By Emil Danielyan
Ending a two-day visit to Yerevan on Thursday, international mediators reported further progress towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and expressed hope that Armenia and Azerbaijan will agree on its main principles before the end of this year.
The French and Russian diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group met with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian leaders Wednesday on the first leg of their fresh tour of the conflict zone. They told reporters before proceeding to Baku the next morning that Kocharian agreed to hold what might prove to be decisive talks with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev early next month. They were hopeful that Aliev will also consent to the talks that are due to take place on the sidelines of the June 10 summit of former Soviet republics in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
“We think that some progress was made and hope to be build upon it during our negotiations in Baku,” the Minsk Group’s Russian co-chair, Yuri Merzlyakov, said of his and his French counterpart Bernard Fassier’s meetings in Yerevan.
“Assuming that the [Saint-Petersburg] meeting is a success, we don’t exclude that there will need to be another meeting [of the two presidents] for finally agreeing the basic principles of a settlement,” he said.
Merzlyakov stressed that agreement on those principles would fall short of a comprehensive peace accord. “We are working on the basic principles of a settlement which are not quite an agreement,” he said. “If they are approved by both parties, that will only allow us to start working out the text [of a peace accord,] which will take a lot of time. But there will have been created a base from which the parties will not retreat, as was the case in the past.”
“What we can hope to achieve before the end of the year is a breakthrough towards a settlement, but not a full peace accord,” agreed Fassier. He said he hopes Aliev and Kocharian have the “political will” to cut a framework peace deal.
The French diplomat warned that failure to do so would nullify substantial progress made by the conflicting parties in the last few years. “If we don’t have the principles agreed on before the end of the year, it is clear that after the upcoming pause resulting from the presidential elections due in Armenia and then in Azerbaijan negotiations will have to resume from scratch,” he said.
The two mediators said they and the Minsk Group’s U.S. co-chair, Matthew Bryza, will again visit Baku and Yerevan shortly before the Saint-Petersburg summit. Bryza did not join them on their latest trip for unknown reasons.
The principles put forward by the troika call for a gradual settlement of the Karabakh conflict that would end in a referendum of self-determination in the Armenian-populated disputed territory. Aliev and Kocharian were close to accepting the proposed framework agreement last year. However, two rounds of intensive negotiations between them held in February and June 2006 failed to yield any results.
Still, the two leaders revived hopes for a near-term solution to the dispute after another face-to-face encounter last November. Their foreign ministers have since held a series of meetings, attended by the mediating troika, in a bid to narrow their differences.
In Merzlyakov’s words, the “circle of unresolved issues is narrowing” and there are now “objective conditions” for eliminating the remaining sticking points. “If the Saint-Petersburg meeting is successful, then the number of principles that have not yet been fully agreed on will be practically brought down to zero,” he said.
Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have sounded less than optimistic on that score. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian pointed last week to Aliev’s continuing threats to win back Karabakh by force and pledges to never recognize Armenian control over the territory. For his part, Novruz Mammadov, Aliev’s chief foreign policy aide, accused the Armenian side on Wednesday of stalling for time in the ongoing peace talks.
(Photolur photo: Fassier, left, and Merzlyakov pictured before meeting Kocharian on Wednesday.)