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Hopes Dashed at Karabakh Summit

Once again, Nagorny Karabakh’s final status seems to be the stumbling block as Armenian-Azerbaijani talks end in deadlock.
By Ashot Beglarian
Hopes of a breakthrough in the biggest problem plaguing the Caucasus, the long-running conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, have been dashed after two days of much-hyped talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan ended without result.

The two days of talks on February 10 and 11, hosted by French president Jacques Chirac at the medieval chateau of Rambouillet outside Paris, were the fifth and most important meeting between presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian in just over two years.

Before the negotiations began, United States negotiator Steve Mann said the meeting provided a “wonderful opportunity” to resolve the conflict. Many have pointed out that as there are no elections in either Azerbaijan or Armenia this year, it is a good time for both leaders to put their energies into resolving the Karabakh issue.

On day one, the talks lasted around four hours. Kocharian and Aliev first met face to face before they were joined by their foreign ministers, by Steve Mann, Bernard Fassier and Yury Merzlyakov the American and French and Russian co-chairmen, respectively, of the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, which mediates in the dispute, and by veteran roving OSCE ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk who monitors the conflict on the ground.

Before the meeting, President Chirac met Aliev and Kocharian separately at the Elysee Palace, and expressed hopes that the meeting would achieve results. The talks took place behind closed doors, with no reporters allowed near them, apart from a brief photo session by the two presidential photographers.

The following day, the two foreign ministers, Eldar Mamedyarov and Vardan Oskanian, opened negotiations before the presidents held another two hours of discussions. The plan was that if this meeting went well, a third round of talks would begin, this time with the participation of President Chirac. However this did not happen, and the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders left Paris shortly afterwards.

The presidents made no comment on the talks, while the Minsk Group chairmen issued a short communique saying that “despite intensive negotiations, the positions of the sides in the conflict on certain sensitive questions have not changed”.

The Regnum news agency quoted Azerbaijani foreign minister Mamedyarov on February 12 as saying that agreement had been reached on seven out of nine points. Foreign ministry spokesman Tahir Tagizade told IWPR that “if even one of these nine points remains unresolved at this stage, it means there will be no general agreement”.

The main sticking point, as ever, appears to be the status of Nagorny Karabakh itself. The dispute began in February 1988 when Karabakh was still part of Soviet Azerbaijan. After a war which ended with a ceasefire in 1994, Karabakh has been governed by an Armenian administration.

The Azerbaijanis say there can be no compromise on the territorial integrity of their state and insist that Karabakh must be part of it, while the Armenians who have had de facto control of Karabakh for more than a decade say it cannot be returned to Azerbaijani rule.

Sources close to the talks have told IWPR that the discussion has centred on a proposal for an initial withdrawal of Armenian forces from five of the seven territories they currently hold around Nagorny Karabakh itself. There would be a referendum on the future status of Karabakh, and subsequently the Armenians would withdraw from the last two of the seven regions: Lachin and Kelbajar, located between Karabakh and Armenia. International peacekeepers would be deployed in the territories, and a “road of peace” would be created leading from Azerbaijan through Karabakh, Lachin and Armenia, to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan – thus giving both sides free access to their ethnic kin.

However, the Karabakh Armenians have taken a tough line on the sequencing of any withdrawal from the occupied territories, insisting in particular that they be allowed to keep control of Kelbajar until the status issue is resolved.

Differences over the referendum are even more intractable. Azerbaijan has said that it will countenance the idea only if all Azerbaijanis can vote in the referendum, a condition which would guarantee that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. The Armenians want to see a referendum only for the population of Karabakh, which was three-quarters Armenian before the conflict. This would almost certainly formalise secession.

The Karabakh Armenians have played no formal role in the talks although they have called for direct contact with Baku. They have repeatedly said that they will not submit to Azerbaijani sovereignty. Arkady Gukasian, the de facto president of Nagorny Karabakh, said, “Without the participation of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic it is impossible to find a solution to the questions which directly concern it.”

Gukasian also struck a note of caution on the issue of peacekeepers saying, “I don’t think that one country or another can force us on this issue. Without our consent, no one can force us to accept peacekeepers.”

The Azerbaijani government still refuses to negotiate directly with the Karabakh Armenians, although its stance on this issue has softened recently. On the eve of the Paris talks, Azerbaijani foreign minister Mamedyarov told IWPR, “We do not rule out that at a future stage, we will conduct negotiations with representatives of the Karabakh Armenians as well.” Asked by IWPR, “Does that mean you will invite Gukasian to Baku?” Mamedyarov replied, “At the moment this is not on the agenda, but as for later on - we shall see.”

Political commentators on both sides say the Paris meeting proves once again how hard it is to bridge the gulf between the two sides.

“The balance of interests today is such that a peace settlement that is realistically possible does not suit any of the three sides,” Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan told IWPR. “So for a peace settlement to be achieved, the balance of forces has to change. That is something that won’t happen in a day, a month or a year.”

“Both Aliev and Kocharian are using this conflict to suppress democratic processes in their countries,” said political analyst Zardusht Alizade in Baku. “They are simply involved in a pretence of a peace process. The large number of mediators does not work in favour of a peace settlement. Each side is trying to preserve its own interests.”

Radical politicians on each side still reject the idea of any compromise on Karabakh.

“Azerbaijan should already start preparing for the liberation of the occupied territories, and because of its military potential it should reject the OSCE’s proposals which are oriented towards the complete loss of our territories,” said a statement by the Karabakh Liberation Organisation, an Azerbaijani group which wants a military offensive to recapture the region.

“We won a war that was forced upon us, but for some reason we have taken up a deeply defensive position,” said Vitaly Balasanian, an Armenian major-general who fought in the war and is now a member of the Karabakh parliament for the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party. “We need to make a [political] counter-offensive in all directions – it’s the Azerbaijanis who should be defending themselves.”

The mediators insist that the peace process is still alive despite the setback in Paris. The two foreign ministers have been given the task of continuing the negotiations, and discussions are already under way on a meeting between the two presidents which would talk place in Washington this March.

Ara Tadevosian is director of Mediamax news agency in Yerevan. Marina Karapetyan is a freelance journalist in Yerevan. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s country director in Azerbaijan. Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist in Nagorny Karabakh. Thomas de Waal is IWPR Caucasus Editor.

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