The international community has always believed that public opinion in Armenia and Azerbaijan must be prepped for painful concessions before the conflict over Karabakh can be resolved. Yet no such efforts seem to be taken in either country despite the apparently significant progress made over the past year in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks.
For one thing, Armenian leaders are in no hurry to drum up popular support for a compromise peace deal that may well be cut in coming weeks. The issue was hardly mentioned in their New Year’s statements and has yet to top the political agenda in the country. Nor are hard-line elements both inside and outside the government in Yerevan ringing alarm bells against a solution reportedly discussed by the conflicting parties.
Armenian officials first leaked details of the possible settlement last summer. They said privately that at the heart of it is the idea of a referendum in which Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would decide whether they want to be independent, become a part of Armenia, or return to Azerbaijani rule. The referendum, according to them, would be held in 10-15 years from the start of a gradual Armenian pullout from all but one of the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh. The Azerbaijani newspaper Zerkalo carried a virtually identical report on December 28, citing “informed diplomatic sources” in Baku. It said the parties disagree on just when that referendum should take place.
All eyes are now on the presidents of the two South Caucasus states, who are expected to meet later this month or early next month for talks that could yield a long-awaited breakthrough. The French, Russian, and U.S. mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group sounded quite upbeat on peace prospects after they last met the two men in Yerevan and Baku a month ago. The group’s U.S. co-chair, Steven Mann, said, “events are moving in the right direction.”
The foreign ministers admit that the planned talks between Ilham Aliyev and Robert Kocharian will be crucial. The presidents are due to meet again in advance of the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit. “The year 2006 could see a breakthrough,” Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told the Yerevan-based Kentron TV station on December 29.
If Aliyev and Kocharian agree on some sort of a deal, they will clearly have to make it public and face the possibility of a nationalist backlash. Aliyev could be particularly vulnerable to attack as the reported peace formula would mean an almost certain loss of Karabakh. Accepting the plan would starkly contrast with his tough talk on Karabakh, which involves regular threats to win back the territory by force. “It is time to be absolutely candid and admit what the signing of such a peace agreement will lead to,” Zerkalo wrote on December 23.
Selling such an accord to the Armenian public would not be easy. Armenian hardliners reject any solution that would not immediately formalize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. Many of them are also strongly opposed to any withdrawal from the “liberated” territories around Karabakh. Some are affiliated with two nationalist groups represented in Armenia’s government, the Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. These parties are not known for their advocacy of major concessions to Azerbaijan, but have so far been silent on the recent developments in the peace process. Still, Oskanian indicated that he believes they would not challenge Kocharian should the latter press ahead with a Karabakh settlement. Armenian opposition parties seeking to topple the ruling regime are a more serious source of concern for Oskanian.
Some opposition leaders make no secret of their plans to exploit what they expect will be an unpopular peace deal. Victor Dallakian of the Justice alliance, for example, said in a newspaper interview published on December 17 that the Karabakh talks could spark “certain political developments” in Armenia as early as this February. Another, more radical Justice leader, Aram Sarkisian, claimed on December 22 that progress in the peace process has only deepened the “revolutionary situation” in Armenia.
But other prominent oppositionists disagree. Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the National Unity Party, revealed on December 27 that Karabakh is the reason he shunned opposition rallies held in the wake of the November 27 constitutional referendum in Armenia. He said he would steer clear of further anti-government protests “in order to avoid undermining a possible Karabakh settlement or making it anti-Armenian.” Geghamian also argued that taking on Kocharian’s regime makes no sense now that the international community believes “only these authorities are able to bring the decade-long peace process to an end.”
Indeed, the United States and the European Union have been rather cautious in criticizing the Armenian authorities’ handling of the referendum, which was tainted by reports of serious fraud. The West’s reaction to the reputedly fraudulent November parliamentary election in Azerbaijan has also been muted. Opposition groups in both countries clearly lack the kind of Western support that was enjoyed by their former counterparts in Georgia and Ukraine. Many local observers link this fact to the existing real possibility of Karabakh peace.
The Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders may not be preparing their peoples for a difficult compromise, but they have rarely been guided by public opinion as evidenced by their repeated failure to hold a single democratic election. The Karabakh dispute is not necessarily an exception to this rule.
(Kentron TV, December 29; Zerkalo, December 28, December 23; RFE/RL Armenia Report, December 27, December 15; Haykakan Zhamanak, December 22; Azg, December 17)