Presidents Haidar Aliev and Robert Kocharian held direct talks on March 4-5 in Paris on possible solutions to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. France hosted the meeting in her capacity as a co-chair–along with the United States and Russia–of the mediating group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Paris talks included unmediated sessions between Aliev and Kocharian, bilateral meetings between each of them and French President Jacques Chirac, and a concluding trilateral session which sought to produce an impression of incremental progress.
Chirac, in his final assessment, expressed “strong hope” that a political settlement of the conflict would be achieved this year. But Chirac’s hope appears more pious than strong, considering this meeting’s outcome. The three presidents were unable bridge the Armenian-Azerbaijani differences over the conceptual basis of a political solution. Those differences center on two sets of issues, on which Aliev and Kocharian reaffirmed opposite views in the run up to the Paris meeting, during it and in its wake.
The first set of issues centers on a conceptual clash between the principle of national self-determination and that of the territorial integrity of states and inviolability of their recognized borders. Yerevan and Baku each propose to reconcile those principles in ways unacceptable to the other side. The Armenian side insists on three basic points: (1) a political status for Karabakh that would leave it within Azerbaijan in a purely formal sense, while ruling out Karabakh’s subordination to Baku; (2) “no enclavization”–that is, establishment of a permanent territorial link between Karabakh and Armenia through the Lachin corridor; (3) international security guarantees to the people of Karabakh, which guarantees would include a right of Armenia to intervene militarily if necessary in defense of Karabakh. The Azerbaijani side insists on exercising not merely formal sovereignty, but also a degree of control over Karabakh by granting it “the highest level of autonomy within Azerbaijan.” The differing views on political status could prove bridgeable if the Armenian side would stop insisting that Karabakh must be entitled to having its own armed forces.
The second set of issues focuses on the “package” versus the “step-by-step” approach to negotiations and an eventual settlement. This dispute appears procedural, but in reality involves a substantial territorial stake and may hold the key to a political resolution of the conflict. No progress is likely as long as the parties and the mediators fail to make a clear-cut distinction between the overwhelmingly Armenian-populated Karabakh proper and the six purely Muslim, overwhelmingly Azeri districts occupied by Armenian forces beyond Karabakh, deep inside Azerbaijan proper, from which the entire population of some 700,000 Azeris were ethnically cleansed.
The Armenian-advocated “package” approach would maintain that occupation and preclude the return of refugees until such time as the political status of Karabakh is determined. That status and the eventual return of the other six districts to Azerbaijan would be discussed in parallel or as a package solution. This is designed to maximize the pressure on Baku to yield on the Karabakh status issue in order to regain the Azeri-populated districts and repatriate the refugees. The Azerbaijani-advocated step-by-step approach would involve the evacuation of Armenian-Karabakh forces from those districts and the return of the Azeri refugees as a first stage, to be followed by the determination of Karabakh’s political status.
Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosian (1991-98) accepted the step-by-step approach in 1997 and was, as a result, overthrown in February 1998 by hardliners who included the current president. After another year, Kocharian adopted the thinking which had motivated Ter-Petrosian to accept the step-by-step approach. The next logical step for Kocharian would have been to accept that approach himself. But he realized, just as had Ter-Petrosian, that holding on to those occupied territories would maximize Armenia’s military and political dependence on Russia, deepen Armenia’s poverty through onerous military expenditures, deepen the country’s isolation in the region except from Iran and preclude a rapprochement with Turkey, the economic powerhouse which may hold the key to Armenia’s development.
Kocharian came close to that view during the period which coincided with the struggle for power in Yerevan in late 1999-early 2000. He articulated it publicly during that period, though stopping short of endorsing the step-by-step approach Ter-Petrosian had embraced from those same premises. Armenian hardliners for their part reminded Kocharian publicly of Ter-Petrosian’s fate. During the second half of last year, Kocharian changed his views again. He now contends overoptimistically that Armenia’s economic prospects have brightened and that the hopes for development are not directly linked to reconciliation with Azerbaijan and Turkey. As a corollary, Yerevan insists on retaining the occupied Azeri territories beyond Karabakh until the latter’s status is determined. That may take a long time indeed. Meanwhile, the impasse is clearly also fueling ultranationalist opposition in Azerbaijan to Aliev’s search for a peaceful political solution of the conflict (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Armenpress, Turan, ANS, Agence France Press, Le Monde, March 4-6).
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