By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian and his outgoing Azerbaijani counterpart, Heydar Aliev, were “incredibly close” to hammering out a compromise deal on Nagorno-Karabakh even one year after their ill-fated 2001 peace negotiations, according to a senior U.S. diplomat.
In a keynote address to a conference on conflict resolution in the former Soviet Union held in Washington in May 2002, Ambassador Rudolf Perina, the chief U.S. negotiator in the decade-long Karabakh talks, said the two sides need to settle only minor differences.
Details of the conference, attended by U.S. government officials and regional experts, were found by RFE/RL only this week. It was sponsored by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. NIC is an analytical body that advises the director of the Central Intelligence Agency on security challenges facing America in various parts of the world.
Much of the information, posted on the CIA web site, is still relevant to the current state of the stalled Karabakh peace talks which are set to gain a fresh momentum after the handover of power from ailing Aliev to his son Ilham.
“After the Key West meeting there was disappointment with the follow-up, and some have concluded that these negotiations are dead,” Perina is quoted as saying in a conference report dated September 2002. “Yet the two sides are incredibly close. The issues of principle have been decided, and what is left are technical differences.”
Perina did not disclose the essence of Armenian-Azerbaijani agreements reportedly reached during the U.S.-sponsored talks on the Florida island in April 2001. He predicted only that the 2003 elections will open a “window of opportunity” for further progress.
The U.S. envoy apparently spoke on the assumption that the elder Aliev will win another term in office in the October 2003 presidential ballot. However, Aliev effectively exited the political arena this summer due to a rapidly deteriorating health condition. It remains to be seen whether his politically inexperienced son will have the muscle to continue the 80-year-old leader’s Karabakh policy
Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly denied the existence of any Key West agreements. The Armenians, however, claim the opposite, accusing Baku of reneging on them shortly before a follow-up Aliev-Kocharian meeting, scheduled for June 2002 but cancelled at the last minute.
Precisely what was agreed on at Key West remains unclear. Armenian officials have hinted at a peace formula that goes along the lines of U.S., Russian and French mediators’ 1998 idea of a “common state” between Azerbaijan and Karabakh. That idea, rejected by Aliev, would essentially uphold Karabakh’s de facto independence and give it a land corridor to Armenia.
But Armenian opposition groups, notably close associates of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, claim that Kocharian agreed to a territorial swap with Azerbaijan whereby Karabakh would become a de jure part of Armenia in return for Yerevan handing over its southeastern Meghri district to Baku. “The Meghri option remains on the negotiating table,” Ter-Petrosian’s former national security chief, David Shahnazarian, insisted on Thursday.
Perina stressed back in 2002 that the mediating troika’s new peace proposals, expected to be unveiled next month, will not differ markedly from the previous ones as “most ideas have already been placed on the table.” “One can juggle and readjust the old proposals, but the basic concepts for resolution are already out there,” he said.
In Perina’s words, the main reason why the ethnic disputes in the Caucasus and other parts of the ex-USSR remain unresolved is the conflicting parties’ reluctance to make serious concessions. “People are looking for a magical solution that will spare them the burdens of compromise. Of course, no one can offer that,” he said.
“When we try to persuade secessionist leaders that the world will never recognize them as an independent sovereignty, they remain unconvinced that the historical window has closed,” he added.
It is widely agreed that a lot also depends on the posture of external forces. Russia’s ambiguous role in conflict resolution is seen as particularly important, with many in the West viewing Moscow as an obstacle to peace.
According to Joe Presel, a retired top diplomat who coordinated U.S. policy on the ex-Soviet conflicts from 1994-97, having Moscow on board is a “prerequisite for effective peacemaking.” “We cannot succeed at peacemaking in the [former USSR] without the Russians,” Presel told the conference. “This seems self-evident. Yet at first we thought we could do it without them, since we saw them as part of the problem.”
“Russia is key to the resolution of these conflicts,” agreed another participant, Anne Herr of the State Department’s Intelligence Bureau. She argued that with Russian foreign policy increasingly driven by economic interests, Moscow may become more interested in peace and stability in the Caucasus.
But as Presel cautioned, the Russians "do not really trust” the U.S. “They tend to operate on the assumption that we will attempt to take advantage of them,” he said.
“The Russian policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh depends on what part of the bureaucracy you are talking to, and perhaps it depends what day of the week you talk to them.”
Also discussed was the involvement of other major regional players: Iran and Turkey. Some participants made the point that despite their regional ambitions neither country is able or willing to play a major role in conflict resolution. Tom King, another Intelligence Bureau official, said Iran is primarily worried about Turkey’s presence in the South Caucasus and its alliance with the U.S.
Bulent Aliriza, a senior Turkey analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that the Turkish military and political elite will avoid far-reaching diplomatic or military moves in the Caucasus, while cultivating ties with Azerbaijan and Georgia. Membership of the European Union and events in Iraq are of more immediate interest to Ankara, he said.
Perina made it clear that even global powers like America are unlikely to exert the kind of pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan that put an end to the bloody war in Bosnia in 1993 when the conflicting parties were forced to sign a peace accord in Dayton, Ohio. He said none of the parties should hope that "outside mediators will shove their proposals down the throats of the other side."
“The situation in the former Yugoslavia differed from this part of the world in terms of a heated conflict that included military action, massive troop deployments, and bombing,” the U.S. envoy argued.
“These conflicts will be solved, but their costs will increase as long as their solutions are delayed. [Oil-reach] Azerbaijan alone has a promising economic future and might weather the impact of these conflicts. For the other countries involved, these disputes have devastating consequences that should be of great concern to us. If any of these countries fail, the consequences would be extremely serious.”
(Photolur photo: Rudolf Perina.)