By Ruben Meloyan
International mediators continued to shuttle between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the weekend in hopes of brokering what a senior U.S. diplomat described as a “gentlemen’s agreement” on the main principles of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s settlement.
The American, French and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group arrived in Yerevan and held fresh talks with President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on Saturday before heading back to Baku. They already visited the two capitals earlier last week.
Speaking to RFE/RL, the group’s U.S. co-chair, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, said the mediators remain in the conflict zone to try to “build on some positive momentum.” He said they will convey to Armenian leaders an “important message” from Baku but refused to disclose it.
Bryza again insisted that Armenia and Azerbaijan may still cut a framework peace deal before their presidential elections due next year. “We can’t exclude the possibility that we will reach a gentlemen’s agreement,” he said. “But that would be an oral statement. We are not talking about a written agreement in the immediate future.”
Kocharian said earlier this month that no Armenian-Azerbaijani agreements are likely to be reached before the 2008 elections. As always, his office did not release any details of his talks with the mediating troika.
“I can’t say there is anything new at this point,” Vladimir Karapetian, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told RFE/RL. “The process is continuing and we expect that it will be possible to bring our positions closer to each other.”
Official Azerbaijani sources said nothing about the mediators’ weekend talks with President Ilham Aliev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
Mammadyarov was quoted by Azerbaijani media as saying on Monday that the parties still disagree on some of the principles of a Karabakh settlement proposed by the Minsk Group. “The co-chairs believe that they will succeed in finding common ground between the parties,” he said.
Baku and Yerevan are understood to have already accepted the main points of the Minsk Group’s existing peace plan. It calls for a gradual resolution of the conflict would enable Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population to decide the disputed region’s status in a referendum years after the liberation of surrounding Azerbaijani territories. Diplomatic sources privy to the negotiating process say the parties still disagree on practical modalities of the proposed referendum as well as the timetable for Armenian withdrawal from those territories.
“We are so very close on just a few remaining technical issues,” Bryza told RFE/RL in a separate interview last Wednesday. “It would be a shame if we didn’t reach some sort of a gentlemen’s agreement on this framework that’s on the table.”