Armenia and Azerbaijan agree on the basic elements of a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement and must now take a final “bold step” to hammer out a historic peace deal, the United States said on Wednesday.
In what he called a “statement of official U.S. government policy,” James Warlick, Washington’s chief Karabakh negotiator, urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to meet again soon and iron out their differences on a framework peace accord drafted by the American, Russian and French mediators.
“Peace is within reach,” Warlick said in a speech at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The sides have come to a point where their positions on the way forward are not that far apart. They have almost reached agreement on several occasions – most recently in 2011.”
“The challenge is to find a way to help the sides take that last, bold step forward to bridge their remaining differences,” added the U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group .
Warlick insisted that both Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sarkisian largely accept the mediators’ Basic Principles of resolving the Karabakh conflict as a blueprint for peace. “Both agree that the series of documents negotiated over the past several years contains the outlines of a deal,” he said, listing the key elements of the peace proposals made by the Minsk Group’s U.S., Russian and French co-chairs.
The proposed settlement, repeatedly modified by the co-chairs in the last few years, would begin with a gradual Armenian-withdrawal from Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh. The disputed territory would remain connected to Armenia through an overland corridor. As Warlick put it, “It must be wide enough to provide secure passage, but it cannot encompass the whole of Lachin district.”
The diplomat also reaffirmed that Karabakh’s final status, the main stumbling block, would eventually be determined through a “mutually agreed and legally binding expression of will,” presumably a referendum in Karabakh.
The conflicting parties have until now disagreed on practical modalities of such a vote as well as time frames for the return of the Armenian-controlled districts around Karabakh. Aliyev and Sarkisian revived hopes for an agreement on these and other sticking points when they met in Vienna last November for the first time in almost two years. The mediating troika has so far failed to get them to meet again.
“The United States has pressed both leaders to meet again soon and take advantage of this window of opportunity when peace is possible,” Warlick said. He cited no possible dates for the next Armenian-Azerbaijani summit.
The envoy further indicated that the U.S. intends to continue to work with Russia in trying to broker Karabakh peace despite Moscow’s deepening confrontation with the West resulting from the crisis in Ukraine. “We intend to continue working through the Minsk Group as the primary channel for resolving this conflict. Together with France, the United States and Russia share a common commitment to peace and security in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said in remarks posted on the websites of the U.S. embassies in Baku and Yerevan.
Warlick revealed in that regard that he and the fellow co-chairs from Russia and France plan to again visit the conflict zone next week.
The diplomat addressed the U.S. think-tank a week after being accused by Azerbaijan of pro-Armenian bias. A senior Azerbaijani official said that Baku will demand Warlick’s replacement because he has been “deliberately taking steps aimed at satisfying the interests of the Armenian side and promoting separatism.” Armenian and Karabakh officials dismissed these allegations.
Warlick did not comment on the Azerbaijani complaints in his speech. He said instead, “The time has come for the sides to commit themselves to peace negotiations, building on the foundation of work done so far. It is not realistic to conclude that occasional meetings are sufficient by themselves to bring about a lasting peace.”