Talks Snarled on Interim Status

Moscow meeting leaves sides no closer and many questions unanswered.

Talks Snarled on Interim Status

Moscow meeting leaves sides no closer and many questions unanswered.

Monday, 27 July, 2009
Agreement on Nagorny Karabakh’s “interim status”, a precondition for an internationally-brokered peace process, is the current obstacle to progress in talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, participants said.

Under the six-part Madrid Principles supported by Russia, France and the United States – co-chairs of the Minsk Group of mediators - the self-declared state would have some kind of unresolved status until a referendum could be held to decide its long-term future.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Moscow just over a week ago but no breakthrough occurred, despite intense international pressure.

“We are currently discussing the separation of certain principles from the Madrid Principles, after which we must discuss the remaining principles. On this basis we must start the preparation of the final agreement,” Armenian president Serzh Sargsian told a European Union delegation on July 20, following his return from Russia.

“The main element is the question of the status of Nagorny Karabakh, which must be resolved through a legally binding expression of will. When we can give this question a precise definition, which cannot allow dual interpretations, I think the talks will continue more smoothly.”

The Karabakh conflict broke out in 1988 with clashes between Azeris and Armenians, who made up the majority of the population of Nagorny Karabakh but who were included within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. The territory declared independence unilaterally in 1991, triggering a conflict that ended with a ceasefire in 1994.

Since then the ceasefire has largely held, but there has been almost no progress on a final resolution of the conflict. Azerbaijan and Armenia lack diplomatic ties, while around a million Azeris and hundreds of thousands of Armenians remain displaced. Their return to their former homes is another one of the Madrid Principles, but no progress was made on that either.

“The Armenian troops must be removed from the occupied territories, and after that the question of the return of refugees to their lands can be raised,” said Elmar Mamedyarov, the Azerbaijani foreign minister, on his return to Baku, sparking an angry response from his counterpart in Yerevan.

“During the Moscow meeting, these questions (territory and refugees) were not even discussed,” said Edward Nalbandian, the Armenian foreign minister.

The issue is complicated by Turkey, which is engaged in a separate talks process with Armenia over opening its own border. Ankara has said its negotiations are linked to the progress of the talks over Karabakh, which may be driving Armenia towards a solution.

Meanwhile, the self-declared government of Nagorny Karabakh, whose independence has not been recognised by any country, objects that its authorities are not included in the peace negotiations and says that its status is not negotiable.

Bako Sahakian, the leader of Nagorny Karabakh, laid out his position on July 10 before the talks even started.

“Our position is clear and remains unchanged. The independence of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic is an established fact and is not under discussion,” he said.

“Without the agreement of the people of the NagornyKarabakh Republic it is impossible to come to any resolution. Artsakh (Karabakh in Armenian) is the major side in the talks, and yet today is not taking part in the negotiations process, and we have to restore this important principle.”

His statement was echoed by many other political figures and social groups in Karabakh, but the Azerbaijani negotiators said they could be included only after the other participants had resolved all the major principles on which the talks would be based.

According to political commentators, the two sides were discussing some kind of exchange involving giving Azerbaijan the five regions outside Nagorny Karabakh proper that Armenian forces either partially or entirely control, in exchange for Azerbaijan recognising the territory’s interim status, as laid out in the Madrid Principles.

But this was unlikely to meet approval in Karabakh either.

“The territory of Nagorny Karabakh cannot be an item to trade, and if we depart from our current situation and attempt to assess the exchange of real territory for the recognition of a virtual and interim status, then it is clear that such an exchange is far from adequate,” said Masis Mailian, the former foreign minister in the Karabakh government.

Former participants in the talks said the negotiations sound like they have stalled, since the issues being discussed were similar to those that have been discussed for the last decade or more.

“Whether they’re closer or not [it’s hard to say], but I can say it’s more complicated now that it’s ever been,” said Vardan Oskanian, former Armenian foreign minister and a veteran of the talks process.

“There appears to be urgency on the part of the co-chair countries to resolve this conflict. This can bring added pressure on the parties. That, together with the fact that in the minds of negotiators and the parties, there is the issue of the Turkish-Armenian border opening.

“This may make it difficult to reconcile differences and reach an agreement. Azerbaijan may convince itself that Armenians now need a solution more than they do, and they may simply raise the stakes and make a deal impossible.”

Tatul Hakobian is Yerevan correspondent for US newspaper The Armenian Reporter.
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