Presidents Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia conferred tete-a-tete on the Karabakh conflict during the Baltic-Black Sea-South Caucasus summit on September 10-11 at Yalta in Ukraine (see the Monitor, September 13). The Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers, Tofig Zulfugarov and Vardan Oskanian, held a concurrent meeting to discuss ways toward a settlement of the conflict. The presidents’ meeting, their third in the last three months, was intended to build on the results of their talks held in Geneva in July and August. A follow-up meeting is now scheduled for October. Cumulatively, these meetings testify to a growing momentum in the unmediated negotiations, which are being encouraged by Washington and promise to limit Russia’s opportunities to manipulate the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict (see the Monitor, July 22, August 24).
The Yalta talks focused on the consolidation of the ceasefire, the format of follow-up negotiations and a possible conceptual basis for Karabakh’s eventual political status. Following their meeting, the presidents restated familiar positions: “maximum level of self-government for the population of Karabakh within Azerbaijan” (Aliev); a “common state” of Azerbaijan and Karabakh as coequal parties (Kocharian). This suggests that the status issue remains the primary stumbling block and that hopes for a breakthrough on this issue seem premature at this stage of the process. Kocharian’s clinging to the Russian-devised concept of a “common state” seems, in any case, anachronistic in the wake of Moscow’s official abandoning of that stillborn concept (see the Monitor, September 10). Yet both presidents were probably also seeking to protect their respective domestic political flanks by publicly airing those positions on the status issue. Hardline groups in Baku on the one hand and in Yerevan on the other hand, as well as the Karabakh leadership, had been quick to attack the respective presidents for their apparent disposition to “concede too much” in the Geneva meetings (see the Monitor, August 26).
A military negotiating track opened on September 14 as Defense Ministers Safar Abiev of Azerbaijan and Vagharshak Harutiunian of Armenia met on the ceasefire line which separates Azerbaijani and Karabakh-Armenian forces. The unprecedented meeting was held pursuant to the presidents’ decision at their August meeting in Geneva. The defense ministers are mandated to hold follow-up meetings and work out joint measures to reinforce the ceasefire, confidence-building steps and some procedures for preventing and resolving incidents along the line of contact (DINAU, September 11; Turan, Snark, Noyan-Tapan, September 11-14).
In Baku, ultranationalist opposition groups escalated the attacks on Aliev in the wake of the Yalta meeting. The Popular Front chairman and former president of the country, Abulfaz Elchibey, warned that “the opposition will launch a civil war if a humiliating peace on Karabakh is concluded. Let Aliev, his circle and the people be warned.” Denouncing any “concessions to Armenians,” Elchibey declared that he had appealed to Turkey for “multisided support” to Azerbaijan in the Karabakh conflict, and that he is prepared to call on ethnic Azeris in Iran to rush to Azerbaijan’s aid. Elchibey spoke at a conference in Baku of the United Azerbaijan Movement, which aims to unify “northern” and “southern” Azerbaijan–that is, the existing state of Azerbaijan and the Azeri-inhabited areas of Iran (Turan, September 13).
On the eve of the Aliev-Kocharian meeting in Yalta, Elchibey had declared that “the people of Azerbaijan must prepare for war in order to attain a just peace, and the main slogan today must be, ‘Death to the Armenian occupants.'” From the same platform, Musavat party leader and former parliamentary chairman Isa Gambar denounced Aliev’s “concessions” generally, focusing on the “observance of the ceasefire since 1994–the greatest of all concessions made to the Armenians.” Gambar warned that “the opposition will rise for a decisive struggle with the authorities if these authorities go on making concessions detrimental to national interests” (Turan, September 9). Elchibey and Gambar were speaking at an opposition roundtable on the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict. Both are presidential aspirants, rivals to Aliev but to each other as well. Elchibey is the more assertive of the two in claiming the role of standard bearer of opposition forces. His stance on Karabakh, however, is backed only by the ultranationalist section of the opposition. Within the Popular Front itself, a new generation of more sophisticated leaders, better attuned than Elchibey is to Western policies and to Azerbaijan’s own national interests, tacitly supports the search for a mutually acceptable settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
Significantly, this group of Popular Front leaders is refraining from attacks on Aliev over the Karabakh problem. But they have not yet managed to distance themselves explicitly from Elchibey’s inflammatory stance. As long as radicals set the opposition’s tone on these issues, the consequences will be felt on two levels. First, official Baku’s margin of maneuver in the negotiations with Armenia will be somewhat restricted. Second–and perhaps more important in the longer term–a continuing leadership crisis in the opposition will maintain the existing confusion within its ranks between ultranationalism and democracy, will inhibit the development of civil society and modern political institutions, and will further complicate the efforts to prepare a viable constellation of responsible political forces for the post-Aliev period.
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