Karabakh: One last push?

Time is running out for a breakthrough in protracted negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh.

Karabakh: One last push?

Time is running out for a breakthrough in protracted negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan look as though they have one more chance to salvage something from their three-year-long negotiations over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh, before imminent election campaigns in both countries throw the peace process off track.

Two new presidential envoys -Araz Azimov from Azerbaijan and Tatul Markarian from Armenia - have been appointed to talk over details and quicken the tempo of peace negotiations in between the top-level meetings held by the President Heidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and President Robert Kocharian of Armenia. The two envoys are scheduled to meet for talks in Prague on May 12, to lay the groundwork for a make or break presidential meeting in Moldova at the end of May.

These talks will try to rescue what negotiators say was a framework deal almost brokered one year ago. "We are still working on the framework of Key West and Paris," Philippe de Suremain, the French co-chair of the mediation effort, the Minsk Group, said by telephone, referring to three landmark meetings on Karabakh convened by the United States, Russia and France in 2001.

"That is the will of the two presidents, who want to see us go further, even if they do not have the capacity to come to an agreement at present."

The fate of the mountainous region of Nagorny Karabakh, fought over by the two nations between 1988 and 1994, remains the single most important issue for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Success in peace negotiations would bring new prosperity to the region and allow hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees to return to their homes in regions currently held by the Armenians.

Failure risks freezing the problem for several more years and, potentially, a resumption of the conflict.

Yet uppermost in the minds of both presidents appears to be a third possible scenario, in which they sign up to an agreement, only to see it - and themselves - thrown out by public anger for making too many compromises.

The fear of a popular backlash seems to have been what derailed efforts at reaching a resolution made last year. Officials close to the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that in Paris and Key West President Aliev indicated he was prepared to make considerable concessions on the thorniest issue in the talks, that of the status of the disputed province of Nagorny Karabakh itself.

The deal under discussion envisaged Aliev agreeing to Karabakh being politically linked to Armenia, rather than Azerbaijan. As a reward, he was promised the return of Azerbaijani territories around the entity, currently occupied by Armenian forces; the return of the Azerbaijani population to the town of Shusha inside Karabakh itself; and a land link from Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhichevan across Armenia. The land link was to be guarded by international monitors.

However, nothing was written down on paper. Furthermore, the sources say, when Aliev returned to Baku after the Key West meeting and consulted widely with his officials, he was told that Azerbaijan would never accept the framework deal.

Azerbaijani officials blame Armenia for the lack of progress since Key West and in public officials continue to say that any final peace deal has to be based on their country's territorial integrity and the right of all refugees to go home. Speaking on March 21, in a traditional address marking the Novruz New Year ceremonies, President Aliev told his people that "occupied Azerbaijani lands will be liberated, Azerbaijan's state independence will be restored, and our fellow citizens, refugees, will return to their permanent places of residence."

The mood around the talks is much gloomier than a year ago. Speaking in Stepanakert last week, the elected Armenia leader of the breakaway region cast doubt on whether the May meetings will yield anything.

"It seems to me things are getting worse," Arkady Gukasian told IWPR on April 15. "Heidar Aliev is a politician who can no longer solve this problem. I think the international mediators see that. They had hopes with regard to Heidar Aliev, which have not been justified."

The approval of the Karabakh Armenians for an agreement is crucial in that Armenia says it will not cut any deal over the disputed region without their approval. At the same time, Baku refuses to talk directly to the entity's Armenian government. This continues to be a point of bitterness for the Stepanakert authorities.

"I can say plainly that I don't see any desire on the part of Azerbaijan to resolve the problem," Gukasian said. "I don't see any progress from this country, if from the very beginning it does not want to talk to Nagorny Karabakh."

The territory is due to hold presidential elections this August. Gukasian said he would probably run for re-election and all local observers expect him to do so. It will be the first in a series of polls that will interrupt the peace process. Armenia faces presidential elections next spring and Azerbaijan goes to the polls next autumn. Both Kocharian and Aliev have said they intend to stand again and both are unlikely to risk the domestic political consequences of making public compromises over Karabakh as they campaign for re-election.

"If something happens in the next few months, we might accomplish something," Armenian foreign minister Vartan Oskanian told IWPR on April 17. "If not, then the election campaigns will begin in Armenia and Azerbaijan and everything will become so politicised that everything might have to be shelved."

Both leaders are also weaker than they were a year ago. There is concern over the state of health of the 78-year-old Azerbaijani president, who underwent prostate surgery earlier this year and has a history of heart trouble. Should he step down or die, it is likely to take some time before the next Azerbaijani leader acquires his political authority.

The Armenian president, although physically healthy, is politically insecure. "Kocharian operates through applying about ten political fixes to his problems, but he has no political base and no philosophy," commented a western diplomat in Yerevan. "Given that, it's hard to see how he can solve a problem as big as Karabakh."

The international mediators, however, insist that the two sides are still, in fact, quite close to a deal - although time is running short. "No one wants to forget what has been done," said Philippe de Suremain. "Both sides don't want to see a break in negotiations. If there is real political will, it can be done. We are not so far from a result."

Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor.

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