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Karabakh Talks Sabotaged by War of Words

Talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh have descended into mutual accusations of sabotage and ill-will
By Mark Grigorian

Just a few months ago international mediators involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute were optimistic that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan were close to reaching agreement on the region's status.


Now, the intermediary body dealing with the affair - the OSCE's Minsk Group - is threatening to withhold promised aid to both countries if they do not resolve their differences.


Talks have dragged on for seven years over the Azeri enclave which is now populated solely by ethnic Armenians. The region was torn apart by a war of secession in the early Nineties which resulted in 30,000 deaths and over a million refugees.


Despite significant progress, negotiations between Azeri president Heidar Aliev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian began to descend into mutual accusations of sabotage and ill-will in the spring of last year.


This irritated the Minsk Group which felt the respective presidents were bending to pressures from nationalists and laying unfair blame on the international mediators for the failure of the talks.


"If the process of Karabakh settlement drags on, Armenia and Azerbaijan will not get aid for restoration of the region," said the OSCE's Minsk Group chairman Rudolf Perina on January 16.


Commentators who have followed the protracted talks are asking why, when a deal seemed so close to being struck early last year, everything started to fall apart?


The first real indication that things were not going smoothly was the cancellation of a summit meeting slated for the end of November last year. It was expected that Kocharian and Aliev would use it to resolve issues left over from the Key West talks held in Florida seven months earlier.


That meeting was mediated by the Minsk Group which had overseen negotiations since a Karabakh ceasefire agreement took effect in 1994. The group, chaired by the USA, Russia and France, believed back then that they had reconciled major grievances.


However, many Armenians and Azeris were against some of the concessions their leaders seemed prepared to make.


The Armenians were unhappy about granting Azeris a corridor providing access to the Nakchivan region - an Azeri-populated region in eastern Armenia.


Some of the Azeris were unable to stomach the high level of autonomy the agreement envisaged for Nagorno- Karabakh. Hardliners in Baku insist it should be re-integrated into Azerbaijan.


The Minsk Group was essentially stymied as all other options for a peaceful resolution seemed to have been exhausted. "When the new American co-chairman of the Minsk group Rudolf Perina says that the sides should continue talks around the ideas which came out of the meetings in Paris and Key West, I understand that the group has no new ideas," said Yerevan-based analyst Gagik Avakian.


The lost momentum was compounded by the abandoned November summit.


At the same time, the political language from Baku became more and more bellicose.


Last November, Aliev himself said unless the Minsk Group pressured Armenia into accepting Azeri demands, he would have no choice other than to take Karabakh by force. This threat of armed intervention unleashed all manner of violent outbursts in the Azeri media and among influential lobbyists.


Besides anti-Armenian taunts, there has also been a crackdown on those opposition media and journalists who suggested that Aliev might share the blame for the stalled peace agreement. The rise in the number of attacks on journalists led to Council of Europe secretary-general, Walter Schwimmer, expressing his concerns over the country's press freedoms.


Schwimmer's reservations seemed to have been vindicated when the entire staff of the Baku-based daily Azadlik sought political asylum in the US.


Quite why Aliev has opted to endanger the peace talks with his provocative remarks is unclear although some suggest that he may be using the enclave issue to rally popular support.


The Armenian president has similarly been accused of manipulating the Karabakh talks to his own ends.


Kocharian came to power in 1998 largely as a result of his uncompromising stance on the disputed region. If he softened his stance on it, he would lose much of his support at home.


Several organisations have already criticised Kocharian for suggesting territorial concessions. They represent the feeling of many Armenians who refuse to contemplate the return of lands taken in the Karabakh conflict.


Mutual accusations over the enclave escalated in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks when both sides saw the chance to use the fear of terrorism to their respective advantages.


The World Congress of Azeris mounted a campaign against the people of Karabakh whom they called "aggressive separatists". Azeri papers started to publish claims that Armenians had helped Osama bin Laden and that Taleban fighters were hiding out in Karabakh.


The Armenians, for their part, accused Azeris of being involved in terrorist activities. The daily Golos Armenii suggested that Azerbaijan had been used by al-Qaeda as a base and that Bin Laden had personally commanded Afghan mujahedin during the Karabakh war.


Although tensions are still running high, there are hopes that the Minsk group might push forward a solution with the lure of international aid.. Besides, it seems to be the only body trusted by the negotiating teams.


Mark Grigorian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan


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