By Emil Danielyan
The OSCE Minsk Group has officially confirmed and elaborated on the key principles of its proposed solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that were controversially disclosed by its new U.S. co-chair late last week.
In a joint statement that was circulated by the U.S. embassy in Yerevan on Wednesday, the mediating group’s American, French and Russian co-chairs said their hitherto confidential peace plan envisages a self-determination referendum to be held in Karabakh after the liberation of Armenian-occupied territories in Azerbaijan.
The statement was presented to the OSCE’s decision-making Permanent Council in Vienna last Thursday and was not made public until being posted on the U.S. embassy website almost a week later. Washington’s new top Karabakh negotiator, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, revealed details of the proposed peace plan to RFE/RL shortly after the Permanent Council meeting.
Although those details had already been leaked to the media by Armenian officials last year, Yerevan reacted negatively to Bryza’s interview, saying that the U.S. official failed to present other important provisions of the Minsk Group plan. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said on Monday that those include enabling Karabakh to retain an overland link with Armenia and remain under Armenian control at least until the referendum.
Bryza’s remarks also sparked allegations in the Armenian press that Washington is exerting pressure on Yerevan ahead of the Armenian parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2007 and 2008 respectively. It is not clear if the U.S. State Department decided to publicize the Minsk Group statement through its mission in Armenia in order to end that speculation.
“These principles include the phased redeployment of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, with special modalities for Kelbajar and Lachin districts [separating Karabakh from Armenia proper],” said the co-chairs. “Demilitarization of those territories would follow. A referendum or population vote would be agreed, at an unspecified future date, to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
“An international peacekeeping force would be deployed,” added the statement. “A joint commission would be agreed to implement the agreement. International financial assistance would be made available for demining, reconstruction, resettlement of internally displaced persons in the formerly occupied territories and the war-affected regions of Nagorno-Karabakh. The sides would renounce the use or threat of use of force, and international and bilateral security guarantees and assurances would be put in place.”
The mediators said the conflicting parties would also have to work out practical modalities of the Karabakh referendum. “Suitable preconditions for such a vote would have to be achieved so that the vote would take place in a non-coercive environment in which well-informed citizens have had ample opportunity to consider their positions after a vigorous debate in the public arena.”
This peace formula seems largely acceptable to Armenia. Its Foreign Ministry argued that the mediating powers have thereby recognized the Karabakh Armenians’ right to self-determination. The ministry said in its statement that Presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian have agreed to the proposed referendum but remain divided on other, unspecified issues.
The Azerbaijani side initially responded positively to Bryza’s disclosure of Minsk Group peace proposals. But in a statement on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry in Baku chided the U.S. official for “taking them out of the general context of the proposed document.” It also reiterated that Baku is only ready to grant Karabakh “the highest status of autonomy” and will never recognize its secession from Azerbaijan.
The mediators, meanwhile, warned that failure by the two sides to cut a framework peace deal before the end of this year would close a rare “window of opportunity” to eliminate the principal source of instability in the South Caucasus.
“We see no point right now in continuing intensive shuttle diplomacy we have engaged in over the past several months,” they said. “We also see no point in initiating further presidential meetings until the sides demonstrate enough political will to overcome their remaining differences.”