The new proposal from the OSCE’s Minsk group, put forward to the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan at last week’s OSCE summit in Madrid, needs to be studied in more detail by expert groups, according to Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov (ANS TV, December 11). A similarly cautious statement came from the Foreign Ministry press secretary, Khazar Ibrahim, “All principles must be agreed upon in order to be able to talk about some sort of an agreement. If one principle is remaining, it means that no agreement is reached” (Day.az, December 10).
Official Baku has not made any positive remarks about this latest proposal, showing instead signs of indifference or perhaps fatigue with the repeated cycle of developments around the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Karabakh. This is not the first time that the OSCE Minsk group has proposed a draft settlement agreement only to have it later be rejected by one of the parties to the conflict. In the late 1990s, three such proposals were laid on the table, called, respectively, a “package deal,” the “step-by-step proposal,” and a “unified state” proposal. All three were rejected.
Local experts believe that no matter what is written about the latest proposal, it will be shelved as well. Vafa Guluzadeh, one of the most experienced diplomats of Azerbaijan and a former advisor to Presidents Abulfaz Elchibey and Heydar Aliyev, sarcastically said in his latest interview with Day.az, “Even if Azerbaijan is elected as the head of UN and I am elected the UN Secretary General, nobody will return our lands. They must be taken by force.”
Nevertheless, some Azerbaijani media outlets are celebrating a victory with the latest proposal, because of the Armenian reaction to it. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, while commenting on the proposal, said that it falls short of the maximum interests of both sides. Etibar Mammadov, chief analyst for state-owned AZTV, commented that with this statement, Oskanian has admitted that “independence” for Karabakh is not on the table, since independence is the “maximum” demand of the Armenian side. Opposition parties, however, criticized the talks, calling them treason, and saying, “These negotiations do not meet the national interest of Azerbaijan” (Yeni Musavat, Azadliq, December 4).
It is clear that both countries’ leaderships are under intense pressure from the international community to agree on at least the common framework for the resolution of the conflict before the year 2008 begins and presidential elections take place in both countries. It will be extremely hard for either side to make concessions during the election campaigns.
Meanwhile, last month the prestigious International Crisis Group presented its new report on the Karabakh conflict, warning the international community that, under current conditions, a resumption of military activities is not only a possibility, but that the chances for this are rising year-by-year.
Pundits now wonder what exactly is on the table of discussion and what is included in the latest proposal. Novruz Mammadov, head of the Azerbaijani president’s international relations department, told media representatives that nothing new is included. Although Ibrahim did not reveal any details, it was clear from his statements that the issue under discussion is the step-by-step approach to the resolution of the conflict: first the liberation of Azerbaijani regions outside of Karabakh; next, the return of Azerbaijani displaced persons to their homes; and finally a decision on the status of Karabakh itself. If so, this must be considered a small diplomatic victory for Baku, which has always lobbied for the step-by-step solution to the conflict.
Experts have long advocated a referendum as the optimal way to determine the final status of Karabakh, but Azerbaijani officials have refuted these rumors, saying that if such a vote is ever conducted, it will be nation-wide referendum rather than one just in the disputed territories.
Deputy Foreign Minister Azimov also noted that Karabakh could be given a special status, but normal relations must first be established between the two communities and infrastructure must be restored in the occupied territories (Novosti-Azerbaijan, December 20). Interestingly enough, the World Bank made a statement on Tuesday, December 11, expressing its readiness to provide financial resources for reconstruction efforts in the war-torn areas, should a peace agreement be reached. International financial institutions offered similar incentives during the Key West (Florida) talks in 2001.
In all probability the excitement over the new proposals will die out soon, and the public in both countries will focus on more pressing domestic developments, such as the upcoming presidential elections and continuing price hikes.