it is also important to understand why Karabakh has achieved unprecedented importance in the Armenian imagination: The outstanding national symbol of the Armenians – Mount Ararat – remains inaccessible in Turkey. Ararat was the geographical center of several Armenian kingdoms and is considered the holy mountain of the people. In 1921 the Treaty of Kars transferred Ararat to Turkey. On clear days, the dormant volcano rises over Yerevan, the Armenian capital – a constant reminder of national losses. Karabakh was a kind of symbolic ointment, and now it is also endangered.
In a "Congress of Istanbul", as we will call it, grievances about Karabakh could be settled with leeway on Mount Ararat. If Armenians are brought closer to Mount Ararat, they can be more flexible in Karabakh. In one version of this ambitious thought experiment, Turkey could create a multilateral peace park on the sparsely populated eastern slopes of Mount Ararat. This park could give Armenians access to the mountain, so central to their historical imaginations – yet blocked by a closed border, and unable to reach the summit without a difficult-to-obtain permit. Ani, the abandoned capital of the ancient Armenian kingdom, is also on the Turkish side of the border and is inaccessible from Armenia. An Armenian government that can allow Ararat and Ani a symbolic return – or at least a return of access – could find more support for painful concessions to Karabakh.
Turkey and Armenia may find it difficult to develop friendly relations, but it is not particularly to assume that Ankara might be tempted by an exchange. According to the Talleyrand principle, Turkey would ultimately gain something for a resolution on its eastern border. The country appears to have a legitimate interest in half a dozen territorial disputes – from the Aegean to interests in northern Syria. In a "Congress of Istanbul" some of these disputes could be optimized in favor of Turkey.
But the swaps don't have to stop with Turkey. On the other side of the Black Sea is Russia, which under Tsar Alexander I played a key role in the Congress of Vienna. To this day, Russia remains the strategic protector of Armenia (and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad) and could enable a final settlement on Karabakh. Russia may be motivated by the prospect of international recognition of its claim to Crimea, the Ukrainian territory it invaded in 2014. Although almost every country has opposed such recognition, there is no plausible scenario under which external pressure will induce Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine – even if a liberal government came to power in Moscow.
Rather, it might make more sense to apply for Russian concessions to recognize Russian control over Crimea. Three concessions could add to other settlements. Russia could not only persuade Armenia and possibly Syria to join a multilateral peace, but also contribute to the settlement of conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia.
In Ukraine, in exchange for Crimea's crown jewel, Russia could ensure that the Kiev government regains control of Donbass, an area currently administered by vassals of the Russian government. (Kissinger is often associated with proposing such an exchange himself.) Russia could also cancel Ukraine's debts and offer favorable terms for energy supplies. Such measures would not make up for a bitter loss, but they would benefit the country's long-term development and standard of living.
Georgia could also benefit from Russian concessions in South Ossetia. The Russian protectorate in the heart of the country seems to be a wedge against Georgian statehood. The opening of an important north-south transport route through South Ossetia would also benefit Armenia and Russia. In addition, the tiny Ossetian statelet, home to fewer residents than New York's homeless, has few realistic prospects of caring for its own citizens. The return of South Ossetia to Georgia would lead to stronger economic development, participation in the Georgian boom in mountain tourism and a reversal of the ongoing depopulation.
Georgia should also regain control of Gali, an area in breakaway Abkhazia that was mostly populated by Georgians. (Abkhazia has otherwise achieved a level of practical statehood.) While many Georgians would be unhappy not to get all of Abkhazia back, such a settlement – and peaceful relations including trade, access, and tourism – would likely be the best possible outcome for Georgia.
The democratic deficits of Russia (and, to a lesser extent, Turkey) can be beneficial to an ambitious peace. Autocratic leaders do not face vigorous internal opposition in their settlement. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may find a “Congress of Istanbul” attractive: It would put them in the historical spotlight and enable them to re-stage established Western diplomacy.
Still, referendums around ten years later could ensure that the people have the last word and that democratic will prevails. Another referendum in Crimea could, for example, stimulate real reform in Ukraine. As imperfect as such referendums are, the independence of East Timor shows that they can prevail against repression if the desire for change is overwhelming.
Kissinger wrote that after the Congress of Vienna, Europe "experienced the longest period of peace it has ever known". After decades of violence, the European middle class began to develop and prosper. And yet the established Western diplomacy of our time has largely rejected the idea of tinkering with borders. The concern is that a Pandora's box will be opened. But the war in Karabakh is proof that this dangerous box is already wide open. A modern “Congress of Istanbul” could close it and tackle challenges that established diplomacy has not been able to cope with for decades – with positive effects for future generations.