By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian has dismissed as a “cheap pre-election ploy” his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrosian’s claims that he had agreed to a controversial land swap with Azerbaijan that would strip Armenia of its vital land border with Iran.
The pro-Ter-Petrosian daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” published on Saturday what it described as the text of a Nagorno-Karabakh peace plan drafted by international mediators and allegedly accepted by Kocharian in 1999. Under that document, Karabakh would become an internationally recognized part of Armenia in return for the latter ceding its southeastern Meghri district to Azerbaijan. The remote area borders on Iran and provides as for the shortest overland link between Azerbaijan proper and its Nakhichevan exclave.
The alleged plan was a major theme of Ter-Petrosian’s speech at a Saturday rally in Yerevan. The former president denounced it as a “great conspiracy against the Republic of Armenia” and said the loss of a common border with Iran would have disastrous consequences for the landlocked country blockaded by neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey. “The document is authentic,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian claimed that the late Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian strongly opposed the plan at a meeting of Armenia’s National Security Council which he said took place shortly before the October 27, 1999 armed attack on parliament in which both of them were killed. He said law-enforcement authorities must regard that as “one of the likely theories” of the still mysterious assassination of the two top leaders of the the now defunct Miasnutyun (Unity) alliance.
“I state with all responsibility that Karen Demirchian and Vazgen Sarkisian foiled that conspiracy, that treason at the expense of their lives,” Ter-Petrosian charged, again implicating Kocharian and his chief lieutenant, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, in the parliament shootings.
Kocharian was quick to deny the allegations through a spokesman. Victor Soghomonian, the presidential press secretary, insisted in an interview with the Mediamax news agency that the would-be land swap “has never been a subject of Karabakh settlement negotiations.” “Clearly, the February 9 report is aimed at preventing discussion of Levon Ter-Petrosian’s peculiar approaches to the conflict’s resolution,” he said.
“In short, that is a quite cheap pre-election ploy,” added Soghomonian.
Other Armenian officials did say in the past, however, that the so-called “Meghri variant” of a Karabakh settlement was put forward by the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in 1999. But they insisted that Yerevan rejected it out of hand.
Visiting Yerevan in November 2000, Steven Sestanovich, the then top U.S. envoy to the former Soviet Union, indicated that the land swap is still on the agenda of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks. “From what I hear of public discussions that doesn’t sound like an area where there is a lot of agreement,” he told reporters at the time. “But I think it’s an important part of discussions of this kind – if they are undertaken in good faith and with the aim of seeking a real solution – not to rule out any ideas.”
The months leading up to the Armenian parliament massacre were marked by a flurry of diplomatic activity over Karabakh. Kocharian and then Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev held three face-to-face meetings in as many months and appeared to have made considerable progress towards the conflict’s resolution. “I am confident that we will find a solution to the problem, one which I will be able to announce sincerely to our people,” Kocharian said in televised remarks on October 18, 1999.
Six days earlier, Kocharian received a message from then U.S. Vice President Al Gore which, according to his press service, welcomed “important progress” in Karabakh talks. Gore was also cited as urging the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to “complete this phase of negotiations” before the OSCE’s November 1999 summit in Istanbul.
Another senior U.S. official, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met Kocharian and Vazgen Sarkisian in Yerevan on October 27, 1999 just hours before the latter was gunned down along with Demirchian and six other officials in the National Assembly.
Aliev and Kocharian began their series of negotiations in summer 1999 following the collapse of another Minsk Group plan that envisaged the establishment of a loose “common state” between Karabakh and Azerbaijan. The plan put forward in November 1998 was largely accepted by the Armenian side but rejected by Baku.