By Emil Danielyan
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan ended on Wednesday yet another bilateral meeting on an optimistic note, but left no indication that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh will be settled before next year's presidential elections in their countries.
Heydar Aliev and Robert Kocharian are no strangers, having met with each other more than with any other foreign leader in recent years. The leaders of the two warring nations smiled and shook hands after four hours of talks held at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, their first face-to-face contact since last November. Yet there was nothing in their words that could give commentators reason to expect a peace deal on Karabakh before presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan, scheduled for February and October 2003 respectively.
Both incumbent presidents will be seeking reelection and facing challengers opposed to major concessions on the issue. The latter's tough stand on the Karabakh conflict still strikes a chord with large parts of Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Aliev and Kocharian will thus be vulnerable to attack if they agree on, let alone implement, any compromise peace formula.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev acknowledged this reality on Wednesday when he told Armenian journalists: "The conflict's resolution requires certain concessions from both sides. But it is difficult to make any concessions before the presidential elections."
While little appears to threaten the 79-year-old Azerbaijani leader's tight grip on power except his ailing health, his Armenian counterpart's reelection is by no means a forgone conclusion. Confronting Kocharian will be a pool of opposition candidates who are quick to exploit the Karabakh problem for political aims. Only one of his potentially serious challengers, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, favors a softer line on the issue.
If there was any real chance for ending the 14-year dispute before 2004, it was lost last year when the two sides were as close to signing a peace accord as ever. According to French, Russian and U.S. negotiators sponsoring the peace process, Aliev and Kocharian hammered out the key points of a Karabakh peace deal in April 2001, during an intensive round of negotiations on the Florida island of Key West.
The peace conference was preceded by two separate Aliev-Kocharian meetings in Paris mediated by French President Jacques Chirac. The two presidents reportedly agreed on the main principles of the final agreement in the French capital. The Armenian side claims that the tentative agreement would have upheld Karabakh's de facto independence by incorporating the enclave and Azerbaijan into a loose Bosnia-type confederation. That document was widely expected to be signed by the parties in Geneva in June 2001. However, the summit was abruptly cancelled for unknown reasons. Official Yerevan and the Karabakh Armenians later accused Aliev of reneging on the Paris and Key West agreements, saying that Baku demanded additional Armenian concessions shortly after the Florida talks.
The Azerbaijani leadership denied the existence of such agreements and blamed the Armenians for the deadlock. But last June, Aliev admitted that "a number of agreements" had been reached at Paris. However, he claimed that it was Kocharian who subsequently scrapped them -- a charge angrily rebutted by Yerevan.
Foreign Minister Guliev, meanwhile, continues to contradict Aliev by insisting that there are no "Paris principles" of a peaceful settlement. The Armenians, for their part, say that a return to those principles is the only way of reviving the peace process.
Whether Aliev and Kocharian discussed this on Wednesday is not known as none of about 70 reporters covering the summit was allowed to ask them questions.
The leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) had already voiced skepticism about their long-awaited meeting, with the NKR president, Arkady Ghukasian, saying that he has lost faith in Aliev. "I think that Aliev is no longer capable of adopting a constructive position and fostering the conflict's settlement," Ghukasian said in Stepanakert on Sunday as he got reelected for a second five-year term. "I think that Aliev has exhausted himself. Unfortunately, the hopes which we pinned on him, thinking that he is the most constructive Azerbaijani politicians, are not proving justified."
Even assuming that the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents reached a full understanding on the main stumbling blocks, they lack the time, and perhaps incentives, to start implementing a truce before the end of this year. No wonder that they did not set specific dates for more direct negotiations.
One possible way to move forward is to begin normalizing bilateral relations before addressing Karabakh-related problems. AFP quoted a pro-presidential Azerbaijani lawmaker, Anar Mamedkhanov, as saying this week that Baku and Yerevan are now considering reopening rail links between the two neighboring countries. Azerbaijan has until now ruled out any commercial contacts with Armenia before the return of its Armenian-occupied lands surrounding Karabakh.
Meanwhile, Aliev's and Kocharian's domestic opponents claim that the two men are primarily concerned with their own political survival. An Armenian pro-opposition daily, "Haykakan Zhamanak," suggested that the main purpose of their latest summit was to secure the West's endorsement of their reelection plans by showing that only they can bring peace and stability to the volatile region.
Kocharian's following remark sounded as an indirect confirmation of this speculation: "If we don't solve this problem, then who else will solve it? Taking into consideration Heydar Alievich's background, my background related to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem,…we feel a great burden of responsibility lying on ourselves."