Armenia facing pressure on NK issue

Eurasianet Organization
July 21 2004

Samvel Martirosyan: 7/21/04

Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s administration appears to be
facing increasing pressure to soften its stance on the
Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Reports suggesting that Armenia is willing to
explore the return of Azerbaijani territory seized during the
Karabakh conflict are threatening to stir domestic political trouble
for Kocharian.

Both Armenian and Azerbaijani media have reported that the United
States, in seeking to break the existing stalemate in Karabakh peace
talks, is pressing Armenia to agree to the return of Azerbaijani
regions captured during the 1991-94 conflict. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. According to the reports, Armenia is being
asked to return anywhere between three and six of the seven areas
seized from Azerbaijan. The only area that reportedly has not come up
in discussions is Lachin, the corridor of land that connects Karabakh
with Armenia proper. Kocharian has adamantly opposed giving back what
Armenians describe as “liberated territories” as a precondition to a
comprehensive peace settlement. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive].

A recent article published by the Turkish newspaper Zaman quoted
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as saying that Yerevan was
prepared to discuss the return of the territories. Gul mentioned a
meeting of the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey,
held on the sidelines of the June 28-29 NATO summit in Istanbul,
saying that the Armenian participant, Vartan Oskanian, declared: “We
[Armenia] can withdraw from all territories except Karabakh.”
Oskanian subsequently denied making any such statement during the

Kocharian’s ambiguous comments during a June 23 session of the
Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) helped fuel
speculation about a possible deal. Kocharian stated at one point that
the question of what Azerbaijani insists are “occupied lands” could
have been settled long ago if Baku had implemented the so-called Key
West principles, which reportedly mandated that Armenia vacate
captured Azerbaijani territory. He also emphasized that any potential
handover would have to be part of overall Karabakh settlement.

“We are ready for serious negotiations on a full-scale solution to
the conflict,” Armenia Today reported Kocharian as telling PACE.
“That is exactly why we have accepted the last formula for resolution
offered by international mediators which, unfortunately, [was]
rejected by Azerbaijan.”

Some Armenian observers have speculated that Kocharian may have been
seeking to prepare Armenian public opinion for a policy shift on the
territory handover issue. Azerbaijan has denied that any bargain was
struck during the Key West peace talks in 2001. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive].

The speculation swirling around the Karabakh issue comes at an
awkward political moment for Kocharian. Though opposition coalition
protests that roiled Yerevan this spring have been suspended,
Kocharian critics remain committed to a six-month boycott of the
Armenian parliament. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive]. Despite the coalition’s relative weaknesses, any effort to
return Azerbaijani territory could potentially give the opposition an
issue with which it could inflict considerable damage on Kocharian’s

Kocharian is no doubt mindful of the circumstances that led to his
rise to the presidency. In 1998, the willingness of then-president
Levon Ter-Petrosian to embrace a gradual approach to a
Nagorno-Karabakh settlement sparked a chain of events that led to his
forced resignation.

A June 25 opinion poll, carried out by the Armenian Center for
National and International Studies, underscored the risks for
Kocharian. It found that only 1 percent of the 1,950 respondents
polled nationwide believed that the captured territories should be
returned to Azerbaijan. By contrast, 45.5 percent wanted the lands to
remain under Armenian control. Another 11.2 percent called for the
regions to be equally divided between Armenia and Azerbaijan, while
just under a third said that they should be made part of
Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, only 2.5 percent of the survey’s
respondents expressed trust in the Armenian authorities to resolve
the Karabakh stalemate.

Meanwhile, there are signs coming out of Azerbaijan that Baku’s
Karabakh negotiating position is hardening. In July 16 talks with the
OSCE Minsk Group, which oversees the Karabakh peace process,
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Foreign Minister Elmar
Mammadyarov and Defense Minister Safar Abiyev maintained that Armenia
must meet four 1993 UN resolutions that call for the country’s
unconditional withdrawal from land outside of Karabakh. During a
public appearance July 20, Aliyev vowed that Azerbaijan “would
liberate its occupied territories at any cost,” the Turan news agency

The Minsk Group’s US, French and Russian co-chairmen — Steven Mann,
Henri Jacolin and Yuri Merzlyakov — cautioned that the two
countries’ failure to compromise could lead to a resumption of
hostilities over Karabakh. Concerns about a renewed outbreak of
fighting have risen in recent weeks.

Editor’s Note: Samvel Martirosyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and
political analyst.