Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 190

Presidents Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia met on October 11 in the border village of Sadarak, just inside Azerbaijani territory in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, to discuss general principles for settling the Karabakh conflict. The venue’s significance is manyfold and seems to bode well for the negotiating process. It was the first official Armenian-Azerbaijani meeting to be held on the territory of either country after more than a decade of belligerence. Nakhichevan has historically been a territory in dispute between the Armenians and the Turkic Azeris, and as such neuralgic to both nations. Fighting raged at Nakhichevan’s borders during the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 1992-93, leaving scars near Sadarak as well. Separated from the main body of Azerbaijan by an Armenian salient, Nakhichevan has for nearly a decade been blockaded by Armenian-Karabakh forces. Against this background, the presidents’ decision to hold their meeting in Nakhichevan constitutes a political signal of resolve to tread the long path toward accommodation and, ultimately, national reconciliation. Nakhichevan is, moreover, Aliev’s native area and his bedrock political base. His decision to host the Armenian president there may well reflect his unadvertised desire to enter history as a peacemaker and to associate his personal fief with that effort.

The meeting’s symbolism may have outweighed its practical results, which the presidents in any case agreed to keep secret. After a tete-a-tete meeting of more than two hours, the presidents announced that they would hold further meetings on the general framework of a peace settlement, while tasking their foreign ministers to hold more detailed discussions. In their post-meeting remarks, Aliev and Kocharian emphasized that long and difficult negotiations lie ahead. On the same day in Sadarak, Defense Ministers Safar Abiev and Vagarshak Harutiunian held a fully confidential meeting–their second in the last two months–which, like the first, is believed to have focused on measures to strengthen the ceasefire. Foreign Ministers Tofig Zulfugarov and Vartan Oskanian also lost no time meeting on October 12 in Luxembourg, as a follow-up to their two meetings in September in the United States.

The Aliev-Kocharian meeting was their fourth in as many months–and the fifth since NATO’s April 1999 summit in Washington, where United States diplomacy succeeded in jump-starting the direct Azerbaijani-Armenian negotiations. The earlier meetings were held in Luxembourg, Geneva (twice) and Yalta, Ukraine (see the Monitor, April 27, July 22, August 24, September 15). At this point, the goal is to produce a purely bilateral Azerbaijani-Armenian document which would set mutually acceptable, general parameters for resolving the Karabakh conflict. That document should be approved by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at its upcoming summit in Istanbul and accepted by the OSCE’s mediators in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, leaving the parties free scope for continuing direct negotiations on the basis of principles they themselves will have defined. Those goals were set in recent messages to Aliev and Kocharian by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Vice-President Al Gore. The messages underscored that resolution of the conflict would eliminate a major obstacle on Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s path to prosperity and partnership with the Euroatlantic world.

Left unmentioned–at least publicly–in those messages was the Russian factor. A direct Armenian-Azerbaijani accommodation would limit or even nullify Moscow’s opportunities to manipulate the conflict in its own interest, as Russia has done in a number of ways–not least by misusing its co-chairmanship of the OSCE’s mediating group. Further, substantive progress toward a peace settlement might enable Armenia to emancipate itself from Russian influence and reorient its policy toward cooperation with its pro-Western neighbors. This would, in turn, enable Armenia to participate in regional development projects and prevent the division of the South Caucasus into a Western and a Russian zone of influence–a division that threatens to leave Armenia on the wrong side (Noyan Tapan, Snark, Azg, Turan, Assa-Irada, October 10-13).