By Atom Markarian
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian dismissed Friday an Azerbaijani offer to lift Armenia’s economic blockade in exchange for the return of Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Oskanian said the idea, which defers agreement on Karabakh’s status, runs counter to the Armenian side’s continuing insistence on a “package” treaty that would resolve all contentious issues. “We believe that this problem must have a comprehensive solution,” he said.
Senior Azerbaijani officials, notably parliament speaker Murtuz Aleskerov, announced the previous day that Baku is ready to resume railway communication with Armenia if it gets back five of the seven districts occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the 1991-94 war. They said the idea was floated by Per Gahrton, a member of the European Union’s parliament who deals with EU relations with the three South Caucasus states.
The suggested peace formula is a variation of the so-called phased resolution of the Karabakh dispute which was favored by international mediators in 1997 and won the backing of Armenia’s then President Levon Ter-Petrosian. However, his key ministers, including then Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, strongly objected to it, arguing that the Armenians would lose their main bargaining chip without securing Azerbaijani concessions on Karabakh’s status. Ter-Petrosian was forced to resign shortly afterwards.
Oskanian on Friday reiterated his government’s view, shared by the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, that attempts at a phased settlement would have a “negative impact” on the peace process.
Incidentally, his statement came at a joint news conference in Yerevan with the EU’s special representative to the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie. The latter did not comment on Gahrton’s reported proposal.
Talvitie sounded skeptical about prospects for a rapid settlement of the conflict, noting that Azerbaijan’s new president, Ilham Aliev, is a relatively inexperienced leader who has to sort out domestic problems in the first place.
The Finnish diplomat also dwelt on the EU’s apparent readiness to include Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in its “Wider Europe” scheme of privileged ties with the bloc’s immediate neighbors. He said all three countries will be treated equally by Brussels.
Oskanian voiced misgivings about that approach, though, saying that the EU should also allow “possibilities of competition” among the three regional states in bringing their political and economic systems into conformity with European standards. He cited Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s simultaneous accession to the Council of Europe in 2001 to back up the argument.
“In case of Armenia and Azerbaijan I think that that equality was not fair because in terms of democratic processes were several steps ahead of Azerbaijan and had to wait for Azerbaijan to catch up with us,” he said.
The EU’s decision this week to reconsider the region’s exclusion from “Wider Europe” is widely believed to have been prompted by the November peaceful revolution in Georgia that followed a reportedly fraudulent parliamentary election. The new Georgian leadership’s handling of a pre-term presidential election held on January 4 was welcomed by the EU and other European organizations. Their reaction to last year’s disputed presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan was far more critical.