On June 22, during a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, the Minsk Group co-chairs announced the main principles of the Karabakh peace process. The accompanying statement described these principles as “a set of core principles that [the co-chairs] believe are fair, balanced, workable, and that could pave the way for the two sides to draft a far-reaching settlement agreement” (Regnum, June 29).
The same day, the newly appointed U.S. co-chair, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza, gave an interview to RFE/RL. In the interview, Bryza elaborated on these principles, which have emerged over the last two years.
The decision to go public about the details of the peace talks sparked debates in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. While some of the topics discussed during the negotiations had been leaked to the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan, this was the first time that the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs publicly confirmed the basic principles of the current negotiations.
In his interview, Bryza said, “It’s really up to the presidents now to decide whether or not they want to take the politically difficult and challenging decisions…We want [the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan] to demonstrate that they really do have the political will to take these next difficult steps” (RFE/RL, June 23).
The OSCE Minsk Group proposal suggests a gradual pull out of Armenian troops from the occupied districts of Azerbaijan surrounding Karabakh region accompanied with “special modalities for Kelbajar and Lachin districts,” the demilitarization of these territories, the return of internally displaced persons, deployment of peacekeeping forces to the conflict zone, reopening the communication links between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and “a referendum or population vote — at a date and in a manner to be decided through further negotiations — to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh” (OSCE Press Release, July 3).
Officials in Armenia and Azerbaijan were quick to react to the OSCE statement and tried to use it to their advantage.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry issued a press release stating, “The co-chairs have only partially revealed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution principles; they have left out references to a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, and issues relating to Nagorno-Karabakh’s status before a referendum” (Panarmenian.net, June 27).
The statement also declared, “Those items over which the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to disagree do not include a referendum. That concept has been agreed to by the presidents” (Panarmenian.net, June 27).
Meanwhile in Azerbaijan, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov noted, “It is incorrect to make statements half-way through the peace process, as it may cause confusion. As seen, the opposite side has already tried to make use of such statements” (Trend, July 3).
Azimov “unequivocally dismissed statements that the [Azerbaijani] government had agreed to a referendum to be held in [Karabakh] in the future.” He added that there could be only a nationwide referendum that would include not only the Karabakh region, but also the whole of Azerbaijan (AzerNews, July 6).
“The Azerbaijani leadership will never step back from its position on the referendum issue. Any speculation to that end is false,” concluded Azimov (AzerNews, July 6).
Yet, despite the diplomatic disagreement, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan expressed their countries’ readiness to continue the negotiations (Panarmenian.net, June 28; Today.az, June 27).
There is still room for maneuvering and creativity with respect to the principles currently under discussion. However, the task of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, as well as for the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, is extremely difficult, given the fact that they will have to find a compromise solution to issues that are interlinked.
Without an agreement on the final status of Karabakh, Yerevan will be reluctant to pull its troops out of the occupied districts around the enclave, particularly from Kalbajar and Lachin. Baku, however, will insist on the return of all seven districts around Karabakh and reject calls for an explicit referendum within the region.
Starting from September, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs will try to expedite the peace process in hope that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan could at least agree on the main principles of the settlement. If the parties fail to do so, the conflict will likely re-freeze for another three years. During this period, there will be a series of elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and both states will try to change the political and military balance of power in the region to their favor.