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Vartan Oskanian, Armenia’s former longtime foreign minister, has defended the most recent international plan to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and warned that its blanket rejection could make the mediators reconsider their apparent acceptance of continued Armenian control over the disputed territory.

In an extensive weekend interview with RFE/RL, he insisted that the basic principles of the Karabakh settlement that were formally put forward in Madrid in November 2007 are “incomparably” more favorable for the Armenian side than any of the peace proposals made by the U.S., Russian and French mediators in the past.

“Whereas in the past we were offered at worst a high degree of [Karabakh’s] autonomy within Azerbaijan and at best horizontal ties between Azerbaijan and Karabakh within the framework of a common state, the Madrid principles … provide for the self-determination of the Nagorno-Karabakh people, which obviously means Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence or reunification with Armenia,” said Oskanian.

“I am convinced that if we let slip this recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh people’s right to self-determination, it will be very difficult to gain it again in the future and the negotiations could go in a totally different direction and they could start upholding [Azerbaijan’s] territorial integrity,” he said. “Today we have an advantage over Azerbaijan in terms of the upholding of this [self-determination] principle. That is why I think we should be careful in our statements, our criticisms and should pick the right target.”

The so-called Madrid principles, which the conflicting parties started discussing years before November 2007, envisage a phased resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that would start with a gradual liberation of the districts in Azerbaijan proper partly or fully occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. In return, Karabakh would retain a land corridor to Armenia and be able to determine its final status in a future referendum.

Like his predecessor Robert Kocharian, President Serzh Sarkisian appears to have essentially accepted this peace formula. According to the American, French and Russian diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group, Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev made significant progress in face-to-face meetings held this year and could iron out their remaining differences before the end of this year.

The prospect of a breakthrough in the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks has prompted serious concern from Armenian nationalist groups opposed to major territorial concessions to Baku even in return for international recognition of Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. The largest of them, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), has warned that it will campaign for Sarkisian’s resignation if he signs up to the Madrid principles.

Oskanian dismissed the hardliners’ position, saying that no peaceful settlement is possible without the return of most of the Armenian-controlled territories surrounding Karabakh. “If the Armenian side wants to exclude the issues of return of territories, return of [Azerbaijani] refugees from future principles and be guided by the principle of ‘not a single inch of land to the enemy,’ which would be a wonderful solution, then Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh or both of them should pull out of the negotiations,” he said. “If we are to negotiate, these principles will always be on the table.”

The Madrid principles have also been rejected by some leading members of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). The alliance’s top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, was forced to resign in 1998 because of his vigorous advocacy of a similar peace accord drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairs in 1997. It too called for Armenian withdrawal from at least six of the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts but contained no mechanisms for determining Karabakh’s status, the main bone of contention.

Some of Ter-Petrosian’s close associates say that the 1997 deal is better than what the mediators have proposed to Kocharian and Sarkisian. In particular, they claim that under that plan the occupied lands would not necessarily be placed back under Azerbaijani control after the Armenian pullout from them.

Oskanian, who served as foreign minister from 1998-2008, insisted that in 1997 the international community sought Karabakh’s eventual return under Azerbaijani rule and came to terms with its de facto independence only during Kocharian’s presidency. “Sometimes we are driven by revenge and don’t think before saying and doing something,” he said in a clear reference to the Ter-Petrosian camp.

Oskanian argued that instead of rejecting the Madrid document out of hand, Armenian opposition forces should focus on its crucial details. “Today their task must be to clarify what the bar set by the authorities is,” he said. “Our bar was set high. I have many doubts about today’s bar,” he added, exposing fears that Sarkisian is ready to make more concessions to Azerbaijan than Kocharian was.

The Minsk Group co-chairs said last week that they are working on an “updated version” of the Madrid document to increase chances of its acceptance by Baku and Yerevan. It is not yet clear just how significant the changes made by them are.

Speaking in RFE/RL’s Yerevan studio, Oskanian also reaffirmed his criticism of Sarkisian’s conciliatory policy towards Turkey that has earned the latter plaudits in the West but has not produced any tangible results so far. “Turkey has gotten from this Turkish-Armenian process what it wanted,” he said. “The Armenian side has not gained anything yet.”

Oskanian, who set up last year a private think-tank called Civilitas, was unimpressed by Sarkisian’s recent announcement that he will not travel to Turkey this October for the return match of the two countries’ national football unless Ankara takes “real steps” to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border. He said Sarkisian should have made a more explicit linkage between the visit and an open border.

“He left the window open,” the Syrian-born ex-minister said. “I think that’s what the Turks want … I just don’t know when our authorities will finally realize that the Turkish side is exploiting the process. They should have realized that a long time ago.”

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