Russia has taken the center stage in international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict, which could yield a breakthrough before the end of this year. President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to host a potentially decisive meeting of his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts next month. Moscow may thus be trying to sideline the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group on Karabakh, which it has long co-chaired with the United States and France.
When he paid an official visit to Yerevan on October 21, Medvedev publicly urged Presidents Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to meet in his presence in Russia. The Karabakh dispute was high on the agenda. “I hope that the three presidents will meet in the very near future to continue discussions on this theme,” he told a joint news conference with Sarkisian. “I hope that the meeting will take place in Russia” (Regnum, October 21). He noted that the Karabakh peace process now seemed to be “in an advanced stage.”
Medvedev discussed what the Kremlin described as preparations for the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in a phone call with Aliyev the next day (Interfax, October 22). Konstantin Zatulin, a Kremlin-linked Russian pundit, told Armenian journalists afterward that the crucial summit would likely take place in early November; but neither conflicting party has yet confirmed the meeting, let alone announced any dates for it. Aliyev’s chief foreign policy aide, Novruz Mammadov, has said only that it was “possible” (Trend news agency, October 22). Armenian officials have not commented on the matter at all.
Medvedev announced his initiative following unusually optimistic statements on Karabakh peace prospects that were made by his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. In an October 7 interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Lavrov spoke of a “very real chance” to end the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in the coming weeks. “There remain two or three unresolved issues that need to be agreed upon at the next meetings of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan,” he said. He added that the future of the so-called Lachin corridor, which is the shortest overland link between Armenia and Karabakh, is now the main stumbling block in the peace talks. Three days later, Lavrov held a trilateral meeting with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts on the sidelines of a CIS summit in Bishkek.
Many analysts in the South Caucasus and the West have long contended that Russia was uninterested in a Karabakh settlement, lest it lose leverage against Azerbaijan and, even more, Armenia, its main ally in the region. Peace with Azerbaijan, they have argued, would reduce the significance for Armenia of maintaining close military ties with Russia and make the Armenian economy less dependent on Russian energy supplies. Medvedev’s desire to host the crucial Aliyev-Sarkisian encounter is, however, a clear indication that Karabakh peace is not necessarily incompatible with Russian goals and interests in the region, especially if Moscow plays a key role in a multinational peace-keeping force that would have to be deployed in the conflict zone.
Armenia is rife with speculation that Moscow is trying to cajole Azerbaijan into agreeing to a Russian troop presence and pursuing a more pro-Russian policy on other issues, notably the transportation of Caspian oil and gas to the West. “To that end [the Russians] need to force Armenia into making essentially unilateral and absolutely unacceptable concessions on the Karabakh issue,” Yerkir, a Yerevan weekly controlled by the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation party, wrote on October 24, reflecting the growing opinion among local observers.
Sarkisian appeared to rule out such concessions when he said after his talks with Medvedev that the peace process had to proceed on the basis of the framework peace agreement that was formally put forward by the Minsk Group’s U.S., Russian, and French co-chairs in November 2007. The document calls for a phased settlement of the conflict that would start with the liberation of at least six of the seven Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh that were fully or partly occupied by Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. In return, Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would be allowed to determine the disputed territory’s status in a future referendum.
According to U.S. officials privy to the talks, Baku and Yerevan essentially agreed to this peace formula as of late last year and only needed to work out some of its details. Political turmoil in Armenia that followed the February 2008 presidential election and the ensuing toughening of Azerbaijani leaders’ Karabakh rhetoric, however, have dealt a serious blow to the mediators’ efforts to negotiate a peace deal. Those efforts gained new momentum after the Russian-Georgian war, with all three mediating powers stressing the danger posed by unresolved ethnic disputes in the region.
However, the sharp deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations resulting from the Georgia crisis called into question Moscow’s and Washington’s ability to continue to work together on Karabakh. Medvedev’s seemingly unilateral initiative raised more such questions. Washington has yet to react officially to the move. Incidentally, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried flew to Yerevan ahead of the Russian’ president’s visit. Fried said after talks with Sarkisian on October 17 that the signing of a Karabakh peace accord before the end of the year was “possible” but “not inevitable” (RFE/RL Armenia Report, October 20).
Meanwhile, Bernard Fassier, the Minsk Group’s French co-chair, told the Azerbaijani APA news agency on October 21 that he and his American and Russian opposite numbers planned to visit Baku and Yerevan jointly next week; but two days later he said that the trip had been postponed, ostensibly because of the co-chairs’ conflicting work schedules.