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By Emil Danielyan
The past year will be remembered by many in Armenia and Azerbaijan for fresh electoral fraud and missed opportunities for democratization, but it may also go down in history as a turning point in the long-running efforts to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

As opposition groups in both countries tried unsuccessfully to replicate the recent ex-Soviet revolutions, Presidents Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliev quietly inched towards a peace accord whose profound repercussions for the entire region can hardly be overestimated. They are expected to meet again in late January or early February for make-or-break talks that could remove the final hurdle to a lasting peace between the two South Caucasus neighbors.

There are strong indications that the two men have already agreed on the basic parameters of a peaceful settlement that would almost certainly formalize Armenian control over Karabakh. For longtime Karabakh conflict watchers accustomed to deadlocked negotiations, this may be too good to be true. But never before have there been so many upbeat statements by
international mediators and even the conflicting parties.

The foreign ministers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe member states, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, said in a statement earlier this month that the parties are now “poised to make the transition from negotiation to decision.” The French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group spoke of a “golden opportunity” to resolve the conflict during an ensued visit to Yerevan and Baku. They warned that failure to cut a peace deal this year would keep the conflict unresolved at least until 2009.

That was followed by an inspection (the first in eight years) of Azerbaijani regions close to the Armenian-populated disputed territory by a team of OSCE military officials. They reportedly looked into logistical aspects of a multinational peacekeeping operation that would necessarily be part of any workable peace accord. They are due to visit other, Armenian-occupied parts of Azerbaijan in January.

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian cautioned on Wednesday that the OSCE inspection does not mean that the signing of a peace deal is a forgone conclusion. But he did admit that it was made possible by substantial progress made in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks. “The year 2006 could see a breakthrough,” Oskanian said in televised remarks.

The beginning of 2005 was anything but promising, with planned talks between Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov postponed in unclear circumstances and both sides reporting an upsurge in skirmishes along the frontline east and north of Karabakh. Oskanian went so far as to claim on March 29 that Azerbaijan may be preparing for another war.

However, tension eased by the time he and Mammadyarov held “proximity talks” with the mediators in London on April 15. The Minsk Group troika urged the parties to “prepare their populations for a balanced negotiated agreement that will require compromise on both sides.” Their optimism increased after two face-to-face meetings held by Aliev and Kocharian in May and August. The mediators now hope that the two leaders will reach a framework agreement at their next encounter. Officials in Baku and Yerevan agree that it could be decisive.

Details of the peace formula discussed by the parties were leaked to RFE/RL by a senior Armenian official in July. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that at the heart of it is the idea of a referendum in which Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population will decide whether the region should be independent, become part of Armenia or return under Azerbaijani rule. The referendum, he said, would be held in 10-15 years from the start of a gradual Armenian pullout from all but one of the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh.

The information was confirmed in August by the Turkish newspaper “New Anatolian” that quoted government officials in Ankara familiar with the negotiations. That the Karabakh settlement under discussion envisages such a referendum was also revealed by the Azerbaijani daily “Zerkalo” on Wednesday. Citing “informed diplomatic sources” in Baku, the paper said the sides still disagree on when the vote should be held.

Selling such a solution to the domestic publics would not be an easy task for Kocharian and especially Aliev. Their increasingly marginalized political opponents would not be averse to denouncing any mutual compromise as a “sellout” and using it as a rallying call for disgruntled citizens. Aliev would be particularly vulnerable to attack given his regular threats to win back Karabakh and the occupied territories by force.

Kocharian, for his part, would have to confront nationalist elements inside and outside his government who regard any withdrawal from the “liberated lands” as high treason. The Karabakh-born president could also find himself at odds with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Arkady Ghukasian, the NKR president, was visibly dissatisfied with his most recent meeting with the Minsk Group co-chairs in Yerevan, telling reporters afterwards that “we are pretty far from a settlement today.” The remarks were construed by some observers as a sign of his rejection of the leaked peace plan.

But do the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents really need the consent of their societies for pressing ahead with a Karabakh settlement? After all, public opinion has rarely been a determinant of government policies in Armenia and Azerbaijan. None of the elections held there since the Soviet collapse have been recognized as free and fair by the international community. On top of that, Aliev and Kocharian control powerful security apparatuses that have successfully suppressed all opposition challenges to their rule -- most recently in the wake of last November’s parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and constitutional referendum in Armenia.

Progress in the Karabakh peace process is widely seen as the reason why the United States and Europe are unlikely to sanction either regime for serious fraud reported during the votes. The next few months will show whether the Western leniency was worth it.
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