By Emil Danielyan
Things looked too good to be true as a team of international mediators summed up results of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks in Florida last April. With the conflicting parties said to be at last close to a deal after years of deadlock, never before had expectations of an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict run so high.
But the unusually upbeat mood gave way to renewed uncertainty and even pessimism when senior French, Russian and US negotiators spearheading the international peace effort cancelled the next, possibly decisive round of negotiations. The meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, due in Geneva in mid-June, was put off indefinitely, ostensibly to give the two leaders more time to drum up domestic support for a compromise solution.
But officials in Baku and Yerevan now say that the omens are not really bad, while the mediators assure that a Karabakh settlement remains on the cards, insisting that the postponement of the Geneva summit does not mean that recent months’ progress has been rolled back.
“There is no reason to believe that we won’t get an agreement this year,” said one Western diplomat in Yerevan, adding that direct talks between Presidents Robert Kocharian and Heydar Aliev will resume “in the near future.”
Carey Cavanaugh, the chief US negotiator who was particularly optimistic about peace prospects in the wake of the Florida talks, declared earlier this month that the peace process is indeed “getting closer to the end.” “It is a mistake to expect that this is a perfectly smooth process. It continues to accelerate, and accelerate to the very end," Cavanaugh told Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists in a televised interview from Washington.
His French counterpart, Philippe de Suremain, likewise told RFE/RL on May 28 that the parties and the mediating troika are now busy “polishing” details of the Karabakh peace accord. And Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on Wednesday that the process is “still alive,” urging the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group to remove “complications” that led to the postponement of the Geneva meeting.
Those complications apparently emerged during the co-chairs’ regular tour of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh last month. Yet precisely what went wrong is unclear. Some Armenian officials have claimed privately that Aliev unexpectedly backtracked on agreements reached with Kocharian in Paris last March and in the Florida island of Key West a month later. However, Yerevan has avoided directly blaming Baku, saying only that the slowdown was not caused by the Armenian side.
Azerbaijani officials, for their part, have said the last-minute glitch resulted from a "non-constructive" Armenian stance. As for the mediators, they are anxious not to blame either of the parties.
A Western diplomat familiar with the negotiating process told RFE/RL that Aliev and Kocharian were simply given more time “to do their homework” of selling an impending Karabakh accord to their suspicious publics. After returning home from Key West “both of them became a bit concerned that publics in both countries are not prepared for a mutually acceptable compromise agreement. The publics needed a bit more time to digest and understand what that would mean,” the diplomat said.
The Karabakh issue is heavily exploited by the more hard-line opponents of Aliev and Kocharian. Both leaders will be vulnerable to opposition attack if they press ahead with major concessions.
That a framework agreement on resolving the Karabakh dispute was reached at their Paris meeting mediated by French President Jacques Chirac is almost certain. A source close to the mediators said the so-called “Paris principles” will form the “basis” of a new peace plan the Minsk Group has been working on. Their content is being kept strictly confidential.
But in the words of Oskanian, the Paris principles are in line with the three key points of the Armenian position on the issue: Karabakh’s “non-subordination” to Azerbaijan, a land corridor linking the disputed enclave to Armenia, and firm international guarantees for its status. This boils down to placing Azerbaijan and Karabakh under a loose Bosnia-type confederation.
It is understood that Baku would in return be guaranteed unfettered communication with its Nakhichevan exclave via Armenia’s Meghri district. Whether or not that would require Yerevan to give up some of its sovereignty over the strategic area is not yet clear. The issue is highly sensitive and hotly debated in Armenia, with the opposition warning Kocharian against any concessions on Meghri.
For the moment, Armenian leaders are sanguine about what they think they will be offered by the mediators. According to Oskanian, the two presidents have built a “really good basis” after 17 face-to-face meetings in just over two years.
Meanwhile, sources say the American, French and Russian co-chairs will decide “over the next several weeks” on their further steps. Whether their declared objective to eliminate the main factor of instability in the south Caucasus this year is realistic will become clear shortly afterwards.