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Karabakh Peace Process Unravelling

Last chance for two presidents to agree to framework document before February.
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As the year 2007 slips away, hope is fading for a framework agreement on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and there are fears that the peace process may collapse altogether next year.



The deadlock coincides with the suspension of ceasefire monitoring along the long line of trenches that divides Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around Karabakh, and increased warnings that the dispute– in which fighting was halted in 1994 – might once again lead to open conflict.



When the OSCE met in Madrid last week, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Vardan Oskanian and Elmar Mammedyarov, held talks with leading officials from the three countries that co-chair the “Minsk Group” which oversees negotiations.



Their meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and United States Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, was widely perceived as a last chance to agree compromises on a two-or three-page document called “Basic Principles”, which could then be signed by the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan setting out the fundamental ideas they have worked on over the last three years.



But with no agreement in sight and presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008, time is running out, leaving the bleak prospect that the peace process will die next year.



US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza, who is one of the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group, told IWPR in answers to written questions that he and his two colleagues planned to travel to the region in mid-January to try to bridge final differences between the parties.



“The co-chairs hope the two presidents will reach an oral agreement on this document prior to Armenian presidential elections in February,” said Bryza.



“The current set of ideas on the table provides the only logical and practicable way to advance toward a peaceful settlement of the conflict.”



The hope is that both sides in the dispute are playing brinkmanship, and will ultimately agree to a deal. There are concerns, though, that if they fail to do so, it will be hard to recover any momentum for negotiations next year.



“Both sides seem to acknowledge that abandoning the negotiations, even for a short period, could have dangerous consequences,” said Bryza. “When each president recognises he and his counterpart have driven the quest for concessions to the limit, both presidents will face a crucial choice - agree on the fair compromise on the table, or start from scratch and risk devolution toward possible armed conflict.”



Many believe that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan are too cautious to sign up to a document that would be labelled at home as compromise with the enemy.



“Putting a signature on a framework document puts the presidents in terra incognita,” said one international official who follows the negotiations, and who asked not to be named.



At the same time the situation on the 200-kilometre-long ceasefire line that divides the two parties is unusually precarious. The “line of contact”, as it is known, has no international peacekeepers along it, and is monitored only by roving OSCE ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk and five field assistants.



Around 30 soldiers have lost their lives in incidents on the line so far this year.



Owing to a diplomatic dispute between the OSCE, Baku and the unrecognised Nagorny Karabakh Republic, all ceasefire monitoring is currently suspended.



The latest phase of negotiations, called the Prague Process, began with a meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers in the Czech capital in April 2004. The two presidents became more heavily involved the following year.



Under discussion has been a phased plan in which Armenian forces would withdraw from the Azerbaijani lands they currently occupy outside Nagorny Karabakh. The most sensitive issue, the status of Karabakh itself, would be deferred, with the territory gaining some kind of interim international status.



More difficult points – including how the Karabakh’s status should eventually be decided, and the nature and composition of security forces in the territory – are not addressed by the framework document, which is intended as a first step.



Even discussions on the Basic Principles have turned into a marathon, with the principal sticking point reported to be the status of Lachin, the Azerbaijani territory through which the road connecting Nagorny Karabakh and Armenia runs. The Armenians are reluctant to cede a strip of land that they say is a strategic corridor.



Both sides say they have red lines they do not wish to cross.



In written comments to IWPR, Azerbaijani foreign minister Mammadyarov said, “Azerbaijan has clearly defined and presented its position, with options and limits and we hope that the Armenian side will realistically assess the ongoing processes in the world and in the region, and will withdraw her troops from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”



Armenian foreign minister Oskanian stressed his side’s concerns, telling IWPR, “Of course security is the number one issue. Security concerns are what gave rise to the [Karabakh Armenian] self-determination movement in the first place. Security will depend on how strongly the status of Nagorny Karabakh and the status of Lachin as a corridor are codified in the agreement.”



The enduring deep distrust between the two parties remains a fundamental obstacle.



Over the last year, officials from Azerbaijan, which is growing in confidence both economically and diplomatically, have said frequently that their “patience is running out” and they are considering the military option.



On October 30, President Ilham Aliev said, “We should be ready to liberate the occupied territories by military means at any moment.”



Aliev has said that his oil-rich country’s fast-growing defence budget, which now stands at more than one billion dollars, should increase to a point where it exceeds Armenia’s entire annual budget.



On November 27, speaking at a meeting of defence chiefs from post-Soviet states, Azerbaijani defence minister Safar Abiev said, "As long as Azerbaijani territory is occupied by Armenia, the chance of war is close to 100 per cent."



This kind of talk has provoked an angry response from the Armenians.



“The Armenian concerns are not about the agreement, on which there is more on which we agree than disagree,” said Foreign Minister Oskanian. “The Armenian concerns are about what is going on in parallel - militaristic calls from Azerbaijan, increased levels of hate propaganda within Azerbaijan, and aggressive efforts to derail the talks.”



Asked to comment on this, Mammadyarov said, “Azerbaijan is very much in favour of a peaceful resolution of the conflict and we will use all and every opportunity not to engage in violence. But the Azerbaijani public’s patience is running out, and given our good economic performance, there are more and more calls on the government of Azerbaijan to restore the territorial integrity of the country.”



Most independent experts say war is not immediately imminent, but the risk is growing as the sides remain intransigent and Azerbaijan’s oil revenues move towards a peak.



“There is a real and increasing danger of conflict in the coming years," said Magdalena Frichova of the International Crisis Group, which recently released a report entitled Risking War. "By about 2012 - after which Azerbaijan's oil revenue is expected to decline - a military adventure may be a good way for Baku to distract citizens from economic disappointment and government failures.”



Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, said no breakthrough is to be expected, because there is not sufficient political will in either country to cut a deal.



“The death of the Prague Process was imminent from the day it was born,” said Iskandarian. “Its birth came as an attempt to revive the Minsk process, which had been dead from about 2001 or even earlier. Why it died is obvious to me - resistance from inside these societies to resolution efforts is stronger than the pressure from outside.”



“I don't think the Prague Process will die a legal death, as it does not bother anyone very much, but it won't solve the conflict. The conflict will be solved when the parties in conflict want it, not the mediators. At the moment, the parties have no such will.”



Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor.

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