The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to hold yet another face-to-face meeting that could result in a long-awaited breakthrough in international efforts to resolve the conflict over Karabakh. The U.S., French, and Russian diplomats acting under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group say the two warring nations have already agreed on most of the basic principles of a peaceful settlement put forward by them. The mediators hope that Presidents Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev will eliminate the remaining sticking points when they meet on the sidelines of the June 9-10 summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in St. Petersburg.
Agreement to hold the meeting was reached during last week’s joint visit to Yerevan and Baku by the Minsk Group’s Russian co-chair, Yuri Merzlyakov, and his French counterpart, Bernard Fassier. The two men are due to again visit the conflict zone just days before the St. Petersburg summit together with the group’s U.S. co-chair, Matthew Bryza, and Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, the OSCE’s current chairman-in-office. The timing of Moratinos’s trips illustrates just how high international hopes for Karabakh peace are at the moment.
“The parties are really close to a common denominator on the basic principles,” Azerbaijani media quoted Merzlyakov as saying after talks with Aliyev on May 25. He told journalists in Yerevan on May 24 that the “circle of unresolved issues is narrowing.” “If the St. Petersburg meeting is successful, then the number of principles that have not yet been fully agreed on will be practically brought down to zero,” Merzlyakov added.
Armenia’s Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian echoed the cautious optimism the next day. “The meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in Saint-Petersburg will be a decisive one, and after that, it will become clear whether a real progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement is possible in the near future,” he said.
The mediators are pushing for the signing of a framework peace agreement before the start of campaigning for presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008. Fassier warned in Yerevan that failure to do so would effectively nullify substantial progress that has been made in Karabakh peace talks in recent years. Both he and Merzlyakov stressed that although a framework deal would not constitute a comprehensive peace accord, it would formally commit the parties to making serious mutual concessions and thereby pave the way for conflict resolution.
Aliyev and Kocharian had been widely expected to cut such a deal when they held two days of intensive negotiations in the French chateau of Rambouillet in February 2005. But neither those talks, nor their follow-up encounter in Bucharest in June 2005, produced any agreement. The two leaders revived hopes for a near-term solution to the Karabakh dispute when they held what appears to have been a far more productive meeting in Minsk last November. The Minsk meeting led to a renewed flurry of diplomatic activity by the mediators and more direct talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. “I would say that never before have we been so close to a settlement,” Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said during an early May visit to Moscow.
The highly confidential discussions center on the Minsk Group’s existing peace plan that essentially boils down to holding a referendum on self-determination in Karabakh years after the liberation of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani districts surrounding the disputed enclave. Disagreements on the date and other practical modalities of the proposed referendum are believed to have been one of the reasons for the collapse of the Rambouillet and Bucharest talks. Armenian officials say Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would thus be able to legitimize its secession from Azerbaijan. Aliyev has claimed, however, that the Karabakh Armenians would only vote on the degree of their self-rule within Azerbaijan. According to Armenian diplomatic sources privy to the negotiating process, the would-be peace deal may not set any dates for such a vote. In that case, Karabakh will indefinitely remain under Armenian control without Azerbaijan having to renounce its sovereignty over the territory.
Another key stumbling block is Armenian withdrawal from Kelbajar and Lachin, two of the seven Azerbaijani districts that are sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia proper. The Armenian side has been ready, at least until last summer, to liberate Kelbajar only after the referendum, something that was deemed unacceptable by Baku. It has also rejected Azerbaijani demands for the return of Lachin, which serves as the shortest overland link between Karabakh and Armenia.
The mediators have expressed hope that Aliyev and Kocharian will show the “political will” to overcome these and other disagreements. Whether either leader has such resolve remains an open question. Aliyev, for example, regularly insists that time favors his oil-rich nation, which he says will eventual gain military superiority over Armenia and force the latter to make more concessions. That Kocharian is really committed to mutual compromise is not a given either, even though his government has essentially accepted the Minsk Group’s current and previous peace plans. Besides, with Kocharian due to complete his second and final term in office in less than a year from now, any peace deal will need the backing of his longtime associate and most likely successor, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian. The latter has publicly backed the existing international peace plan but sounded skeptical about peace prospects of late, pointing to Aliyev’s bellicose statements.
(Day.az, May 25; Arminfo, May 25; Azg, May 25; RFE/RL Armenia Report, May 24, May 8)