By Armen Zakarian and Hrach Melkumian
Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have agreed to freeze the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process until after next year’s presidential elections in their countries, according to a senior Armenian lawmaker.
“2003 will probably be the calmest year in the settlement of the Karabakh issue because there are some internal agreements to that effect,” Hovannes Hovannisian, chairman of the parliament committee on foreign relations, told RFE/RL on Saturday. Hovannisian said the 2003 presidential elections in both countries are the main reason for Presidents Heydar Aliev’s and Robert Kocharian’s reluctance to press ahead with a peace deal that would require major mutual concessions.
The two leaders seek reelection and face more hard-line opponents who often accuse them of betraying national interests. During their most recent meeting in Prague late last month, they both confirmed the widely held belief that the new year will not see a breakthrough in the 11-year negotiating process.
Aliev and Kocharian held a series of face-to-face meetings throughout 2002, announcing each time further progress towards a long-awaited peaceful settlement. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian hinted on Friday that they have already hammered out many details of a future peace accord on Karabakh.
“There is a quite good base for moving this process forward faster after the presidential elections,” Oskanian said in an interview with RFE/RL. He said a team of French, U.S. and Russian negotiators seeking a solution to the Karabakh dispute also hope to achieve “serious success” after the polls scheduled to take place in February 2003 in Armenia and October 2003 in Azerbaijan.
“Because of the elections, the process is expected to slow down on the presidential level. But it will not be interrupted,” Oskanian added. He said Aliev’s and Kocharian’s special Karabakh envoys will instead maintain “more active” contacts.
Aliev and Kocharian are confident of their election victory. The two presidents were reportedly close to a peace deal following negotiations in Paris and Florida in early 2001. Armenian officials accuse Aliev of subsequently backtracking on those agreements.
“Had Azerbaijan accepted the proposed settlement, we would have already been halfway through the implementation of the peace agreement,” Kocharian said in a speech at a NATO summit on November 22.
Azerbaijani officials, however, insist that no major agreements were reached at the time.