Ending a two-day visit to Yerevan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza also laughed off suggestions that the newly modified version of the proposed basic principles of a Karabakh settlement is less favorable to the Armenian side than the original document formally put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group in Madrid in November 2007.
Bryza and fellow Minsk Group co-chairs from Russia and France met in Krakow, Poland late last month to prepare what they call an “updated version” of the peace plan and thereby try to facilitate its acceptance by the conflicting parties. He discussed the proposed changes with President Serzh Sarkisian on Friday and is scheduled to hold similar talks with Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev next Wednesday.
“The fundamental formulations that are in the Madrid document remain, and what has changed is a few slight technical points that are important, of course, but they are technical and in no way disadvantage either side,” Bryza told RFE/RL in an interview.
“What we did [in Krakow] was try to offer our best ideas and suggestions on how to bridge the remaining differences between the presidents based on all of the discussions that have taken place since the Madrid document was first presented back in November 2007,” he said. “President Sarkisian has strong views, President [Robert] Kocharian had strong views after Madrid, President Aliyev has strong views. Discussions have gone up and back for almost two years, and we took all of those ideas that were put on the table and tried to bring them together with the co-chairs’ best effort to make both sides as satisfied as possible.”
Some opposition politicians in Armenia have speculated that the updated peace proposals call for more Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan on key issues such as the holding of a future referendum on self-determination in Nagorno-Karabakh, security guarantees for the Armenian-controlled territory and the return of refugees. They claim that there are important differences between the mediating powers’ recent and past statements on Karabakh.
Bryza dismissed those claims as “ridiculous” and “empty.” “Certainly those who are claiming that the update of the Madrid document, based on what we did in Krakow, somehow disadvantages Armenia … are operating out of sheer ignorance,” he said.
The Minsk Group plan was amended after Aliyev’s and Sarkisian’s failure to iron out their remaining differences during talks held in Moscow on July 17-18. The mediators hope that the two leaders will finally achieve a breakthrough when they meet again in late September or early October.
Bryza maintained that the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders agree on the “fundamental concept” behind the compromise settlement favored by the United States, Russia and France. “But it’s a long distance from agreeing on the basic concept to actually agreeing or to having a finalized document,” he cautioned.
“An analogy would be that they have agreed on the menu for a meal,” he said. “They know what dishes they want to cook, maybe they’ve even started cooking some of them, but none of those dishes are prepared yet. They’re still cooking. We don’t know what they will finally look like until the cooking process is finished.”
Significantly, the U.S. envoy indicated that Baku and Yerevan are close to agreeing a timetable for the liberation of seven districts in Azerbaijan proper that were partly or fully occupied by Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. According to some Armenian sources, that was the main stumbling block in Aliyev’s negotiations with Kocharian.
Sarkisian’s predecessor is said to have insisted that two of those districts, which are wedged between Armenia and Karabakh, be returned to Azerbaijan only after the Karabakh referendum. Aliyev rejected that condition. In a recent televised interview, he said that the Kelbajar and Lachin districts would be placed back under Azerbaijani control five years after the start of Armenian pullout from the other occupied territories.
“I think they are getting close to and maybe they do generally agree on the timing [of Armenian troop withdrawal,] but there are very important details that still have to be agreed and can not be agreed until other associated questions, other elements of the basic principles are resolved,” Bryza said. “So I would not say that they agree on any of these things, but they are coming closer.”
Other major sticking points include the status of a land corridor between Armenia and Karabakh as well as international security guarantees that the disputed enclave would enjoy until the clarification of its legal status. The Madrid document reportedly envisages that Karabakh would remain under Armenian control during that time.
Renewed hopes for Karabakh peace, which were stoked by Aliyev’s and Sarkisian’s previous face-to-face meetings held in June and May, have sparked an uproar from Armenian nationalist groups that are opposed to territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. Also attacking Sarkisian’s Karabakh policy is the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who has long championed mutual compromise with Azerbaijan.
Bryza claimed he is not worried that the outcry could discourage Sarkisian from pressing ahead with a compromise settlement. “It doesn’t worry me too much,” he said. “It’s domestic politics. These critics either helped design the basic principles …, or they were members of the government that negotiated the basic principles, or they proposed ideas in the past that are very similar to what’s being negotiated now. So all of them made their contributions to getting where we are today, which is good.”
He appeared to refer to Ter-Petrosian’s HAK, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and some members of the Kocharian administration such as former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who has expressed concern about recent developments in the Karabakh peace process. Dashnaktsutyun was represented in Kocharian’s government throughout his decade-long rule, while Ter-Petrosian had strongly advocated in 1997-1998 a peace deal similar to the Madrid document.