Armenia’s post-election political crisis and Azerbaijan’s apparent attempts to take advantage of it are dealing a serious blow to international mediators’ hopes for a near-term solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The conflicting parties are hardening their positions and stepping up mutually hostile rhetoric, despite significant progress made in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks in the past two years.
The talks have centered on the basic principles of a Karabakh settlement proposed by the US, Russian and French diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group. A relevant agreement was formally submitted to Baku and Yerevan by the Foreign Ministers of the three mediating powers in November 2007. They expressed the hope that it would be finalized in the coming months.
The agreement calls for a phased settlement of the Karabakh conflict that would start with the restoration of economic links between the two South Caucasus states parallel to the liberation of virtually all Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh that were occupied by Armenian forces during the 1992-1994 war. The disputed territory’s status, the main bone of contention, would be determined by its predominantly Armenian population in a future referendum. Karabakh would remain under Armenian control in the interim.
Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan were close to cutting a peace deal along these lines in early 2006. The talks collapsed, however, apparently because of last-minute disagreements on the timetable for Armenian troop withdrawal and the practical modalities of the Karabakh vote. The mediators modified their proposals and revived the peace process in the following months. The final version of those proposals in November 2007 set no time frames holding the referendum on self-determination, suggesting that it might never be held. The logic behind this compromise formula is obvious: While effectively legitimizing continued Armenian control over Karabakh, it does not force Azerbaijan to drop its claim to the territory.
According to Western diplomats privy to the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks, the parties essentially agreed on the key points of the Minsk Group plan by the end of 2007. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza spoke of the need to “work out the remaining small differences” as he visited the conflict zone together with the group’s two other co-chairs, Russia’s Yuri Merzlyakov and France’s Bernard Fassier, in January 2008. The mediators seemed satisfied with their talks with Aliyev and Kocharian. “We sense that they are trying to finish the process as soon as possible,” Bryza told reporters in Yerevan (RFE/RL Armenia Report, January 17).
The co-chairs had hoped that the two sides would sign the framework peace accord some time after Armenia’s February 2008 presidential election, clearly expecting it to be won by Kocharian’s longtime chief lieutenant, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Sargsyan’s victory proved extremely controversial, sparking opposition protests in Yerevan that were brutally suppressed by the ruling regime on March 1. Kocharian and Sargsyan are currently busy trying to neutralize further opposition challenges to their rule. Although they both have voiced support for the proposed Karabakh settlement, it remains to be seen whether they are really committed to it and ready to risk alienating nationalist elements in the ruling regime that are opposed to any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. The loyalty of pro-government groups such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (also known as the Dashnak Party) is now essential for a successful transfer of power from Kocharian to Sargsyan.
The search for Karabakh peace was further complicated on March 14 when the UN General Assembly passed an Azerbaijani-drafted resolution demanding an “immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces” from occupied Azerbaijani lands. The United States, Russia and France voted against the non-binding resolution, backed by 39 mostly Islamic nations, saying that it was at odds with their existing peace proposals largely accepted by Azerbaijan. Baku responded by accusing the mediators of favoring the Armenian side and threatening to demand that the Minsk Group be co-headed by other countries.
The Armenian side construed this threat as an attempt to disband a body that has spearheaded international efforts to resolve the Karabakh dispute since 1992. Kocharian warned on March 20 that Armenia would officially recognize the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as an independent state if Azerbaijan pulled out of the Minsk Group process.
The Minsk Group co-chairs, meanwhile, urged Aliyev and Sargsyan to hold their first-ever talks on the sidelines of the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest. In a March 19 statement, they said that the two sides had agreed “in principle” to such a meeting. Aliyev, however, has subsequently refused to meet his newly elected Armenian counterpart. His chief foreign policy aide, Novruz Mammadov, claimed on March 29 that the embattled Sargsyan needed such an encounter to shore up his “domestic position,” rather than to achieve a breakthrough in the negotiation process (Turan, March 29).
This was seen by Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as a further indication that Baku wanted to avoid signing a “document created as a result of two years of work by the Armenian and Azerbaijani parties.” (Armenian Public Television, March 31.) During a March 31 visit to the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, Kocharian stressed the need for Armenia to recognize the NKR, either immediately or in the near future. In remarks clearly addressed to his incoming successor, the outgoing president said Yerevan should at least sign a defense pact with the Karabakh Armenian leadership (lragir.am, March 31).