Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gloom Over Karabakh Peace Process

Revelations about the latest peace deal leave the conflicting parties still far apart.
By Karine Ohanian
All sides remain pessimistic about the peace process in Nagorny Karabakh, despite a visit by the newly-appointed American negotiator to the region intended to breathe new life into negotiations.

Matthew Bryza – who was appointed as the United States co-chair of the OSCE’s Minsk Group on Karabakh in June – has visited Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan during the past week. He said little in public following his meetings, but some saw his trip as a sign Washington, at least, is determined to move the process along despite recent setbacks.

He arrived unaccompanied by his French and Russian co-chairs on the Minsk Group, a month after the three had delivered an unusually blunt report to the OSCE, which presides over negotiations on the Karabakh dispute, signalling that the current peace process had stalled.

The co-chairs said they had “reached the limits of our creativity” and put the onus on the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to carry the peace process forward.

“We remain ready to assist,” said the statement. “As mediators, however, we cannot make the difficult decisions for the parties. We think the parties would be well-served at this point by allowing their publics to engage in a robust discussion of the many viewpoints on these issues.”

Before arriving in the region, Bryza broke with precedent by giving an unusually frank interview to Radio Liberty in which he revealed details of a peace agreement that the two sides had been discussing over the past two years. The two presidents, Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian, rejected the deal in two meetings this year.

Under discussion has been a phased withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Azerbaijani territories around Nagorny Karabakh, a referendum on the status of Karabakh itself, and the deployment of a peacekeeping force.

In their report to the OSCE, the negotiators issued a stark warning of what was at stake if the process collapses and the deal is not accepted, “Ultimately, it is the two sides that will be held accountable by their peoples and by the international community if their actions lead to war and not peace.”

Many commentators said that these statements expressed a hitherto unseen level of exasperation from the trio.

“It is possible to see this new emphasis constitutes a form of pressure on the presidents,” Gerard Libaridian, Armenia’s negotiator on the Karabakh issue under former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, and now professor of history at the University of Michigan, told IWPR by email.

But Libaridian doubted that this pressure was having an effect. “It will require more than the discomfort these statements have caused these presidents for the latter to make the necessary concessions. The main energy is emanating from Mathew Bryza, it seems to me, who is not new to the process,” he said.

For their part, the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders are, as ever, striking very different positions in public.

The day before he met Bryza, Aliev told a cabinet meeting that he still adhered to the principles of a phased solution for the dispute. But he added that the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is not up for discussion, “not today, not tomorrow, never and under no circumstances.”

Akif Nagi, head of the radical pro-war Karabakh Liberation Organisation, struck a more aggressive note, saying Azerbaijan should now cease contact with the Minsk Group. “The main aim of Matthew Bryza’s visit to Azerbaijan is an attempt to force a peace deal on us which really does not meet our interests,” he said.

There has been anxiety in Azerbaijan about the idea of a referendum on the status of Nagorny Karabakh. But Mubariz Ahmedoglu, director of the Centre for Political Technologies and Innovations, told IWPR that Azerbaijanis should take heart from the fact that “the co-chairmen are not saying that it ought to take place only on the territory of Nagorny Karabakh” – a process that would almost certainly lead to the Armenian-majority population of Karabakh voting to secede from Azerbaijan.

Earlier, during Bryza’s visit to Armenia, foreign minister Vardan Oskanian put the blame on Baku for the breakdown of the peace process, saying Armenia had agreed to the two-and-a-half page document under discussion and that it should still be the basis for talks.

“This is not an ideal document, but if Azerbaijan agrees to the arguments advanced in it, then I think that on this basis we can move towards settling the issue and trying to convince our people, which at the current time is the only way of settling the issue,” Oskanian told IWPR

Other Armenians say that the process is flawed because the Armenians of Karabakh, the disputed territory itself, are not participating directly, as the government in Baku insists on negotiating only with the government in Yerevan.

“There will be no progress until the unrecognised but legitimate authorities of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic take part in the talks as a full member,” Aram Sarkisian, leader of the opposition Democratic Party told IWPR. “The Armenian side represented by Robert Kocharian does not have the right to sign any agreement.”

Bryza heard these arguments from Karabakh Armenian officials when he visited the territory last week.

After meeting Bryza, Karabakh’s foreign minister Giorgy Petrosian also expressed doubts about the latest plan. He said, “The proposals made by the co-chairs foresee as a first stage, compromises being made by the Nagorny Karabakh Republic, which could have serious negative implications for the security of the republic and its population, as they do not contain sufficient guarantees that military action would not resume in the conflict zone.”

Libaridian identified five obstacles blocking progress to a final peace settlement, more than 12 years after the conflict was halted by a ceasefire.

First, he said, domestic concerns of both leaders have led to a “deficit in political capital” which leaves both presidents having to accept compromises and sell them to their peoples. Second, there was a belief on both sides that time is on their side that hardened positions. Third, he argued, the absence of the Karabakh Armenians from the negotiating table “has resulted in the inability of the mediators to explore fully some of the available options”.

For Libaridian, the fourth problem is one of accountability, “The parties to the conflict have devised elaborate escape mechanisms to derail the process every time it reaches a critical point, without any perceived risk.”

Finally, he said, the mediators did not “share a common vision for the region” and their different interests were “pulling in opposite directions” and undermining the conditions whereby the conflict could be solved.

Elshad Guliev is a freelance journalist in Baku and Karine Ohanian is a freelance journalist in Nagorny Karabakh. Tatul Hakobian works for Public Radio in Armenia. Shahin Rzayev in Baku and Thomas de Waal in London contributed to this report.

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