By Harry Tamrazian
Armenia and Azerbaijan are close to hammering out a peace accord on Nagorno-Karabakh that will allow its ethnic Armenian residents to decide their status in an internationally supervised referendum, according to sources in Yerevan privy to the negotiating process.
The high-level sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have told RFE/RL that the conflicting parties have already agreed on the key points of a peace deal that could be formalized as early as this year or at the beginning of next. At the heart of it, they say, is the idea of a referendum in which the Karabakh Armenians will decide whether they want to be independent, become a part of Armenia or return under Azerbaijani rule.
Some Armenian and Western officials have hinted at the possibility of such a vote over the past year that has seen major progress toward the resolution of the Karabakh dispute. Presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian could build upon it at their next meeting scheduled to take place in the Russian city of Kazan on August 27.
The Armenian sources claimed that the referendum would be held within 10 to 15 years from the signing of a peace agreement and would follow the return of five of the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh. They said the Lachin district, which serves as the shortest overland link between Armenia and Karabakh, would remain under Armenian control, while agreement has yet to be reached on the seventh occupied territory, Kelbajar. The Armenians are ready to pull out of Kelbajar only after a date is set for the referendum, while the Azerbaijani side is demanding its liberation along with the five other districts, the sources said.
Such a settlement would involve a combination of the so-called “package” and “step-by-step” strategies of conflict resolution that are preferred by the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides respectively. Officials in Yerevan and Stepanakert have indicated in recent months that they are ready to drop their insistence on a single agreement resolving all contentious issues at once provided that they get other guarantees of continued Armenian control of Karabakh.
Azerbaijan would recognize the Armenian control at least until the referendum in Karabakh, the Yerevan sources said, adding that the peace deal also calls for the deployment of peacekeeping troops from countries that are not members of the OSCE’s Minsk Group. They said this is a compromise arrangement resulting from Azerbaijani opposition to Russian participation in the peacekeeping force and Armenia’s strong objections to any Turkish military presence in the conflict zone.
Meanwhile, the Minsk Group’s American, French and Russian co-chairs began on Monday another round of regional shuttle diplomacy that will take them to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Karabakh. The mediators have always been tight-lipped about the content of their proposals, citing the confidentiality of the peace proposals.
Their visit is expected to be followed by yet another meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders which will precede the scheduled Aliev-Kocharian talks in Kazan.