The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have finally dashed hopes for a near-term settlement of the Karabakh conflict with their failure to hold yet another, potentially decisive round of negotiations. Armenian President Robert Kocharian publicly declared on October 11 that contrary to the international community’s expectations, the bitter dispute will not be resolved before presidential elections due in both South Caucasus states next year. With Kocharian completing his second and final term in office, at least one of them will have a new president.
“My assessment of the current state of negotiating process is that we are unlikely to reach an agreement on the principles [of Karabakh peace] before the presidential elections,” the outgoing Armenian leader said during a visit to Brussels (Armenian Public Television, October 11).
This became evident when Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pointedly declined to meet each other on the sidelines of the latest Commonwealth of Independent States summit held in Dushanbe on October 6. The French, Russian, and U.S. mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group pushed hard for such an encounter, viewing it as their last chance to broker an Armenian-Azerbaijani framework peace accord this year. They visited the conflict zone in mid-September and held separate follow-up meetings with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in New York in early October for that purpose. But as Aliyev’s chief foreign policy aide, Novruz Mammadov, said on October 4, those last-ditch diplomatic efforts “did not create the need” for a fresh Armenian-Azerbaijani summit (Day.az, October 5).
The most recent Aliyev-Kocharian meeting, held in St. Petersburg in June, failed to yield a breakthrough despite indications that the conflicting parties have agreed on most of the basic principles of a Karabakh settlement put forward by the Minsk Group co-chairs. Those call for the conflict’s gradual resolution that would start with the liberation of virtually all Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh and end in a referendum of self-determination in the disputed territory. The mediators had expected Aliyev and Kocharian to agree on this formula in early 2006. However, the two presidents failed to reach any agreements during face-to-face negotiations held in February and June 2006. They reportedly disagreed on the timetable for Armenian troop withdrawal and the timing of the proposed referendum on Karabakh’s status.
The mediators have since come up with a number of new, unpublicized proposals aimed at breaking the impasse. Washington’s chief Karabakh negotiator, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, said in Yerevan on September 17 that the parties are “close” to cutting a framework peace deal and simply need to sort out “the last couple of issues” (RFE/RL Armenia Report, September 17). Kocharian likewise noted in Brussels that Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks have made substantial progress that can be built upon after the 2008 elections. His foreign minister, Vartan Oskanian, insisted in an October 3 speech at the UN General Assembly that the parties are “inching towards resolution” (Azg, October 5).
What precisely keeps them from making the final step toward peace remains unclear. Bryza warned that Aliyev’s and Kocharian’s failure to meet each other again this year would raise questions about their commitment to mutual compromise. He said, “If they don’t say yes, then you’ll wonder, ‘What are they thinking in the back of their mind? What are their plans? Are they really fully committed to reaching an agreement’?” (RFE/RL Armenia Report, September 17).
Even though official Yerevan has repeatedly praised the Minsk Group’s peace plan, Kocharian clearly wants to leave it to his likely successor, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, to shoulder responsibility for accepting a deal denounced as a sellout by Armenian nationalist circles. The Azerbaijani government’s position is even more ambiguous. While agreeing to the proposed settlement in principle, Aliyev and other Azerbaijani leaders have repeatedly made it clear that they will never accept Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. However, the Minsk Group plan does allow for international recognition of that secession. It is extremely unlikely that Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would vote to return under Azerbaijani rule in the would-be referendum.
What the prospects for Karabakh peace will be after the Armenian and Azerbaijani elections is far from clear. The sense of urgency to eliminate the number one obstacle to stability in the South Caucasus may well diminish on both sides. Azerbaijan, for one thing, feels that time is working against the Armenian side. The Azerbaijani government has pledged to spend its soaring oil revenues on a massive military build-up that it hopes will change the balance of forces and enable it to win back Karabakh.
While Armenia can no longer keep pace with Azerbaijan in terms of defense spending, it can capitalize on close military ties with Russia, which is hardly interested in any change in the Karabakh status quo. Sarkisian, for example, declared last year that the Armenian military received in 2006 a “considerable amount” of Russian weapons that give it “superiority over any adversary in some specific areas.” He expressed hope that Russia will deliver more “state-of-the-art weaponry” Armenia’s armed forces (Arminfo, December 27, 2006).
Also, the Armenian leadership and much of the country’s broader political elite do not regard Karabakh peace as a necessary condition for economic development. Armenia’s economic growth has averaged 13% since 2001 and looks set to remain strong in the coming years. The macroeconomic performance regularly draws praise from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
All of which suggests that the Karabakh conflict may well remain unresolved in the foreseeable future without more forceful and high-level international mediation. The intensifying arms race between Armenia and Azerbaijan could further complicate the search for peace and increase chances of another Armenian-Azerbaijani war, which are slim at the moment.