By Emil Danielyan
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev on Wednesday blamed Armenia for the collapse of last month’s crucial peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh and urged his countrymen to be prepared for winning back the Armenian-controlled territory by force.
The remarks followed Aliev’s effective rejection of an international peace plan that would reportedly enable Karabakh’s predominantly ethnic Armenian population to formalize its de facto secession from Azerbaijan.
"The Armenian side is stalling for time and the fact that the negotiating process has reached a dead end is the fault of the Armenian side," AFP news agency quoted Aliev as saying during a visit to areas in western Azerbaijan close to Karabakh. "Azerbaijan must review its position," he said, adding that his nation’s "military expenditures have grown" to be ready for "any eventuality".
"We are the victimized party and this gives us the right to resolve the issue by any means. We must get ready and the population must be mobilized," Aliev said.
The comments are certain to reinforce renewed pessimism about prospects for Karabakh peace that has set in since the dramatic failure of the February 10-11 talks near Paris between Aliev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian. International mediators hoped that the two leaders will cut a framework deal that reportedly calls for the holding of a referendum on Karabakh’s status in 10-15 years from the start of Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani territories surrounding the disputed enclave. Their unusually upbeat statements made in recent months suggest that the conflicting parties had agreed on this peace formula in principle.
Some Armenian pro-government politicians say the Paris summit ended in failure because of Aliev’s last-minute rejection of the referendum option. The Azerbaijani leader lent credence to this theory last week when he told Turkish NTV television that a referendum in Karabakh is unacceptable as it would run counter to Azerbaijan’s constitution. “We will never agree to Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan,” he said.
Aliev implied that he is unhappy with the mediators’ most recent peace proposals and believes Baku will get a better deal in the future. “We should think whether to hastily agree to some agreement not beneficial for us or to achieve better results after waiting for a while,” he said. “I prefer the latter.”
Aliev also repeated his intention to use Azerbaijan’s soaring oil revenues for a massive military build-up which he said will eventually force the Armenians to give up Karabakh. "We are becoming the leading state in the region and Armenia can not compete with us," he claimed on Wednesday.
Azerbaijan is to almost double its military budget to $600 million this year and plans further hikes in the coming years. The Armenian military, by comparison, will get only $165 million in 2006. Armenian leaders have repeatedly played down the widening gap between Baku’s and Yerevan’s defense expenditures, insisting that it will not translate into Azerbaijani military superiority anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the French, Russian and U.S. mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group are scheduled to meet in Washington on Monday to discuss ways of salvaging the peace process. According to media reports, the meeting may well be followed by fresh talks between the foreign ministers and even the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Speaking to RFE/RL on February 21, the Minsk Group’s U.S. co-chair, Steven Mann, said he still believes that "2006 is the year for [achieving] a solution." Mann warned that failure to resolve the Karabakh conflict this year would be a “true tragedy.”
For his part, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on February 14 that Yerevan still hopes that a breakthrough can be achieved this year. However, regional and Western analysts are now far more pessimistic.
“The fact that time and the oil boom are likely to shift the military balance in Azerbaijan’s favor perhaps helps to explain Mr. Aliev’s refusal to cut a deal,” the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit said in a detailed analysis released last week. “It is quite possible that he calculates that in five years time he will be in a position to drive a much harder bargain with Armenia.”
“The window of opportunity for 2006 appears to be closed; it is not clear how many more there will be,” the EIU concluded grimly.