Armenia’s leadership seems to be still holding out hope for a resolution of the Karabakh conflict this year despite the failure of the latest Armenia-Azerbaijan summit in France. Senior officials in Yerevan say they are looking forward to the upcoming meeting of international mediators that could be followed by a new round of high-level peace talks.
The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group are scheduled to discuss in Washington early next month ways of salvaging the peace process that made considerable progress last year. Presidents Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia were widely expected to build upon it by hammering out a framework peace accord when they conferred at Rambouillet castle near Paris on February 10. But the two-day summit failed to produce any agreement, sparking talk of yet another missed opportunity for Karabakh peace.
Still, Armenian leaders have played down the fiasco, with a spokesman for Kocharian stressing the “positive” aspect of the conflicting parties’ decision to continue negotiations. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian went further, stating on February 14 that a breakthrough is still possible this year. “True, no agreement was reached at Rambouillet,” he told a news conference. “But that doesn’t mean there will be no progress in the course of this year.”
Oskanian pointed out that important agreements reached by the parties earlier remain in force and will continue to form the basis of further discussions. Those reportedly envisage a phased conflict resolution that boils down to allowing Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population to decide the disputed region’s status in a referendum after the liberation of virtually all of the Armenian-occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper. Unusually upbeat statements about peace prospects made by the mediators and some Western leaders in recent months suggest that the two sides agreed to this peace formula in principle before the Rambouillet summit.
Armenian officials say implicitly that it went awry because of a last-minute change of heart by Baku. According to Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, it turned out that the discussed deal (which would almost certainly formalize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan) “is acceptable to us but is not to them.” Indeed, Aliyev said in the run-up to the summit that he will not accept Armenian control over Karabakh “not today, not tomorrow, not in ten, fifteen, or even a hundred years,” effectively ruling out the referendum option. Speaking to RFE/RL on February 11, a Western source close to the peace process confirmed that Aliyev and Kocharian failed to reach any agreement on Karabakh’s status.
The mediators thus face a difficult task of deciding how to proceed. They warned earlier that failure to cut a peace deal this year would keep the conflict unresolved at least until 2009, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan are due to hold national elections in 2007 and 2008. The West and the United States in particular, which regards Karabakh peace as a key regional policy objective, may therefore make another push for a compromise settlement in the coming weeks. Diplomatic sources in Yerevan say the foreign ministers and even the presidents of the two South Caucasus states could meet in Washington as early as next month. Citing Azerbaijani media, Armenian Public Television reported on February 18 that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a phone conversation with Aliyev, the second such talk in just over a week. It was not clear if Rice phoned Kocharian as well.
Official Yerevan has so far been careful not to openly blame Baku for the failure of the Paris talks, suggesting that it still sees a real possibility of breaking the deadlock. But this did not prevent some representatives of Kocharian’s governing coalition from pointing the finger at the Azerbaijani leadership. Tigran Torosian, the deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament and a leading member of the governing Republican Party, claimed on February 14 that Aliyev backpedaled for fear of a domestic backlash against Karabakh’s “sell out.” Torosian expressed hope that international pressure will force Aliyev to go along with the referendum formula.
“Rambouillet exposed Azerbaijan’s disagreement with the idea of holding a referendum of self-determination in Karabakh, one of the key points of the mediators’ peace proposals,” the pro-Kocharian daily Hayots Ashkhar commented the next day. Another newspaper, Aravot, drew parallels between the latest Aliyev-Kocharian meeting and another Armenia-Azerbaijan summit that was held on the Florida island of Key West in April 2001. (Armenian officials had accused Aliyev’s late father and predecessor Heydar of walking away from a comprehensive Karabakh accord finalized there.) “As was the case at Key West, the Azerbaijani side proved unprepared to take the decisive step towards peace,” editorialized the paper critical of the Armenian government.
But opposition politicians and commentators do not share this view. In particular, supporters of Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who was forced to resign in 1998 after advocating greater concessions to Azerbaijan, seized upon the latest developments to again question Kocharian’s commitment to peace. Armen Baghdasarian, a columnist with the 168 Zham weekly, said both Aliyev and Kocharian are only concerned with presenting each other as the recalcitrant party in the eyes of the international community. “The failure of the Paris negotiations was totally predictable and once again proved that the Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities are not prepared to make mutual concessions on the Karabakh issue,” he wrote.
(Armenian Public Television, February 18; Arminfo, February 17; 168 Zham, February 16-17; Hayots Ashkhar, February 15; Aravot, February 14; RFE/RL Armenia Report, February 13-14)