By Emil Danielyan
International mediators plan to visit Baku and Yerevan next week to try to build on progress which they believe was made by the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents at their weekend meeting in Russia, Washington’s chief Nagorno-Karabakh negotiator said late Thursday.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza also insisted that the outgoing U.S. administration still hopes to broker a framework peace accord on Karabakh before handing over the reigns of power to President-elect Barack Obama on January 20.
“It’s absolutely possible,” he said, commenting on chances for the signing of an Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement in the coming weeks. “I’m not predicting that it will happen. I’m just saying it is possible and I want to do everything I can to make it a reality.”
Bryza spoke to RFE/RL by phone from Vienna where he met earlier on Thursday with the two other co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group representing France and Russia. The mediators discussed their further steps four days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosted talks outside Moscow with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. In a joint statement, they said those talks gave them “reason for cautious optimism.”
“We will make a trip to the region, I hope some time next week, and consult with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to figure out how to translate the momentum, that we felt in Moscow and that our French colleagues felt in Paris when President Sarkisian visited [on Tuesday,] into a finalization of the basic principles [of a Karabakh settlement,]” Bryza said.
He said the co-chairs will then meet the foreign ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of a high-level OSCE meeting in Helsinki due early next month. “Depending on how much progress we will make, we will see whether we can get the presidents to meet again soon,” he added.
In a joint declaration with Medvedev, Presidents Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliev pledged to intensify the protracted search for peace but stopped short of announcing any concrete agreements. The lack of specifics in the declaration is construed by some observers as a sign that a breakthrough in the Karabakh peace process is not on the cards.
Bryza insisted, however, that the Moscow summit did bring Aliev and Sarkisian closer to agreement. “First of all, they developed a better sense of trust in each other and respect for each other’s needs, for what they need to do to sell the agreement back home,” he said. “Number two, in terms of substance, it sounds like they began a process of narrowing their differences on the remaining few issues that have to be resolved over the basic principles. So both in terms of mood and substance, they moved forward.”
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the leader of Armenia’s main opposition alliance, went further on Tuesday, saying that Aliev and Sarkisian have “officially” accepted the basic principles of a Karabakh settlement which the mediators presented to the conflicting parties in Madrid in November 2007. Ter-Petrosian predicted that the two presidents will likely seal a peace deal in the United States as early as next month.
“Actually, it’s a great idea, a great aspiration,” commented Bryza. “I hope we could get to that. But we don’t have any concrete plans like that yet.
“It’s an ambitious goal that the former President Ter-Petrosian has set. I’d like to work toward it but it may be a little more ambitious than reality would allow right now.”
Bryza indicated that the parties have yet to fully agree on some of they provisions of the proposed framework agreement, notably a future referendum on Karabakh’s status. He said they are still trying to reconcile the internationally principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. “It’s not agreed on yet but it’s under discussion,” he said. “And I sense that the two sides, especially the presidents, are talking things through and thinking things through with regard to that issue and others.”
The Minsk Group’s existing peace proposals seem to entitle Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population to determining the disputed territory’s status in a future referendum. However, Aliev has repeatedly stated, most recently on October 24, that Azerbaijan will never come to terms with the loss of Karabakh. The Armenian side, on the other hand, maintains that Azerbaijani recognition of the Karabakh Armenians’ “right to self-determination” is a must.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov singled out late last month the future of the so-called Lachin corridor, which provides for the shortest overland link between Karabakh and Armenia proper, as the main stumbling block in the negotiating process. He did not elaborate, though.
“Everybody knows that that issue has to be resolved,” Bryza said, referring to Lachin. “It’s an important one. We’re working on that and getting closer to that.”
The U.S. official further reiterated that Washington has no problem with Moscow seemingly taking the initiative in the Karabakh peace process of late and does not fear being sidelined by the Russians. He argued that he and the Minsk Group’s French co-chair, Bernard Fassier, were invited to the November 2 summit held at Meiendorf Castle outside Moscow.
“We don’t consider it so much a Russian initiative because we were invited from the beginning to come to Moscow,” he said. “If the Russian president decides he wants to apply his influence and his energy to moving the process forward, that’s positive.”
The U.S. and Russia are willing to continue to work together on Karabakh despite their “very sharp differences” over the recent conflict in Georgia, concluded Bryza.