Presidents Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia and their top aides held unmediated negotiations toward settling the Karabakh conflict on August 22 near Geneva. The most significant aspect of this meeting was not–as is sometimes said in such cases–that it was held at all, but that it generated a process and set it on a steady track. It was the second unmediated Azerbaijani-Armenian summit in the space of five weeks, indicating that the direct negotiations–initiated during NATO’s Washington summit in April and actually inaugurated in Geneva last month (see the Monitor, April 27, July 22)–have by now acquired momentum and the potential to become the primary format for settling the Karabakh conflict. Should this process reach fruition, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group of mediators would be reduced to rubber-stamping the solution reached by the parties themselves with Washington’s encouragement and good offices. The Minsk Group’s efforts over the years have proven ineffective, not the least because Russia, the permanent co-chairman, has misused its influence in order to freeze the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict.
The August 22 meeting produced three palpable gains. First, the Azerbaijani and Armenian defense ministers will meet within the next few weeks to work out measures for “reinforcing the ceasefire.” They will be mandated to establish procedures for preventing and resolving incidents along the line of contact. Inevitably, the military talks and resulting procedures will involve face-to-face meetings among Azerbaijani and Karabakh commanders. Second, the presidents and foreign ministers will continue their negotiations next month, probably during the summit of Baltic, Black Sea and South Caucasus countries scheduled to be hosted by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in the Crimea on September 10-11. Third, the sides decided to avoid any rigid demands either for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan or de facto independence of Karabakh. The public presentations by both sides suggested that they would seek a compromise on Karabakh’s status according to the formula, “less than independence, more than autonomy.”
Both sides avoided a premature discussion of that status, or of the future of Karabakh’s army–issues which could have torpedoed the meeting at this stage. They also disagreed on the role of Karabakh in the negotiating process. Armenia seeks Karabakh’s inclusion as a full-fledged negotiating party, while Azerbaijan makes the inclusion conditional on a prior understanding between Baku and Yerevan concerning the negotiations’ agenda and the outline of Karabakh’s ultimate status. Armenia’s Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian had made a point of visiting Stepanakert ahead of the Geneva summit to reassure the Karabakh leadership that its interest would be taken into account. Kocharian defensively reminded the Armenian public that he, as a Karabakh native and ex-president of Karabakh, is well qualified to defend its interests. By way of additional reassurance, Kocharian took with him to the Geneva summit another Karabakh native and certified hardliner–National Security Minister Serge Sarkisian.
Returning to their respective capitals, Aliev and Kocharian played down their differences over substance, crediting each other with the wish to achieve mutually acceptable compromises on military issues in the first stage and on political issues in a follow-up stage. Their remarks were designed–at least in part–to legitimize the negotiating process to their respective hardliners. The Azerbaijani nationalist opposition and the Karabakh leadership had attacked the presidents in the aftermath of their July meeting and look set, at least in Baku, to do so again in the interval between the August 22 and September 10-11 summits (Turan, Snark, Noyan-Tapan, August 23).
VIOLENCE BREAKS OUT IN THREE COUNTRIES.