The U.S., Russian and French mediators were confronted by angry Armenian settlers opposed to any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan as they travelled from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin corridor at the weekend.
Several dozen protesters holding posters blocked a road in the town of Lachin, which was renamed Berdzor after being captured by the Karabakh Armenians in 1992. They stopped a motorcade of cars carrying the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and other officials and made them listen to their demands.
The protesters, virtually all of them residents of the town and nearby villages that used to be populated by Azerbaijanis, condemned the mediators’ most recent statement that stressed, among other things, the need to return to Azerbaijan the Armenian-controlled territories surrounding Karabakh. They were also angry at similar calls that were separately made by James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair, in a speech delivered earlier this month.
“We want the co-chairs to know that we gained independence in 1991 and our lands cannot be a subject of haggling,” said one young man. “They need to understand that we are the masters of our land.”
“Should Armenians again be deported? That’s absurd,” another protester said, referring to one of the Basic Principles of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict put forward by the United States, Russia and France.
“We respect the rights of those who demonstrate peacefully even when we disagree,” Warlick tweeted afterwards. “In Lachin, I listened,” he said, posting a picture of himself talking to the protesters.
Speaking to reporters in Stepanakert on Sunday, Warlick said he was surprised by the unprecedented protest but called his conversation with its participants useful. “Nagorno-Karabakh is so beautiful and I’m so impressed to see so many young people,” he said. “It’s our duty to ensure … this new generation lives in peace.”
“We are not coming here to impose any settlements,” Warlick stressed. A compromise peace deal must be acceptable to all conflicting parties, he said.
In his May 7 speech, the U.S. envoy listed the six key elements of the framework peace accord drafted by the mediators. One of them, he said, stipulates that “the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh should be returned to Azerbaijani control.”
“There can be no settlement without respect for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, and the recognition that its sovereignty over these territories must be restored,” Warlick said in Washington. He noted at the same time that Karabakh would remain connected to Armenia through the Lachin corridor. “It must be wide enough to provide secure passage, but it cannot encompass the whole of Lachin district,” he said.
The Armenian withdrawal would be followed by “a legally-binding expression of will,” presumably a referendum in which Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would be able to reaffirm the territory’s secession from Azerbaijan. Warlick, Russia’s Igor Popov and France’s Jacques Faure reaffirmed this peace formula in their joint statement issued last week. Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian reiterated that it is largely acceptable to Armenia.
The unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is less happy with the proposed settlement, however. Bako Sahakian, the NKR president, indicated his objections as met with the visiting mediators on Sunday. Sahakian was quoted by his press office as telling them that Karabakh’s “return to the past both in terms of status and borders is impossible.”
The mediators travelled to Karabakh on the second leg of the latest round of their shuttle diplomacy aimed at kick-starting the stalled peace process. They met with Armenia’s President Serzh Sarkisian, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian in Yerevan on Friday.
The diplomats proceeded to Baku on Monday through one of the most volatile sections of the Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” around Karabakh. They monitored the ceasefire regime there before crossing into Azerbaijani-controlled territory.