The United States, Russia, and France are stepping up pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan in a last-ditch attempt to secure a framework agreement settling the Karabakh conflict this year. The three powers co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group have set the stage for yet another Armenian-Azerbaijani summit that could prove decisive in eliminating the number one source of instability in the South Caucasus.
Official Baku and Yerevan announced last week that Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Robert Kocharian will meet for a second time in less than four months on the sidelines of a high-level forum of Black Sea states that is scheduled to take place in Bucharest on June 4-6. All signs suggest that the two leaders are as close to striking a compromise deal as ever. Their failure to do so would be an enormous setback that would keep the bitter territorial dispute unresolved at least until 2009.
High-ranking French, Russian, and U.S. diplomats underscored this reality as they paid an extraordinary joint visit to the Azerbaijani and Armenian capitals on May 24-25. (Such trips are usually made by lower-level diplomats representing the two states.) In a statement issued after talks with Aliyev and Kocharian, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, and a senior French Foreign Ministry official, Pierre Morel, emphasized that “now is the time for the sides to reach agreement on the basic principles of a settlement.” The conflicting parties, they said, are now “at the point where a mutually beneficial agreement is achievable.”
Aliyev and Kocharian were already widely expected to hammer out such an agreement when they last met at the Rambouillet chateau near Paris on February 10-11. However, the talks collapsed despite indications that the two sides had agreed in principle to a gradual resolution of the conflict as proposed by the mediators. The peace plan would reportedly enable Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population to decide the disputed region’s status in a referendum to be held after the restoration of six of the seven Armenian-occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper. Few observers doubt that such a vote would formalize and legitimize Armenia’s de facto reunification of Karabakh that followed its victorious 1991-94 war with Azerbaijan.
Armenian officials have implied that the Rambouillet talks failed to yield a breakthrough because of Aliyev’s last-minute rejection of this peace formula. Indeed, the Azerbaijani president toughened his rhetoric following the summit, repeatedly saying that he will never accept a de jure loss of Karabakh. In a May 26 speech in Baku, he stated, “All the occupied territories of Azerbaijan should be liberated without any conditions.” However, Aliyev’s foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, appeared to have endorsed the referendum option in separate comments made on the same day. Azerbaijani news agencies quoted Mammadyarov as saying that Karabakh’s status must be determined “not only by Karabakh’s Armenian community but also with the participation in the process of the Azerbaijani community, after the return of Azerbaijanis that used to live there.”
The remarks may be not only the result of the mediators’ latest regional tour but also of Aliyev’s April talks in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush. Some Armenian commentators have suggested that the high-profile White House reception, which boosted the domestic and international legitimacy of Aliyev’s regime, was part of U.S. efforts to coax Baku into signing up to the Minsk Group plan. The Turan news agency reported that, in a congratulatory message on Azerbaijan’s Day of the Republic celebrated on May 28, Bush said he expects Aliyev to do his best to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Aliyev also received last week a letter from French President Jacques Chirac who urged him not to miss a “unique opportunity” for Karabakh peace, according to the Azerbaijani ANS television.
The West does not have to exert the same amount of pressure on Armenia, whose leadership seems to be largely going along with the mediators’ most recent peace proposals. Local analysts agree that, by accepting the proposed solution, Kocharian would almost certainly secure Western support for his reputed plans to hand over power to his most influential associate, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, in 2008. Kocharian would hardly face strong opposition from hardline political elements in his government, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD). The Yerevan daily Aravot quoted on May 27 Armen Rustamian, an HHD leader who heads the Armenian parliament’s foreign relations committed, as saying that the referendum option is “not unfavorable for Armenia and Karabakh.”
Still, the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo would have to reckon with the position of the Yerkrapah Union, an influential organization uniting thousands of Armenian veterans of the Karabakh war. Its hardline chairman, General Manvel Grigorian, and other leaders hold senior positions in the Armenian military. Grigorian declared on May 8 that the Armenians “have no lands to surrender.” Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leadership is also less than supportive of the Minsk Group plan, arguing that the Karabakh Armenians had already voted to secede from Azerbaijan in 1991. “Even if the Karabakh side agrees to it for some reason, which I don’t consider likely, I doubt that such a referendum will ever be held,” a senior aide to Arkady Ghukasian, president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, told RFE/RL on May 22.
The mediators are clearly not of the same opinion. “The two sides are closer to an agreement than they have been in the past,” Fried’s deputy Matthew Bryza told congressional hearings in Washington on May 15. “We look at these next couple of months as a real window of opportunity.”
(Joint statement by Daniel Fried, Grigory Karasin, and Pierre Morel, May 25; ANS, Aravot, May 27; Turan, Day.az, May 26; RFE/RL Armenia Report, May 22; Associated Press, May 15)