Tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan has risen significantly over the past month despite a renewed international push for a resolution to the Karabakh conflict. The US, Russia and France are again pressing the conflicting parties to finalize a framework peace accord drafted by the three mediating powers. They hope that the Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers will make decisive progress at their upcoming meeting in Kazakhstan. Yet, with both sides ratcheting up mutually hostile rhetoric and continuing to make markedly different interpretations of the mediators’ peace proposals, the prospects for a peace accord appear slim.
The latest upsurge in their bitter recriminations was sparked by a deadly firefight that took place in the northernmost section of the main Armenian-Azeri “line of contact” around Karabakh on the night of June 18. One Azeri and four Armenian soldiers were killed in what Yerevan says was an Azeri attack on a Karabakh Armenian army outpost (Armenian Public Television, June 19). The fact that they all lost their lives in Armenian-controlled territory was cited by the Armenian side as proof that the most serious ceasefire violation in the conflict zone reported in over two years was instigated by Azerbaijan.
Authorities in Baku blamed the Armenians for the fighting. An Azeri foreign ministry spokesman said it resulted from the “continuing occupation of Azeri lands” (Trend, June 19). Baku claimed to have held one of its largest military exercises, monitored by President, Ilham Aliyev, in the following days. Speaking after the reported war games, Aliyev again threatened to win back, by force, Karabakh and Azeri districts surrounding it, if the long-running peace process yields no agreement acceptable to Baku (APA, June 25).
Meanwhile, Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, and Defense Minister, Seyran Ohanian, paid apparently urgent visits to Karabakh, highlighting what some observers see as the increased risk of another Armenian-Azerbaijani war. Sargsyan met with Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leaders, inaugurated a new Karabakh Armenian military base and visited hospitalized soldiers who were wounded in the June 18 incident (Statement by the Armenian presidential press office, June 24).
The firefight occurred the day after Sargsyan and Aliyev met in St. Petersburg for fresh talks hosted by Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev. In an ensuing statement, the Kremlin said the two leaders narrowed their differences on “several contentious provisions of the text of the basic principles of the settlement.” It did not elaborate any details.
Armenian officials said later that Medvedev presented Aliyev and Sargsyan with a newly revised version of the “basic principles” that were first put forward by mediators in Madrid in November 2007. They claimed that unlike Sargsyan, Aliyev did not like those proposals and ordered the truce violation to demonstrate his frustration with the new twist in the negotiating process. The Azeri leader reportedly cut short his trip to St. Petersburg and cancelled his participation in a Kremlin-sponsored international economic forum that began on June 18. “Clearly, Aliyev was unhappy,” Deputy Foreign Minister, Shavarsh Kocharian, told the Yerevan newspaper, Iravunk, in an interview on July 9.
Azeri officials insisted, however, that Medvedev did not propose a new peace plan on behalf of the US, Russian and French co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Elkhan Polukhov, told journalists that the co-chairs stand by what they call an “updated version” of the Madrid principles that was submitted to the parties in December 2009 and January 2010 (APA, 5 July). Baku has maintained that it accepts the principles “with several exceptions,” whereas Yerevan is dragging its feet. Armenian leaders have commented rather ambiguously on that document, saying only that its original version remains a “basis for negotiations.”
The mediators themselves have avoided publicly clarifying the situation, just as they stepped up their efforts to broker a peaceful settlement. In a rare joint statement issued on June 27 during the G8 summit in Canada, Medvedev, US President, Barack Obama, and French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, urged their Armenian and Azeri counterparts to “complete the work on the basic principles to enable the drafting of a peace agreement to begin.” They stressed that the peace framework must also be based on the OSCE’s “Helsinki Principles,” which include the territorial integrity of states, peoples’ right to self-determination and non-use of force (Trend, June 27).
Both Baku and Yerevan reacted positively to the statement, with each side saying that Washington, Moscow and Paris upheld its own vision of Karabakh peace. In particular, Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nalbandian, singled out the mediators’ support for the principle of self-determination championed by the Armenian side (www.armenialiberty.org, June 28). The Armenian authorities say that under the Madrid principles, Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would be able to vote for independence, reunification with Armenia, or return to Azeri rule in a future referendum.
Nalbandian’s Azeri counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, insisted on July 9 that the existing peace plan contains no such provisions. He said it only envisages the creation of a “committee” of representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan and the mediating nations that would decide, by consensus, “how to solve the issue of status” (Trend, July 9).
The ambiguous wording of the joint Obama, Medvedev and Sarkozy statement only facilitated such diametrically opposed interpretations. The statement’s English-language original says vaguely that the main issue of contention would be settled through “a legally-binding expression of will.” However, its official Russian translation released by Medvedev’s office (and cited by Armenia) stipulates “the determination of the future final status of Karabakh by a legally-binding expression of the will of its population.”
The three leaders also said they are instructing their foreign ministers to “work intensively to assist the two sides to overcome their differences” before and during Mammadyarov and Nalbandian’s next meeting due on the sidelines of the OSCE’s July 16-17 ministerial conference in Almaty. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, did that during her July 5 talks with Aliyev and Sargsyan in Baku and Yerevan respectively. However, Clinton afterwards gave no indication, at least in public that an Armenian-Azeri peace deal is likely in the weeks or even months to come.