On February 10-11, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian met in France in an attempt to break a deadlock in the Karabakh peace process. The talks failed to produce a framework agreement for the resolution of the conflict, disappointing Western observers and governments.
Before heading out to the medieval chateau in Rambouillet for their private negotiations, Aliyev and Kocharian met separately with French President Jacques Chirac. The French president expressed his optimism about the upcoming talks and predicted, “There is a real chance to lay a foundation for a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” (Zerkalo, February 10).
Chirac also noted, “A peace agreement is important not only for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also for the entire region and world stability” (Today.Az, February 11).
Similar positive statements were made by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs from France, Russia, and the United States several days before the Paris negotiations. The French co-chair, Bernard Fassier, declared that the Aliyev-Kocharian meeting “may become a moment of truth that will open a new phase in the talks” (Panarmenian.Net, February 9).
Fassier added that the negotiations would focus on the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied Azerbaijani territories and the possibility of holding a referendum in Karabakh to determine the final political status of the province (Zerkalo, February 10).
These two issues, however, turned out to be too difficult to reconcile. Yerevan insisted on a referendum deal before making any commitments to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijan, while Baku maintained that any resolution plan should preserve its internationally recognized borders and that holding a referendum in a predominantly Armenian-populated Karabakh, even in the far future, would compromise its territorial integrity.
The gap in the positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan was visible even before Aliyev and Kocharian flew to Paris. A few weeks before the talks, Aliyev had declared, “Nagorno Karabakh will never be separated from Azerbaijan: not today, not tomorrow, not in ten, fifteen, or even a hundred years” (BakuToday.Net, February 1). This indicated that Aliyev was not going to sign a deal that could in any way justify the secession of Karabakh from Azerbaijan.
On February 10, the head of the Press and Information Policy Office of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, Tahir Tagizade, reiterated that the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan does not allow for the holding of a referendum in a particular region or province of the country. There can only be “a nationwide referendum where all citizens of Azerbaijan [including the Karabakh Armenians] could participate,” he argued (Day.az, February 10).
Meanwhile, the Commission on Foreign Relations of the Armenian parliament gathered on February 3 and announced principles, goals, and tactics that the Armenian side should employ during the negotiations. The declaration stated, “Priority must be given to the settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status on the basis of the self-determination right and security guarantees” (Regnum, February 7).
“Azerbaijan must not have jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh” and the region “must have a secure land border with Armenia” read some of the main principles of the document (Regnum, February 7).
These utterly opposite views of Baku and Yerevan led many local experts to believe that the Paris summit would produce no results. Before the summit, Azerbaijani political scientist Zardusht Alizade declared, “The upcoming meeting between the presidents does not promise anything good for Azerbaijan. In the current international environment and with the status of power realignment in the region, the negotiations in Paris have nothing to offer” (Zerkalo, February 9).
In his interview with the local Echo-Az newspaper, Eldar Namazov, a former advisor to a late Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev, stated, “The conditions for a breakthrough in the Karabakh conflict are not yet ripe. These conditions are the international environment and the domestic political situation in both states” (Echo-Az, February 7.) Namazov hinted that soon the parties would announce another “time-out” in the peace process.
Another local expert, Rasim Musabekov, was more cautious. He said, “If the presidents could reach an agreement on a few issues and then ask the foreign ministers to continue working on details, this could be considered as a positive outcome.” Musabekov said that it was too early to “bury” the whole negotiation process.
Nonetheless, although the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan will continue to take place in the future, it is fair to say that the current Karabakh peace process is dead. Aliyev and Kocharian could not agree on the two most critical components of the Karabakh conflict: the issue of territorial integrity versus self-determination.
Henceforth, Baku will be reluctant to consider proposals that do not call for a resolution of the conflict within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Armenia, on the other hand, will insist on the Karabakh Armenians’ right of self-determination and will refuse to withdraw from the occupied Azerbaijani lands. Hence, unless the parties agree on a framework that could reconcile the above issues, the future of the Karabakh conflict looks rather grim.