The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan have set the stage for yet another meeting of their presidents that could prove fateful for the protracted search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict. Presidents Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev are due to meet in France in early February amid unusually high expectations of a breakthrough.
The precise date and venue of the summit has yet to be announced, but its agenda seems to have already been clarified by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart, Vartan Oskanian. The two men held two-day talks in London on January 18-19 in the presence of French, Russian, and U.S. mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group. “Although the overall atmosphere was positive, the discussions were difficult and intensive,” the Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “While it was possible to register progress on some issues, there remain different approaches to a number of issues,” it added without elaborating.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry came up with a similar assessment. “The talks were quite complicated and comprehensive at the same time,” a ministry spokesman told the Azerbaijani Trend news agency. Neither side disclosed any details, with Oskanian only telling RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that the talks focused on a “half-page document” that lays out the main principles of a Karabakh settlement. The mediators hope that Aliyev and Kocharian will reach a framework agreement at their upcoming meeting. The Baku daily Zerkalo quoted on January 20 Aliyev’s chief foreign policy aide, Novruz Mamedov, as cautioning that the two men are unlikely to sign any documents.
The Karabakh issue will be high on the agenda of Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht’s visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan, which is scheduled to begin on January 24. De Gucht, whose country has just assumed the OSCE’s rotating presidency, said in Brussels on January 11 that the international community is “determined to build on progress being achieved” and hopes that the parties will cut a peace deal that would enable the OSCE to start a multinational peacekeeping mission in the conflict zone this year.
In an indication that the conflict’s resolution is in the cards, the OSCE is already looking into logistical aspects of such a mission. A team of OSCE military officials toured areas in western Azerbaijan close to the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact last month, inspecting local transport infrastructure. It was the high-level planning group’s first visit to the region in eight years. The group, made up of a dozen European army officers, is due to pay a similar visit to the Armenian-controlled side of the Karabakh frontline this week. According to the commander-in-chief of the Karabakh Armenian army, Lieutenant General Seyran Ohanian, it will look at possible locations for OSCE peacekeepers’ “command and observation points.”
Separation of the warring sides by third-party troops would be an integral part of any Karabakh peace accord, especially if it envisages a gradual settlement of the dispute. According to Armenian and Azerbaijani press reports and information leaks, the parties have been considering allowing Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population to determine the disputed enclave’s status in a referendum. The vote would reportedly be held in 10-15 years from the start of a gradual Armenian withdrawal from all but one of the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh.
Both Aliyev and Kocharian would not find it easy to sell such a deal to their domestic publics, which continue to regard each other as bitter enemies. The marginalized opposition groups in Azerbaijan and Armenia would almost certainly exploit the issue to try to mobilize greater popular support for their efforts to topple the ruling regimes. Kocharian will also have to reckon with the opinion of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s government. Its president, Arkady Ghukasian, and other officials have sounded highly skeptical in recent weeks about the peace process. The comments are construed by some observers in Yerevan as a thinly veiled rejection of the reported peace formula. “The fact is that there are differences between the Armenian and Karabakh authorities’ positions on and evaluations of the Karabakh settlement,” the Armenian newspaper Chorrord Ishkhanutyun commented on January 20.
However, Ghukasian’s objections could be offset by the position of the Karabakh military, which appears to favor a more conciliatory line. Speaking at a news conference in Stepanakert on January 16, Ohanian made it clear that he supports the referendum option. Besides, Kocharian and his most influential associate, Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, themselves come from Karabakh. Having governed the territory during its successful 1991-94 war with Azerbaijan, they might lay claim to representing the Karabakh Armenians better than anyone else.
The upcoming summit should clarify whether the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have the will to press ahead with painful mutual compromise. Another key question is what will happen if one of the parties backpedals at the last minute — something that has happened in the past. So far there have been no indications that Aliyev or Kocharian would face international sanctions as a result. For Vafa Guluzade, Azerbaijan’s top Karabakh negotiator during the 1990s, this is enough of a reason to rule out the possibility of an Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement any time soon. “Nobody is even trying to force us to sign one or another agreement. Nobody,” he said in a January 20 interview with the Zerkalo daily.
(Armenian Foreign Ministry statement, Trend, Ekho, Zerkalo, Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, RFE/RL Armenia Report, January 20; 168 Zham, January 19)