After a failed February attempt to break the deadlock in negotiations between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, observers thought the Karabakh peace process was dead. But following a few quick fixes in the current proposal, international mediators have come to believe that the peace process is not “dead” but rather “comatose,” and could be revived if only given the “right medicine.”
In the wake of President Aliyev’s successful April 25-28 visit to the United States, the Azerbaijani press, analysts, and scholars have began guessing whether Washington could provide the proper prescription for Karabakh, as it did to negotiate a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978.
In his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on April 26, President Aliyev remarked, “We hope that the current framework of negotiations will create opportunities for a just [and] long-lasting peace based on the principles of international law. And of course we hope that the United States, as a superpower, as a country [which is] a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, will contribute to the resolution of [this] conflict” (www.cfr.org, April 26).
Commenting on the outcome of President Aliyev’s visit, Novruz Mammadov, head of the Foreign Relations Department at the Executive Office of the President, declared that there will be “certain changes in the U.S. position on the peace talks” and that Washington will make some “positive steps to resolve the conflict.” According to Mammadov, from now on, the U.S. will “provide Azerbaijan with strategic support in all areas” (BakuToday.Net, May 2).
While in Washington, President Aliyev also reiterated his previous statements that the Karabakh conflict could only be resolved within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, implying that Baku will reject calls for holding a referendum inside Karabakh.
Baku and Yerevan have already agreed on most of the outstanding issues, but two remain. One is the timetable to remove Armenian troops from two occupied regions of Azerbaijan (Kalbajar and Lachin). Second, how will the parties determine the final status of the Karabakh enclave, which is by law part of Azerbaijan, but has been controlled by Armenian forces since 1994?
For more than a decade, Armenia has adeptly managed to defy international criticism over its occupation of Azerbaijani lands thanks to existing geopolitical arrangements in the South Caucasus. Neither Europe, which has been absent in the region until recently, nor the United States, which has strong Armenian lobbying groups, were seriously interested in resolving a remote territorial dispute.
But the troublesome situation around the Iranian nuclear program, the growing importance of Caspian oil and gas for Europe, and the rising potential that another war will erupt in the region have contributed to the need for speedy resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
Even Moscow, which as a status quo mediator has kept all three South Caucasus conflicts in limbo for years, may be willing to be accommodate the U.S.-supported initiative to resolve the conflict this year.
Russia’s security dilemma in the region has been the major impediment in its ability to propel Baku and Yerevan forward in the peace process. Moscow remains concerned that the resolution of this conflict will diminish Russian influence in the South Caucasus while increasing U.S. influence. Moreover, Moscow’s unwillingness to pressure its closest ally in the region (Armenia), while at the same time trying to keep Azerbaijan on board have raised questions on how far Russia is willing to push the envelope. Many in Azerbaijan believe that Moscow is determined to push the resolution process only to a certain level — a level that is a step short from resolving the Karabakh conflict permanently.
Nonetheless, Russia came to realize that its desire to maintain the status quo is backfiring. In fact, during all these years the regional processes in the South Caucasus have developed in a direction that Moscow had hoped they would not. Thus, the Kremlin can no longer rely on its traditional strategy that so long as the Karabakh conflict is unresolved, Armenia and Azerbaijan will be dependent on Moscow’s active involvement in regional affairs.
It is clear, however, that without U.S. assurances and international pressure, Armenia will be reluctant to consider proposals that call for the resolution of the conflict while preserving Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Baku hopes that Washington could convince Yerevan that the resolution of the conflict within the framework of territorial integrity will benefit not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also the entire South Caucasus region. It will allow the parties to open communication links, engage in regional cooperation, and more importantly begin the reconciliation process.
Sabine Freizer, Caucasus Project director for the International Crisis Group, recently indicated, “If the U.S. wants to ensure Azerbaijan’s long-term support [for U.S.] policies towards Iran, and overall regional security, [Washington’s] best bet is to first focus on securing a peaceful resolution of the existing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” (Crisisgroup.org). “While the [Karabakh] conflict remains unresolved, Azerbaijan can ill afford to undermine its improving relations with Tehran,” she added.
Unlike the Key West summit in 2001, where the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and President Kocharian tried to negotiate a peace deal without a clear framework, today the situation is diffident. The parties have already agreed on major issues and need one final push. Washington seems willing to take the lead in facilitating the negotiations and aiding the parties to reach a historical breakthrough in 2006. Hence, it could sponsor a new “Camp David Accord” for President Aliyev and President Kocharian and offer some carrots to both leaders. This would demonstrate a serious U.S. commitment to stability and security in the region and help to prevent another war in the South Caucasus.