Comments in recent days by Azerbaijani and Armenian officials shed some light on the confidential talks held last week in Geneva by Presidents Haidar Aliev and Robert Kocharian. The unprecedented, lengthy tete-a-tete meeting explored ways to overcome the impasse in the negotiations toward settling the Karabakh conflict–an impasse partly attributable to the built-in ineffectiveness of the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) Minsk Group of mediators.
The presidents agreed to hold an “early” follow-up meeting of the same type and continue the negotiations in this format. Returning to their respective capitals, both presidents described their meeting as important and promising. Without speaking of a “new stage” in the negotiations, the presidents implied that their meeting had inaugurated a new process and a potentially decisive negotiating track. At the same time, Aliev and Kocharian were each careful to discourage undue expectations, stressing instead that the process would take time. They agreed, furthermore, to include Karabakh’s leadership in their subsequent meetings, but did not discuss the preconditions to Azerbaijan’s consent to such a move. In the meeting’s aftermath, each president credited the other with a willingness to achieve reciprocal understanding and find mutually acceptable solutions.
In Baku, Aliev termed the meeting “very useful” for having produced a basic consensus on the need for a compromise midway between the known positions of the two sides. Elaborating, Aliev’s senior foreign policy adviser Vafa Guluzade indicated that Azerbaijan no longer insists on adherence to the letter of the OSCE’s 1996 Lisbon document. That document–opposed by Armenia only–had envisaged Karabakh’s autonomy within Azerbaijan and a strictly construed observance of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
In Yerevan, Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian indicated that his government no longer insists on adherence to the letter of Minsk Group’s latest proposal, which is theoretically still on the table if only because it has not been officially revoked. That proposal–declared unacceptable by Azerbaijan–had envisaged a “common state” of Azerbaijan and Karabakh, a deliberately unworkable arrangement devised by Yevgeny Primakov in his successive capacities as foreign and prime minister of Russia.
Each side named its top priority in the follow-up negotiations. For Azerbaijan, it is the return of occupied territories and repatriation of Azeri refugees. For Armenia, it is the definition of Karabakh’s political status in a horizontal, nonsubordinate relationship with the Azerbaijani state.
For their efforts, both presidents got political flak from hardliners in each country–an added reason for the top leaders to exercise caution in presenting any mutual concessions to the public. Azerbaijani Popular Front leader and ex-president of the country Abulfaz Elchibey, Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar and National Independence Party leader Etibar Mamedov–each of whom aspires to succeed Aliev as president–angrily denounced any “concessions” to Armenia. Maintaining that Azerbaijan had made “endless concessions” already, they imputed Aliev’s flexibility to Western pressure. Popular Front leaders called for building a strong Azerbaijani army as a backdrop to any further negotiations with Armenia.
The unrecognized Karabakh republic’s president and foreign minister, Arkady Gukasian and Naira Melkumian, insisted on retaining the “common state” or “confederation” principle as the basis for Karabakh’s political status in relation with Azerbaijan. Defining the goal of any negotiations as a compromise between “common state” and Karabakh’s total independence, the two leaders underscored their disagreement with the Kocharian-Aliev emergent consensus to seek a compromise between “common state” and autonomy for Karabakh. They also claimed the right for Karabakh to delegate the authority to defend Karabakh militarily to Armenia or, if necessary, to “a third country.” The unprecedented warning appeared designed to energize hardliners in Yerevan into opposing Kocharian. That, too, seemed to be the purpose of the Karabakh foreign ministry’s statement which recalled that Armenia’s President Levon Ter-Petrosian was ousted last year because he had conceded too much in the negotiations withAzerbaijan (Turan, AzadInform, Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Respublika Armeniya, July 19-21).
The direct Aliev-Kocharian negotiations are the fruit of an understanding reached through the good offices of the United States during NATO’s summit in Washington in April. Aliev’s illness–from which he now seems fully recovered–delayed the start of the process into July. NATO has in turn urged Armenia to proceed along this path during Kocharian’s visit to the Brussels headquarters last month. The main merit of this process is that it sheds the straitjacket of the Minsk Group format. That multinational group has in fact been supplanted since 1997 by the three co-chairman countries–Russia, France and the United States. Russia is interested in freezing and manipulating the Armenian-Azeri conflict in its own interest, which equally contradict the interests of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The French position is affected by domestic political considerations. A direct understanding between the Azerbaijani and Armenian side seems the most promising approach to resolving their conflict and clearing the way for security arrangements in the South Caucasus under Western aegis. The process will be arduous, but it has at least begun.
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