By Hrach Melkumian
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on Monday did not deny reports that Armenia and Azerbaijan are discussing a major change in their strategy of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would require Armenian troop withdrawals before an agreement on the disputed region’s status.
Oskanian hinted strongly that the so-called step-by-step resolution of the dispute was on the agenda of his meeting in Strasbourg last week with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov. “Since we agreed not to disclose the issues which we discussed, I would refrain from confirming or refuting anything,” he told a news conference, reacting to Mamedyarov’s earlier claims that the parties are considering restoring railway communication between Armenia and Azerbaijan in return for an Armenian pullout from Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh occupied during the 1991-94 war.
Asked whether this option is acceptable to Armenia and Karabakh, Oskanian replied, “In any case, nothing is being rejected. There are really heated discussions going on. One should only hope that we will be able to bring clarity in the very near future.”
But he made it clear that the Armenian side would still prefer a “package” deal that would resolve all contentious issues, including Karabakh’s status, in a single peace accord. “The essence of the problem is Nagorno-Karabakh’s status,” he said. “Everything else is the consequence of the failure to resolve that problem. So if we are to resolve the conflict we must concentrate on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, rather than try to find solutions to secondary issues, and put the main issue aside.”
Under the step-by-step strategy favored by Azerbaijan, agreement on Karabakh’s status would be indefinitely delayed until after a return of the occupied Azerbaijani lands and a lifting of the Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia. It is hoped that the confidence-building measures would facilitate a mutually acceptable compromise on the main bone of contention.
One such peace plan was already put forward by international mediators in 1997. It was accepted by Azerbaijan and the then president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosian. However, it was rejected out of hand by the leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Ter-Petrosian’s key ministers, including Kocharian who was Armenia’s prime minister at the time. They found the plan “defeatist” and too risky, forcing Ter-Petrosian to step down in February 1998.
Oskanian called his talks with Mamedyarov “positive and useful,” but cautioned against excessive expectations from such contacts. “One should not even consider these to be negotiations,” he said. “These are rather consultations…to ascertain the basis upon which further negotiations should take place.”
The Strasbourg meeting followed talks between President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev held on the sidelines of a European economic forum in Poland late last month. Interviewed by Russian state television over the weekend, Kocharian likewise described the talks as “positive.” “During our last meeting I felt a single-mindedness and a desire [on the part of Aliev] to resolve the problem,” he said.
Still, Kocharian is said to have told a group of prominent Diaspora Armenians earlier this month not to expect a breakthrough on Karabakh this year.
Oskanian and other Armenian leaders stated earlier that the only way to break the deadlock in the peace process is to revive “package” agreements reportedly reached by Kocharian and Aliev’s late father and predecessor Heydar on the Florida island of Key West in April 2001. They warned that they will stop direct contacts with Baku if it finally walks away from those agreements.