Karabakh Focus: Talks Snarled On "Interim Status"

By Tatul Hakobian

Institute for War and Peace Reporting IWPR
July 27 2009

Moscow meeting leaves sides no closer and many questions unanswered.

Agreement on Nagorny Karabakh’s "interim status", a precondition for
an internationally-brokered peace process, is the current obstacle
to progress in talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, participants said.

Under the six-part Madrid Principles supported by Russia, France and
the United States – co-chairs of the Minsk Group of mediators – the
self-declared state would have some kind of unresolved status until
a referendum could be held to decide its long-term future.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Moscow just over a
week ago but no breakthrough occurred, despite intense international

"We are currently discussing the separation of certain principles
from the Madrid Principles, after which we must discuss the remaining
principles. On this basis we must start the preparation of the final
agreement," Armenian president Serzh Sargsian told a European Union
delegation on July 20, following his return from Russia.

"The main element is the question of the status of Nagorny Karabakh,
which must be resolved through a legally binding expression of
will. When we can give this question a precise definition, which
cannot allow dual interpretations, I think the talks will continue
more smoothly."

The Karabakh conflict broke out in 1988 with clashes between Azeris
and Armenians, who made up the majority of the population of Nagorny
Karabakh but who were included within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. The
territory declared independence unilaterally in 1991, triggering a
conflict that ended with a ceasefire in 1994.

Since then the ceasefire has largely held, but there has been almost no
progress on a final resolution of the conflict. Azerbaijan and Armenia
lack diplomatic ties, while around a million Azeris and hundreds of
thousands of Armenians remain displaced. Their return to their former
homes is another one of the Madrid Principles, but no progress was
made on that either.

"The Armenian troops must be removed from the occupied territories, and
after that the question of the return of refugees to their lands can
be raised," said Elmar Mamedyarov, the Azerbaijani foreign minister,
on his return to Baku, sparking an angry response from his counterpart
in Yerevan.

"During the Moscow meeting, these questions (territory and refugees)
were not even discussed," said Edward Nalbandian, the Armenian
foreign minister.

The issue is complicated by Turkey, which is engaged in a separate
talks process with Armenia over opening its own border. Ankara has
said its negotiations are linked to the progress of the talks over
Karabakh, which may be driving Armenia towards a solution.

Meanwhile, the self-declared government of Nagorny Karabakh, whose
independence has not been recognised by any country, objects that its
authorities are not included in the peace negotiations and says that
its status is not negotiable.

Bako Sahakian, the leader of Nagorny Karabakh, laid out his position
on July 10 before the talks even started.

"Our position is clear and remains unchanged. The independence of
the Nagorny Karabakh Republic is an established fact and is not under
discussion," he said.

"Without the agreement of the people of the NagornyKarabakh Republic it
is impossible to come to any resolution. Artsakh (Karabakh in Armenian)
is the major side in the talks, and yet today is not taking part in the
negotiations process, and we have to restore this important principle."

His statement was echoed by many other political figures and social
groups in Karabakh, but the Azerbaijani negotiators said they could
be included only after the other participants had resolved all the
major principles on which the talks would be based.

According to political commentators, the two sides were discussing
some kind of exchange involving giving Azerbaijan the five regions
outside Nagorny Karabakh proper that Armenian forces either partially
or entirely control, in exchange for Azerbaijan recognising the
territory’s interim status, as laid out in the Madrid Principles.

But this was unlikely to meet approval in Karabakh either.

"The territory of Nagorny Karabakh cannot be an item to trade, and if
we depart from our current situation and attempt to assess the exchange
of real territory for the recognition of a virtual and interim status,
then it is clear that such an exchange is far from adequate," said
Masis Mailian, the former foreign minister in the Karabakh government.

Former participants in the talks said the negotiations sound like
they have stalled, since the issues being discussed were similar to
those that have been discussed for the last decade or more.

"Whether they’re closer or not [it’s hard to say], but I can say
it’s more complicated now that it’s ever been," said Vardan Oskanian,
former Armenian foreign minister and a veteran of the talks process.

"There appears to be urgency on the part of the co-chair countries
to resolve this conflict. This can bring added pressure on the
parties. That, together with the fact that in the minds of negotiators
and the parties, there is the issue of the Turkish-Armenian border

"This may make it difficult to reconcile differences and reach an
agreement. Azerbaijan may convince itself that Armenians now need a
solution more than they do, and they may simply raise the stakes and
make a deal impossible."

Tatul Hakobian is Yerevan correspondent for US newspaper The Armenian