The Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents agree in principle that Nagorno-Karabakh’s status should be determined in a future referendum to be held in the disputed territory, according to a senior U.S. State Department official.
“They’re not that far apart on what a settlement would look like,” the official told American journalists on Monday, speaking, on the condition of anonymity, ahead of the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in Vienna.
“The presidents agree that there needs to be an expression of the will of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh at some time to decide Nagorno-Karabakh’s future,” the official said in remarks publicized by the State Department. “Of course, the Armenians would like a date set and would like to have that referendum done as soon as possible.”
The diplomat referred to one of the key elements of a framework peace accord that was first drafted by U.S., Russian and French mediators a decade ago and has been repeatedly modified by them since then. The so-called Basic Principles call for a gradual Armenian withdrawal from virtually all districts around Karabakh before the referendum on the territory’s status.
Through such a vote, Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would presumably be able to gain international recognition of its de facto secession from Azerbaijan.
Baku and Yerevan have long disagreed on some key details of the proposed settlement, including practical modalities of the would-be referendum.
“Azerbaijan’s overwhelming objective is to get control of the land surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, and that’s very possible as part of a comprehensive settlement,” said the U.S. State Department official. “For Armenia, the issue is status. And they can get this status also as a part of a comprehensive settlement.”
Public statements made by President Ilham Aliyev and other Azerbaijani leaders have run counter to this peace formula. They have repeatedly stated that any settlement of the conflict must result in Karabakh’s return under Baku’s control.
Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, most recently came close to ironing out their difference at a 2011 summit in Kazan, Russia that ended in failure. Ceasefire violations in the conflict zone have increasingly intensified since then, culminating in last month’s outbreak of fierce fighting around Karabakh that nearly triggered a full-scale war. The escalation dealt a further blow to hopes for a compromise solution to the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute.
“There are Azerbaijanis who believe that this conflict will be settled only through the barrel of a gun,” said the U.S. official. “But we don’t believe that either of the presidents supports that.”
“In general, [Aliyev and Sarkisian] have okay chemistry with each other,” said another unnamed State Department, who also briefed the same reporters in Vienna. “The question is whether, having had this spark of violence in April, they’re ready to actually get back down to it.”
The two presidents pledged to bolster the ceasefire regime when they met in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later on Monday. They also tentatively agreed to hold another meeting next month in an attempt to revive the peace process.