Karabakh Peace Prospects Uncertain After Latest Armenian-Azeri Talks

KARABAKH PEACE PROSPECTS UNCERTAIN AFTER LATEST ARMENIAN-AZERI TALKS
Emil Danielyan

Jamestown Foundation
July 29 2009

Prospects for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict look more
uncertain following the latest round of negotiations between the
presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Contrary to the international
community’s expectations, Presidents Serzh Sarksyan and Ilham
Aliyev appear to have failed to clear the remaining hurdles to sign
an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord that would have far-reaching
implications for the entire region. International mediators hope that
the two leaders will achieve a breakthrough at their next meeting
expected this fall.

Sarksyan and Aliyev met in Moscow on July 17 for the sixth time in just
over a year to try to build on significant progress that was apparently
made during their two previous meetings in Prague and St.Petersburg
on May 7 and June 4 respectively. U.S., Russian and French mediators
expressed hope that in Moscow they would resolve their remaining
disagreements over the "basic principles" of a Karabakh settlement
put forward by the OSCE’s Minsk group. Deputy-Assistant Secretary
of State Matthew Bryza, the group’s U.S. co-chair, said that would
enable the conflicting parties to agree to a framework peace deal
"by the end of the year" (Reuters, June 22).

On July 10 the United States, Russia and France, all of which co-chair
the Minsk group, underscored their renewed optimism concerning a
possible settlement of the Karabakh issue in a joint statement issued
by their presidents on the sidelines of the G8 summit in L’Aquila,
Italy. "We urge the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the
few differences remaining between them and finalize their agreement on
these basic principles, which will outline a comprehensive settlement,"
the statement said.

Neither Aliyev nor Sarksyan made any public statements on July 17 after
several hours of discussions, partly attended by Bryza and his fellow
negotiators from Russia and France. The mediators told journalists
afterwards that the meeting did not live up to their expectations
(, July 18). According to Yuri Merzlyakov, the chief Russian
negotiator, the two presidents held a more productive meeting with
their Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, the next day. "There are
interesting solutions which the presidents found in the trilateral
format," Merzlyakov told the Azerbaijani Trend news agency on July
22. "I think that this could produce a positive result in the future."

Sarksyan likewise spoke of "progress" in the negotiating process
as he received Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in Yerevan
on July 20 (Statement by the Armenian presidential press service,
July 20). Azerbaijani officials’ reaction to the Moscow talks was
contradictory. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s cautious optimism
contrasted with statements made by Novruz Mammadov, Aliyev’s chief
foreign policy aide. Mammadov accused the Armenian side of showing
"hypocrisy" and scuttling the long-awaited agreement (Zerkalo,
July 23).

The Minsk group co-chairs, meanwhile, began preparations for the next
Aliyev-Sarksyan encounter, which they hope will take place in early
October on the sidelines of a CIS summit in Moldova. In a joint July
21 statement, they said they will also start working on an "updated
version" of their basic principles.

The proposed framework agreement became the basis of
Armenian-Azerbaijani talks before it was formally submitted to
the parties in Madrid in November 2007. Aliyev and Sarksyan’s more
hard-line predecessor, Robert Kocharian, came very close to accepting
it in early 2006. The so-called Madrid principles, disclosed in
general terms by the mediating powers, call for a phased settlement
of the Karabakh conflict that would start with a gradual liberation
of the seven districts in Azerbaijan which were fully or partly
occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. In
return, Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would determine
the disputed enclave’s status in a legally binding referendum. The
would-be agreement stipulates that Karabakh would remain under an
internationally recognized Armenian control until the two sides set
a date for holding such a vote.

According to U.S. and Armenian officials involved in the peace process,
Aliyev has essentially agreed to this formula despite his constant
public assertions that Baku will never come to terms with the loss
of Karabakh. Accordingly, some highly-placed Armenian sources claim
that the main sticking point in the talks (both under Kocharian
and now) relates to Armenian withdrawal from Kelbajar and Lachin,
the Azerbaijani districts wedged between Karabakh and Armenia. The
Kocharian administration, they argue, insisted that these territories
should be returned to Azerbaijan only after the Karabakh referendum on
self-determination, something which was unacceptable to Baku. Also,
while agreeing to ensure unfettered transport communication between
Armenia and Karabakh through a 30-kilometer-wide corridor, the
Azerbaijani side rejected Armenian demands for that overland link to
be formally incorporated into Karabakh.

There have been some indications that Sarksyan could show greater
flexibility on these issues. In an interview with the Russian Vesti
TV channel on June 20, Aliyev said that Kelbajar and most of Lachin
would be placed under Azerbaijani control five years after the Armenian
pullout from the other occupied lands surrounding Karabakh. However,
their failure to finalize the peace accord in Moscow might mean
that Yerevan insists on the referendum linkage. Mounting uproar from
Armenian nationalist groups opposed to any territorial concessions
to Azerbaijan preceded these talks.

One of these groups, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also
known as the Dashnak Party), organized a conference of like-minded
hard-line forces in the Karabakh capital Stepanakert on July 10-11
to warn the Yerevan government against signing up to the Madrid
principles (Yerkir-Media TV, July 11). Karabakh Armenian leaders also
attended the high-profile gathering, again exposing their reluctance to
embrace the proposed settlement. Even Armenia’s first President Levon
Ter-Petrosian, who was forced to resign in 1998 after advocating a
similar deal with Azerbaijan, is not averse to exploiting the issue in
his continuing standoff with the ruling regime. In a July 14 statement,
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress alliance cited "dangerous"
developments in the Karabakh peace process to again demand Sarksyan’s
resignation.

Sarksyan also has to reckon with Kocharian’s opinion. The latter
would hardly approve of Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan and,
despite keeping a very low profile, might wield more influence than
the Armenian opposition to undercut his successor and longtime
ally. Sarksyan, who is still reeling from the 2008 post-election
unrest in Yerevan, will thus need to tread a delicate line in the
months ahead.

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