The long-running international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict are again facing an uncertain future following the cancellation of the next and potentially decisive round of talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were scheduled for March 2 in Prague.
The official reason for the delay was Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian’s pneumonia. Oskanian has since recovered from the illness and even met with international mediators in Vienna on March 16. However, no new dates have been announced for his meeting with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
The Armenian press has been rife with speculation about Yerevan dragging its feet over a new peace plan allegedly put forward by France, Russia, and the United States. The three states co-chair the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that has been trying to broker a Karabakh settlement for more than a decade.
Oskanian and Mammadyarov were supposed to continue what the conflicting parties call “the Prague process” — a series of meetings between the two men that began in the Czech capital last summer and raised fresh hopes for ending the most intractable ethnic dispute in the former Soviet Union. Oskanian repeatedly stated last fall that the two sides agreed on a “framework of issues that can serve as the basis for further negotiations.” Seasoned observers deciphered the convoluted phrase as signifying major headway.
Expectations are high for the next phase of the Prague process. The development followed a three-year period of utter uncertainty in the negotiation process that saw the fatal illness of former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev as well as tense presidential elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Karabakh peace process is arguably the most secretive in the world, with international peace proposals normally made public years after being presented to the conflicting parties. The scant information made available to date suggests that the nearest the parties came to resolving the dispute was at a peace conference held on the Florida island of Key West in April 2001. The Minsk Group co-chairs reportedly came up with a plan that would internationally legitimize Armenian control of Karabakh in return for Armenia guaranteeing unfettered transport and communication between Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave.
Armenian leaders say the deal was finalized at Key West and accuse the late Aliev of subsequently backtracking on it. Azerbaijan, for its part, strongly denies that any far-reaching agreements were reached at the time.
Still, Rudolf Perina, the chief U.S. negotiator at Key West, asserted at a Washington conference in May 2002 that the parties were “incredibly close” to a long-awaited peace accord in 2001. For his part, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said during a visit to Yerevan in March 2004, “Then President Heidar Aliev was actually moving forward quite well, but I think, as I recall it, had great difficulty selling this proposal back home.”
Aliev’s death finally dashed Armenian hopes to revive the Key West agreements. The Azerbaijani strongman’s politically inexperienced son and successor, Ilham, was even less likely to embrace them. “There can be no talk of mutual compromises,” Ilham Aliev told reporters in Baku on March 12.
One way to break the deadlock is to revert to the so-called “phased” strategy of conflict resolution that would indefinitely delay agreement on Karabakh’s status, the main bone of contention. It would be preceded by Armenian withdrawal from virtually all of the occupied Azerbaijani districts around the disputed enclave, return of refugees, resumption of commercial ties between the two ex-Soviet states, and other confidence-building measures.
A phased peace deal was nearly sealed in late 1997 when it was accepted by the Azerbaijani leadership and Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian. However, it was rejected as risky and “defeatist” by Ter-Petrosian’s key ministers, including the current Armenian president, Robert Kocharian. They forced Ter-Petrosian to resign in February 1998 and have since insisted on a “package” peace accord that would settle all sticking points at once.
International mediators began hinting in 2003 that the two approaches are not incompatible and could be combined. This is what Oskanian and Mammadyarov appear to have discussed during the Prague process. Yerevan has not denied that items currently on the table involve at least some elements of the step-by-step strategy.
There have been reports that under those proposals, Armenian forces would initially withdraw only from two or three of the seven occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper. The Karabakh Armenians, according to those reports, would remain effectively incorporated into Armenia and get the right to decide their future at a referendum 10 or 15 years later.
In a March 14 interview with the Baku daily Yeni Musavat, former Azerbaijani foreign minister Tofiq Zulfuqarov said this is what Aliev Jr. and Kocharian discussed at their most recent meeting in Kazakhstan last September. “Azerbaijan did not accept this option,” he added.
Some Armenian commentators suggest that Kocharian is also reluctant to agree to such a deal lest his increasingly radical political opponents exploit it at home. Kocharian, they say, is all too aware of how useful the Karabakh issue could be for coming to power in Armenia. “Official Yerevan is simply looking for excuses to drag out the signing of a preliminary document on Nagorno-Karabakh,” the Yerevan newspaper Iravunk claimed on March 11.
(Armenian Foreign Ministry statement, March 16; BBC Monitoring, March 14; Iravunk, March 11; RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 14, 2005, March 26, 2004.)