Recent statements by Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian at the Armenian National Assembly have raised hopes in Azerbaijan that a peaceful resolution to the Karabakh conflict is near. Specifically, Oskanian said, “We will discuss the return of all territories after the agreement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is reached.” The key word in this sentence is “all.”
Until now, the barrier to the resolution of the Karabakh conflict has been the unwillingness of the Armenian side to return all occupied regions outside of Karabakh. Official Yerevan has long insisted that only five out of seven regions would be returned, and Kalbajar and Lachin would be kept until the final resolution of the conflict. Both of these districts have special importance from a geostrategic perspective, as Kalbajar, with its high mountains, forms a natural defense system for Karabakh and Lachin provides a land corridor between Armenia and Karabakh. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has insisted on the liberation of all territories, with the possibility of providing joint usage to the Lachin corridor.
Oskanian’s statement indicates a possible change of attitude inside the Armenian political establishment and a small hope for the resolution of the conflict. Both sides are aware that the year of 2006, considered by local observers and international community as a “window of opportunity” due to the absence of elections in both countries, is rapidly coming to an end. The independent daily Zerkalo in Baku has even speculated that the Armenian authorities have started to lay the foundations for explaining the terms of the settlement to the Armenian public, as the “tone of Oskanian was more that of calming the members of Parliament.” Zerkalo compared this act by the high-level government official with the attempt by former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian to sell a “step-by-step” proposal to the Armenian public.
Prior to Oskanian’s statement, he met with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov in Paris on October 24 to discuss “additional elements of the basis of settlement” suggested by the OSCE’s Minsk group co-chairs: Russia, the United States, and France. Mammadyarov also visited Moscow several weeks ago to separately discuss the settlement package with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Many in Azerbaijan believe that Moscow, Armenia’s closest military and political ally, holds the key to resolving the Karabakh conflict.
Both foreign ministers have agreed to further negotiate the offers by the international community in Brussels on November 14. They are using the current break in the talks to discuss these new proposals with their respective presidents and other domestic actors. Neither Oskanian nor Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov have ruled out a meeting between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in late 2006, after the November meeting of the foreign ministers and the co-chairs’ subsequent visit to the region. Taken together, these statements are positive signs, as they indicate that the positions of the two sides are slowly approaching each other, rather than widening the long-standing gap.
Commenting on the statements by Oskanian, Tahir Tagizadeh, head of the Information and Press Department of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, said that Azerbaijan considers these statements to be very positive. “The liberation of the occupied territories and the return of the [internally displaced persons] to their homes is an unavoidable fact for the Armenian side.”
Still, many analysts in Baku doubt that the recent positive statements by both sides will end up with the final settlement of the conflict. Indeed, the underlying problem is not the dispute over the return of the occupied territories, which many assume would be returned anyway, but rather the final status of Karabakh itself. The idea of a referendum as a means to resolve the “status” problem seems vague, and it is not clear if both communities would participate in it with equal power to vote no. Should the referendum idea be coupled with the agreement to give the majority ethnic group (Armenians) more power over the minority ethnic group (Azeris), it will be extremely difficult for the Azerbaijani president to accept this decision.
As the next two years will be consumed by elections in both countries, it will be almost impossible for both presidents, having internal threats from both the opposition and from within the ruling elite, to agree on the painful concessions. Thus, despite the high optimism generated by the recent rapprochement of the positions of two sides, the picture remains bleak for the next several years.
(Trend News Agency, Sherg, ANS TV, Zerkalo, Echo, October 25-27, 2006)