Armenia and Azerbaijan have reported further progress in their decade-long negotiations on the Karabakh enclave following the June 17 meeting of their foreign ministers in Paris. International mediators are now cautiously upbeat about prospects for resolving the most intractable ethnic dispute in the former Soviet Union. But they caution that the conflicting parties have failed to use similar windows of opportunity in the past.
Foreign Ministers Vartan Oskanian of Armenia and Elmar Mammadyarov of Azerbaijan met in the presence of the U.S., Russian, and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group to try to flesh out verbal understandings reportedly reached by the presidents of the two countries. Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian talked for nearly three hours in Warsaw on May 15-16.
Oskanian described the Paris talks as “positive” and “constructive.” “We have not yet managed to bring discussions on any particular issue to a successful conclusion,” he told reporters on June 20. “Having said that, some common ground is in sight.”
Oskanian also guarded against excessive expectations from the Karabakh peace process. “Significantly, the presidents took a step forward, no matter how small, on that issue and instructed us to build upon that and find some solution,” he said in an apparent reference to Karabakh’s future status. “We failed to do that in Paris.”
The Azerbaijani side also appeared largely satisfied with the latest round of peace talks. “The pace of meetings and the essence of the discussions, in my opinion, are promising,” Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov told the Azerbaijani ANS television on June 18. Azimov announced at a news conference two days later that Aliev and Kocharian are scheduled to hold another meeting in Kazan, Russia, on August 26.
Prior to the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit, there will likely be another face-to-face encounter between Mammadyarov and Oskanian and a visit to the conflict zone by the Minsk Group co-chairs. The troika reportedly plans to travel to Baku, Yerevan, and Stepanakert in mid-July.
The Yerevan daily Hayots Ashkhar quoted Arkady Ghukasian, the president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, as saying that the mediators are unlikely to bring any “complete schemes or final solutions” to the region. “I don’t think that the co-chairs’ visit will be fateful,” he said.
Still, U.S. officials now do not rule out the possibility of some sort of peace agreement being signed in the course of this year. A senior official in President George W. Bush’s administration described recent progress in the protracted peace process as “pretty significant.” But the official was quick to add that the mediators will not “rush agreement” at this juncture.
The current phase of Karabakh peace talks is part of the so-called “Prague process” that began a year ago and raised fresh hopes for long-awaited peace. Sketchy details of the talks made public so far suggest that the parties and the mediators are trying to combine two fundamentally different strategies of conflict resolution.
Azerbaijan stands for a “step-by-step” resolution of the dispute that would delay agreement on Karabakh’s status, the main sticking point, until after the liberation of surrounding Azerbaijani lands that were occupied by Armenian forces during the 1991-94 war. The Armenians, by contrast, until recently insisted on a “package” accord that would resolve all contentious issues at once. But they are now ready to embrace a phased settlement, provided that they get other international guarantees of continued Armenian control over Karabakh.
Accordingly, each side emphasizes elements of the discussed peace deal that it finds more beneficial for itself. Azimov, for example, said the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers discussed the return of the occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper. For his part, Oskanian was anxious to stress that none of those districts would be given back to Baku without some agreement on Karabakh’s status. He said it remains the number one issue for the Armenian side and is high on the agenda of the Prague process.
The parties have already been close to hammering out a peace accord in the past, most recently at a conference held in Key West, Florida, in April 2001. But last-minute disagreements and other obstacles always scuttled a deal that would have far-reaching political and economic implications for the entire South Caucasus. U.S. officials are mindful of the possibility of another fiasco. They say that is the reason why renewed hopes for Karabakh peace will not ease U.S. pressure on Aliev’s regime to ensure the freedom and fairness of Azerbaijan’s upcoming parliamentary elections. They also rule out more leniency toward Armenia’s leadership, whose democratic credentials are likewise questionable.
Some Armenian and Azerbaijani pundits have long argued that neither regime is interested in mutual compromise on Karabakh, as it would run the risk of losing power. The next few months should put this theory to the test.
(Hayots Ashkhar, Haykakan Zhamanak, June 21; BBC Monitoring, June 18, June 20; Interviews with Bush administration and State Department officials, June 6-9)