High Hopes Fade as Karabakh Talks Fail

Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders can't agree how they would begin ending long-running dispute.

High Hopes Fade as Karabakh Talks Fail

Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders can't agree how they would begin ending long-running dispute.

Last week, hopes of progress in the long-running Karabakh peace talks reached their highest point in years, but Azerbaijanis turning on their televisions the morning after the high-level talks would have guessed the outcome was disappointment even before it was announced.

The first news item showed President Ilham Aliyev meeting the leader of Tatarstan, the Russian region where the summit took place, then visiting a factory, meeting local students and inspecting sports facilities.

If Aliyev’s talks with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan, at a meeting hosted by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, had resulted in real progress towards an end to the two-decade-old conflict, the news would not sat that far down the running-order.

It was only item five on the TV news that mentioned that Aliyev had met the Russian and Armenian presidents and that they had adopted a joint statement noting their “common understanding on a range of issues”.

World powers had high hopes for the June 24 summit, but a US State Department spokeswoman called the results “disappointing”. A Russian diplomatic source told the Kommersant newspaper that President Medvedev would now only act as mediator if the two countries were sure to achieve progress.

In 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire to halt the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, leaving Armenians in control of Karabakh and hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides refugees, forced from their homes by the war. Nagorny Karabakh has declared independence from Azerbaijan, although that status has not been recognised internationally.

Intermittent meetings between Armenia and Azerbaijan –chaired jointly by Russia, France and the United States – have achieved little in the 17 years since the war ended. The three mediating states invested months of intensive diplomacy into the June summit in Kazan.

A statement issued by the three co-chairs in May spoke of “significant progress”, and urged the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders to finalise the “Basic Principles”, a document designed to set out an agreed path towards resolving the dispute.

The latest version of that agreement, the statement said, “provides a way for all sides to move beyond the unacceptable status quo”.

These hopes proved over-optimistic, and Kommersant’s source said the problem was not so much about the issues on which the Armenians and Azerbaijanis disagreed, but that they kept changing their negotiating positions.

“And you can’t do that,” the source said.

Azerbaijan has consistently refused to negotiate directly with Nagorny Karabakh as a separate entity.

Officials in Karabakh said the failure of the Kazan summit showed that it was time they were included in the talks process.

“I think that in Kazan, everyone understood that it isn’t effective to conduct negotiations without the Nagorny Karabakh Republic participating. It’s a pointless waste of time,” David Babayan, spokesman for the Karabakh president, said. “Show me one conflict where one side says it won’t enter into talks with the other but at the same time wants to achieve results through negotiations.”

In Azerbaijan, the post-summit mood did not point towards a readiness to make concessions.

On June 26 – two days after the summit – the country held the largest military parade since 1991, marking the 20th anniversary of its post-independence army. As around 6,000 soldiers and 400 military vehicles made their way through central Baku, President Aliyev used uncompromising language.

“We are living in conditions of war. The war has not ended, just its first stage,” he said. “A country living in conditions of war must pay attention above all to building its army. Defence spending has first place in Azerbaijan’s state budget, and that will be the case until all our lands are liberated from occupation.”

After the parade in Baku, Armenia’s deputy defence minister David Tonoyan mocked suggestions that Azerbaijan might use force. “It’s largely politics, since our neighbour recognises its real capabilities. It’s no accident that Azerbaijan has been buying mainly defensive weapons,” he told Radio Liberty.

For ordinary Azerbaijanis and Armenians who lost their homes because of the conflict, the failure of the talks means their chances of seeing a peace deal and perhaps going back home are as distant as ever.

Sabir Rustamov, an Azerbaijani originally from the village of Malibeyli in Karabakh, shook his head with disappointment.

“I did so hope they’d agree on something, and then I’d be at least able to see my home village. It looks like I’ll have to die on someone else’s land,” he said.

There was not much optimism in Yerevan, either.

“Signing some document isn’t the important part, anyway,” said Rima Sargsyan, an Armenian who fled her home in Baku at the end of the 1980s. “It’s much harder to restore trust between people. Let’s say they do sign some piece of paper – what Azeri is going to come to live in Armenia? And what Armenian would move to Baku? After what I saw 20 years ago, how I take my children and move to Azerbaijan?”

Even if no resolution is in sight, Arif Yunusov, a political analyst and Karabakh expert with the Institute for Peace and Democracy in Azerbaijan, does not expect a return to conflict.

“You can’t rule out small clashes on the front line, [and] now we can anticipate an increase in the propaganda war,” he said.

Yunusov said Azerbaijan needed to start direct negotiations with Armenian leaders in Karabakh if it wanted to resolve the conflict.

“The most important thing for the Karabakh Armenians is that they are taken notice of. There’s never been any guarantee that if Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to something, Karabakh would support it.”

Armen Poghosyan is a freelance reporter in Armenia. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR country director in Azerbaijan.

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