Armenia, Azerbaijan Clash Over OSCE Mediation

Azerbaijanis hint they want change to the way the negotiations over Nagorny Karabakh are managed.

Armenia, Azerbaijan Clash Over OSCE Mediation

Azerbaijanis hint they want change to the way the negotiations over Nagorny Karabakh are managed.

The peace process over Nagorny Karabakh is in danger of unravelling, as Azerbaijanis cast doubt over the usefulness of the way the negotiations have been conducted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Since 1997, the talks have been mediated by the American, French and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE’s “Minsk Group.” At the end of last year, the Minsk Group tried to persuade the two sides to accept a statement of basic principles, as a first step towards breaking the deadlock over Nagorny Karabakh’s future - but no agreement was reached.

There is now a widespread perception that the peace process is exhausted.

On March 12, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the OSCE sent secretary general Marc Perrin de Brichambaut a letter asking him to “clarify existing or possible procedures” for replacing or terminating the Minsk Group co-chairmanship.

Two days later, the United Nations General Assembly passed an Azerbaijan-sponsored resolution, which expressed support for the Minsk Group, but whose first two points reaffirmed Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity – taken to include Armenian-held Nagorny Karabakh – and demanded “the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all the occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan”.

Most countries abstained, but 39 voted in favour, including Georgia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Among the seven countries that voted against the resolution were the three main mediating states - France, Russia and the United States – which said the document reflected only the Azerbaijani position in the dispute.

On March 19 the three current co-chairmen of the Minsk Group – Russia’s Yury Merzlyakov, Bernard Fassier of France and Matt Bryza from the US administration – issued a statement reaffirming their support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,“while holding that the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter of negotiations between the parties”.

Zeyno Baran of the Hudson Institute in Washington told the Mediamax news agency in Yerevan that the UN resolution came in response to Azerbaijani concerns about Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence from Serbia.

“Baku seems to worry that Kosovo will be used as a precedent,” she said. “Azerbaijanis have seen how strongly the US has supported Georgia's territorial integrity, yet has been more ambivalent on Azerbaijan's. Of course, given that the US is a co-chair of the Minsk Group and must therefore remain an honest broker, the US government could not really take a different position on Karabakh. Unfortunately, for the ordinary Azeri this is a distinction that is difficult to understand or accept.”

Armenian officials angrily accused Azerbaijan of undermining the negotiation process. Foreign ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan also criticised Baku for not agreeing to a meeting between President Ilham Aliev and Armenian president-elect Serzh Sarkisian at the current NATO summit in Bucharest.

“This shows once again that the statements and steps made by Azerbaijani officials have nothing in common with their promises to continue the peace process,” said Balayan.

In response, Azerbaijani deputy foreign minister Araz Azimov told journalists that his country was not shunning the current negotiating framework. He said that an affirmation of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan lies at the heart of the so-called Prague Process, which has been the basis of negotiations over the past three years.

“If that hadn’t been the case, Baku would have rejected these negotiations,” he said. “It says in these proposals that Nagorny Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan and that Azerbaijanis and Armenians receive the right to live on this territory. It is unacceptable to introduce any changes and conjectures into this formula. Azerbaijan will not permit the loss of part of its territory, and will guarantee its territorial integrity by any means.”

Outside government, a fierce debate has begun in Azerbaijan about whether the Minsk Group should now be changed.

A well-known pro-government member of parliament, Anar Mamedkhanov, wrote an article entitled, “Shouldn’t we tell the Minsk Group to…?” in which he recommended that his Azerbaijan give up on the current mediators.

Political analyst Ilgar Mamedov argued that it was time for Azerbaijan to challenge the format of the Minsk Group co-chairmanship.

“The procedure for changing the co-chairmen is straightforward,” Mamedov told IWPR. “You put a blank piece of paper with the president’s letterhead into the printer. You type a text on your computer rejecting the services of the mediators, you sign it and you send it to the presidents of the co-chairmanship countries. That’s it.”

“Otherwise we will soon be doubting whom Karabakh actually belongs to – Azerbaijan or the co-chairmen.”

Orkhan Fikretoglu, a writer and commentator with the ANS television channel, told IWPR, “It’s not worth waiting for any serious actions from the co-chairs of the Minsk Group either now or in the near future. The mediators in the negotiations ought to be countries that have no interests in the region - for example, certain Muslim countries or neutral European ones like Switzerland, Norway or Sweden. These countries don’t need our oil or our lands.”

By contrast, the Armenians basically supports the current US-Russian-French arrangement. In 2006, President Robert Kocharian told Armenian television, “The mediators are doing the maximum possible within the framework of their mandate. From time to time, I ask myself what I would do in their place and I find it hard to answer.”

On March 20 this year, Kocharian – whose successor Sarkisian was voted in last month - told a press conference in Yerevan that he wanted to see the negotiations continue in their current form.

He then issued a warning that “if Azerbaijan continues with its unconstructive steps, Armenia will recognise the independence of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic, and will sign a collective defence treaty with it”.

This threat has been hinted at before, but never acted on.

The “Nagorny Karabakh Republic” unilaterally declared itself independent from Azerbaijan in1991. However, Yerevan has never formally recognised the breakaway territory as a sovereign state, nor has it moved to annex it.

In practical terms, Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh are now closely integrated with each other.

Last August, the opposition Heritage Party led by former Armenian foreign minister Raffi Hovannissian submitted a bill to parliament calling on Armenia to recognise the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. The bill did not come to a vote.

Hrair Karapetian, who heads the parliamentary faction of the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party, told IWPR, “We continue to call for the unification of Nagorny Karabakh and Armenia, which has de facto already taken place.”

He went on to add the proviso that “legal recognition of this reality will be possible only if further negotiations on resolving the Karabakh problem prove impossible.”

Armenia’s national budget consistently earmarks a credit line for Nagorny Karabakh.

In the view of Tigran Torosian, the speaker of Armenia’s parliament, “By approving the state budget every year, the parliament of Armenia recognises the independence of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic.”

US co-chairman Bryza warned that if Armenia moved towards formal recognition of Nagorny Karabakh, this would represent a “highly asymmetric response” to Azerbaijan’s actions.

“Any move that prejudges the outcome of the negotiations that are under way, and that are achieving some real results in terms of moving closer to finalising the basic principles, would be unhelpful,” Bryza told the Armenian Report newspaper in the United States. “And we looked at the UN GA [General Assembly] resolution of Azerbaijan in that very light - that it was a one-sided resolution that did not reflect the fair and balanced nature of the proposal on the table.”

He added, “Similarly, if the Armenian side were to move unilaterally and prejudge the outcome of the negotiations by recognising Nagorno Karabakh, that would be something that is very seriously undermining the peace process.”

Arif Yunus, a veteran specialist on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, based in Baku, said the current negotiations were certainly not working, but for a different reason - they were failing to engage with the public on either side of the conflict.

“We absolutely do have to pose the question of changing the format of the Minsk Group,” said Yunus. “The co-chairmen have just turned into people who turn up at the negotiations. However, the problems of Nagorny Karabakh depend not on the co-chairmen, but on the Azerbaijani and Armenian peoples.”

Zarema Velikhanova is a freelance journalist in Baku. Ara Tadevosian is director of Mediamax news agency in Yerevan.

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