By Ruzanna Stepanian
International mediators have reported an ‘improved mood’ in the ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh, but said the parties are “not there yet” for an ultimate peace accord.
The United States, Russian and French cochairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group spoke at a press conference in Yerevan Monday afternoon after what was their longer-than-usual regional tour, including stops in the capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region itself.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who chairs the Group from the US, was cautious not to give any precise period of time for a finalized framework agreement that the sides have been said to be inching towards and even close to signing by the end of this year.
“We would like that to be the case that we are just on the very edge of the agreement being finalized, but we are not. But what I can say is that the mood between the presidents has improved significantly since the meeting November 2 in Moscow, for which we are grateful to our Russian colleagues,” Bryza said.
The US negotiator denied the recent media speculations that the negotiations are months away from a big agreement and also that there is some secret protocol leading to a nontransparent set of commitments by Armenia.
“That’s absolutely untrue,” Bryza said. “There can be no secret protocols… I don’t sense either president is looking at the negotiations as an opportunity to make concessions as much as a new opportunity to see the conflict from the other president’s eyes and find a way to achieve what each president needs to gain agreement of their society.”
Bryza’s French and Russian counterparts similarly sounded cautiously optimistic about a future peace plan.
“It is important to understand that we are at a preliminary stage of the elaboration of the future peace agreement. Of course, it would be great if we could already be discussing all the details of the situation on the ground, but, unfortunately, we are not yet. We are still at the level of formalization of the general basic principles,” said Bernard Fassier, the Minsk Group’s French cochairman.
And Yuri Merzlyakov, of Russia, added: “The sides’ agreeing with the basic principles of settlement does not yet mean the elaboration of a peace accord, which will also take some time.”
The cochairmen made the statements after meeting the leaderships in Azerbaijan, Armenia, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh to where they traveled from Yerevan over the weekend.
The current negotiations for a settlement in the protracted dispute are believed to focus on proposals drafted by the Minsk Group and presented to the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan at the OSCE summit in Madrid in November 2007.
The mediators’ regional tour comes amid renewed international hopes for a breakthrough in the peace talks after the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan pledged an intensified search for a solution to the long-running dispute.
Only about two weeks ago, in a joint declaration with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliev agreed to take into account the so-called Madrid principles of a Karabakh settlement – a proposed framework agreement that calls for a phased solution to the conflict eventually to end in a referendum of self-determination in Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is assumed that the Minsk Group proposals aim at reconciling the seemingly conflicting principles of international law, namely territorial integrity and self-determination.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian-populated autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan, has been de-facto independent from Baku’s rule since the 1994 ceasefire that put an end to nearly three years of fighting between the area’s ethnic Armenians seeking an independent status and Azerbaijani armed forces sent in to stifle local secessionism.
In the war that claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more on both sides, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians managed to establish control over the most part of the region and expand into surrounding areas to form a security zone.
A withdrawal of Karabakh forces from most of the surrounding seven districts now fully or partly controlled by Armenian forces, demilitarization of the territories and deployment of international peacekeeping forces there appear to be a key element of the current peace proposal.
Another element opposed by hardliners in Armenia is the return of the population, mostly Azerbaijanis, who were displaced during the active military phase of the conflict, to the places of their former residence, mostly in areas surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, but also within the unrecognized republic proper.
Under the yet undisclosed plan, Nagorno-Karabakh is likely to enjoy an interim status before a referendum is held at some indefinite future date to decide its ultimate status.
Other provisions of such a settlement might include strong international guarantees of security to the population of the area backed up with an overland link connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia as well as financial aid from the international community for rehabilitation in the conflict zone.
In remarks to Armenian Public Television at the weekend, President Serzh Sarkisian, visiting Nagorno-Karabakh, listed a number of key prerequisites that he said would be essential to reaching an agreement.
“The Karabakh problem can be solved only if Azerbaijan admits that the people of Karabakh have and can exercise their right to self-determination,” Sarkisian said. “And secondly, if Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia have a shared land border and the population of Nagorno-Karabakh receive strong guarantees of security.”
After a meeting with Sarkisian earlier on Monday, the Minsk Group troika did not disclose the details of the discussions.
“It is important to use and choose words very carefully,” Bryza explained.
The French cochairman, however, opened some of the brackets mainly concerning security issues.
“The security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s people in the present status-quo is only depending on Nagorno-Karabakh itself and Armenia, with the strong opposition, to put it mildly, from Azerbaijan. What we have in mind to try to create for the situation in the future is to ensure that the security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s people could be provided and guaranteed by a set of complex security measures and international guarantees as well as the agreement of these measures by Azerbaijan,” Fassier said.
“The people of Karabakh have to feel safe -- safe from physical attack and safe from any economic pressure as well,” Bryza added.
And the Russian representative, Merzlyakov, said: “The [Armenian-controlled] territories now play a significant role in ensuring the Karabakh population’s security. If an adequate replacement can be found, including international guarantees of security, they can be returned.”