Faced with a growing outcry from nationalist groups opposed to major concessions to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s leadership is scrambling to clarify its policy on the unresolved Karabakh conflict to the domestic political elite and the broader public. President Serzh Sarkisian met with leaders of about 50 political parties for that purpose on November 19. He reportedly expressed his readiness to hold a nationwide referendum on a compromise peace agreement sought by international mediators. All the signs are, however, that Baku and Yerevan remain far apart on key points of that accord.
The meeting came amid fresh talk of an impending breakthrough in the long-running Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations sponsored by the United States, Russia, and France. The mediating powers acting under the aegis of the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group came very close to hammering out a framework peace agreement nearly three years ago only to be thwarted by a few remaining disagreements between the conflicting parties. The negotiating process has continued despite that fiasco, with the mediators formally putting forward their proposed basic principles of a Karabakh settlement during an OSCE ministerial meeting in Madrid in November 2007.
The document calls for a phased settlement of the conflict that would start with the liberation of at least six of the seven Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh that were fully or partly occupied by Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. In return, Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would apparently be allowed to determine the disputed territory’s status in a future referendum. Unusually optimistic statements made by senior Russian diplomats in October rekindled hopes for the signing of an Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement along these lines in the coming months or even weeks. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stoked them by hosting crucial talks between his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts outside Moscow on November 2. In a joint declaration, Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pledged to “intensify further steps in the negotiating process.”
Although the two presidents announced no specific agreements, the declaration sparked an uproar from Armenian nationalist groups that are categorically against any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan even in exchange for international recognition of de facto Armenian control over Karabakh. On October 30 some of them launched a new movement called Miatsum (Unification) to campaign against the return of the “liberated territories” (Noyan Tapan news agency, October 30). The peace formula favored by the mediators has also been rejected by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party), an influential nationalist party represented in Sarkisian’s coalition government. Some ARF leaders have threatened to pull out of the governing coalition if Sarkisian cuts such a peace deal with Aliyev.
The ARF’s hard line appears to be shared by Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leadership. Sarkisian, himself a native and wartime leader of Karabakh, visited the region’s capital Stepanakert on November 14 and 15 for the second time in less than a month. Official Armenian sources gave no details of his talks there. Some pro-opposition newspapers in Yerevan claimed that he had pressed the Karabakh Armenians to embrace a compromise with Azerbaijan.
Sarkisian discussed the matter with Armenian party leaders on his return to Yerevan. The meeting took place behind closed doors and lasted for about five hours. Armen Rustamian, an ARF leader, told journalists afterward that Sarkisian had assured participants that he would put any compromise deal with Azerbaijan on a referendum (Aravot, November 20). According to Rustamian and other party leaders, the Armenian president implied that the signing of such a deal was still not in the cards.
“We still have a long way to go,” Sarkisian said in a special interview with Armenian Public Television on November 16. He said that the conflict could be resolved only if Azerbaijan accepted “the Nagorno-Karabakh people’s right to self-determination.” Aliyev and other Azerbaijani officials insist (at least in public) that the Karabakh Armenians have only the right to determine the extent of their autonomy within Azerbaijan. These contradictory statements suggest that Baku and Yerevan have yet to agree on the most important of the so-called Madrid principles.
Visiting Yerevan on November 17, the Minsk Group’s U.S. co-chair, Matthew Bryza, admitted that key practical elements of the proposed Karabakh referendum still need to be worked out. “We would like it to be the case that we are just on the very edge of the agreement being finalized, but we are not,” Bryza told a joint news conference with the Russian and French mediators (RFE/RL Armenia Report, November 17).
Finally, one must ask why Sarkisian went on national television and met with party leaders to explain his Karabakh policy in the first place. The most plausible explanation is that the Armenian leader is eager to stop his domestic opponents from exploiting the issue to weaken and discredit him. Armenia’s main opposition alliance is clearly not averse to doing that, even though its top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, has long been known for his conciliatory views on Karabakh. Ter-Petrosian charged in October that Sarkisian was ready to “put Karabakh up for sale” in order to cling to power. His Armenian National Congress described some points of the Moscow declaration as highly dangerous for the Armenian side and boycotted the multi-party discussion on Karabakh.
As Iravunk, a Yerevan newspaper largely sympathetic to Sarkisian, pointed out in a November 21 editorial, this and other opposition forces would now find it harder to use Karabakh for political purposes. “Those making noise will not be taken seriously by anyone until they present to the public a concrete document signed by concrete officials,” it wrote. “And they won’t be able to do that because there is nothing to present.”