By Emil Danielyan
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not necessarily remain unresolved in the immediate future if Armenia and Azerbaijan fail to hammer out a framework peace accord this year, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said on Saturday. He insisted that elections due in the two countries in 2007 and 2008 will not be an insurmountable obstacle to a compromise solution.
“I think it’s possible to work through an election season and still make progress,” Bryza said in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL. “It’s up to the [Armenian and Azerbaijani] presidents as to whether or not they have enough good will and political courage to do so. [Their failure to cut a deal in 2006] doesn’t have to be the end of the process. It’s just easier, much easier, if we get the heavy lifting done now.”
Bryza said he still hopes that Presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian will iron out their differences in the coming months on the most recent peace proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group. “Of course I’m still hopeful,” he said. “If I weren’t hopeful, why would I even want to put in an effort? This isn’t about theater, it’s about results.”
Bryza was speaking in Yerevan after what he described as “encouraging” talks with Kocharian that marked the start of his first tour of the conflict zone since his appointment as U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group. He replaced another State Department official, Steven Mann, in that position in early June following the failure of Kocharian’s last face-to-face negotiations with Aliev that all but dashed hopes for a near-term solution to the Karabakh dispute.
In two subsequent statements, the mediating group’s American, French and Russian co-chairs indicated their frustration with the fiasco. They said they will initiate no more Armenian-Azerbaijani talks until the two sides display greater commitment to a lasting peace.
Bryza, who proceeded to the Karabakh capital Stepanakert later on Saturday, said he is visiting the region to get “some more guidance from the presidents themselves to determine how they would like to take the process further.” He said he was assured by Kocharian that the Minsk Group plan is essentially acceptable to Yerevan.
“I enjoyed hearing his account of where things stand and how we got here,” he said. “I felt a constructive, candid attitude on his part. He was very open. And he helped me think through what sort of recommendations I might bring to my fellow co-chairs.”
Asked whether he found the kind of “political will” for compromise which was demanded by the mediators, Bryza replied: “I think there is political will here definitely to keep the process going. There have been public statements that the [Minsk Group’s proposed] framework, the principles are agreeable [for Armenia].
“What’s never clear is whether or not there is enough will on both sides to eliminate or to resolve the distance that still stands between them. But I will just say I feel encouraged after today’s discussions.”
Armenian officials have claimed implicitly that the two rounds of negotiations between Kocharian and Aliev this year collapsed because the latter backtracked on his earlier acceptance of the key principles of the peace plan that were officially disclosed by the Minsk Group co-chairs last month. Bryza effectively denied this and was careful not to blame any of the parties for the deadlock, saying that they both want to “enact some changes to the ideas that are on the table.”
“The principles that are on the table don’t constitute an agreement,” argued the U.S. administration official. “They are principles, suggestions. So it’s not possible for anyone to walk away from an agreement, if there isn’t an agreement.”
At the heart of those principles is the idea of holding a referendum on Karabakh’s status after the liberation of most of the Armenian-occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper surrounding the disputed enclave. Bryza confirmed that the mediators believe the status should be decided by the “people of Karabakh” “But the question is how do you define the people of Karabakh? And there were residents there in 1988 who wish to participate,” he added in a clear reference to the region’s displaced Azerbaijani minority. “All these things have still to be worked out as part of a broad package.”
Aliev and other Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly stated in recent weeks that they will never accept any deal that could legitimize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was quoted by the Day.az news service earlier this week as indicating that Baku is only ready to let the Karabakh Armenians decide the extent of their autonomy within Azerbaijan. “The principle of self-determination does not mean a breach of territorial integrity,” Mammadyarov said.
This might explain why, unlike the authorities in Yerevan, the leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) has expressed serious misgivings about the proposed peace formula.
Bryza, who is apparently the most high-ranking U.S. official to ever visit Karabakh, appeared to downplay the Stepanakert government’s objections, implying that it is Baku and Yerevan that have final say in the peace process. “It’s really up to Presidents Kocharian and Aliev whether or not they will agree to the formula,” he said. “We are just waiting for a sign from the presidents as to whether or not they would like to restart a formal process,” he added.
Bryza, who is due in Baku on Sunday, also said he will meet the group’s French and Russian co-chairs in Paris early next week to brief them on the results of his shuttle diplomacy. The mediators stressed in their recent statements that “now is the time” to resolve the Karabakh conflict.
Some of them warned earlier that failure to do so before the end of this year would keep the peace process deadlocked for at least three more years. They pointed to parliamentary and presidential elections due in Armenia in 2007 and 2008 respectively and an Azerbaijani presidential ballot scheduled for 2008. Many observers believe that it will be even more difficult for each side to make painful concessions to the other in the run-up to the polls.
But in an indication of the mediators’ fading hopes for 2006, Bryza insisted that a Karabakh settlement will be feasible even during the election period. “I don’t necessarily feel that there needs to be a hard deadline on the peace process,” he said. “It’s better if we have a sense of what compromises might be suggested before other political events [in Armenia and Azerbaijan] move forward. But it doesn’t have to be by the end of this year.”
“I would argue that the elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t pose an obstacle to reaching an agreement,” continued the U.S. mediator. “They just pose an additional complicating factor. It’s up to the presidents to guide their populations or societies, their voters in whatever direction they wish: a) to win the vote for themselves and their political parties, but b) to build support for the agreement.
“If the presidents succeed, with our help as mediators, in finalizing and eliminating the final differences with regard to this framework agreement and if they come up with an agreement that’s mutually acceptable, that should be a plus in an election. That’s a huge achievement that should actually help political leaders and their parties to win votes. So it could be useful to have elections. The is question is, though, will the presidents have decided to take these tough decisions in time?”