By Karine Kalantarian and Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert
A team of international mediators completed on Sunday a fresh round of peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh, calling on the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to meet soon and discuss their “new ideas” of resolving the long-running conflict.
The French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe appeared to have submitted no written proposals to the parties this time. They made it clear that those will be drawn up after President Robert Kocharian’s first direct talks with his recently elected Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev and will not be markedly different from their previous peace plans.
“We have not proposed to the two presidents new proposals,” Henri Jacolin, France’s representative to the Minsk Group, told reporters in Yerevan after a meeting with Kocharian on Saturday. “We have some ideas, but it would have been too early to present them before we know the views of the two presidents.”
His Russian opposite number, Yuri Merzlyakov, likewise spoke of unspecified “new approaches” to Karabakh peace. “Those approaches will apparently be discussed by the two presidents when they meet,” Merzlyakov said.
The envoys said that although the two presidents recognize the need for a face-to-face meeting, they have not yet set a date for it. Rudolf Perina, the chief U.S. negotiators, said they should meet “as early as they can.”
“There is an important opportunity -- and I would almost say responsibility -- to try to get an energetic process going again now that elections in both countries have been completed,” Perina said, admitting that the polls were responsible for the one-year pause in the mediating troika’s activities.
It was their first tour of the zone of conflict in over a year, and the first encounter with Aliev since his controversial inheritance of power last October from his ailing father Heydar. The politically inexperienced Azeri leader’s ability to embrace major concessions to the Armenian side is seen as one of the key conditions for ending the bitter territorial dispute that has been the region’s main destabilizing factor.
In his opening remarks to the mediators in Baku on Friday, made before television cameras, Aliev junior stuck to the official Azerbaijani line that the international community is doing little to restore his country’s control over Karabakh. He claimed that the Azerbaijani public is increasingly skeptical about the Minsk Group.
“The co-chairs of the Minsk Group have no proposals that would lead to a just settlement of the Karabakh conflict,” Aliev’s foreign minister, Vilayat Guliev, said in a newspaper interview published the next day.
The Azerbaijani leadership’s stance was described as a “language of double standards” by Jacolin after the co-chairs met with the president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Arkady Ghukasian, in Stepanakert on Sunday. The French envoy noted that while being critical of the Minsk Group, Baku concedes that it still represents a “good format” of negotiations.
Ghukasian, for his part, confirmed that the mediators did not unveil a complete peace package. “I guess it is still early to talk about new proposals,” he told journalists.
Ghukasian also reiterated his view that the Karabakh Armenians’ direct involvement in the peace talks is “imperative,” arguing that Kocharian and Aliev alone can not solve the problem.
Officials in Yerevan made no public comments on the Minsk Group’s latest round of shuttle diplomacy. They have said all along that peace agreements reportedly reached by Kocharian and Heydar Aliev in Key West, Florida in 2001 must be at the heart of any future peace initiative. Addressing Armenian lawmakers late last month, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian claimed that they would uphold Karabakh’s de facto independence from Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly denied the existence of such agreements. However, the mediators have indicated the opposite, with Perina declaring at a conference in May 2002 that the two sides were “incredibly close” to cutting a deal on Karabakh.
Perina hinted strongly in Yerevan that the peace formula agreed at Key West remains on the negotiating table. “In ten years of negotiation there are very few ideas which are completely new,” he said. “At one point or another most of the basic approaches to resolving this problem have been discussed.”
“That is why the challenge now is perhaps just modifying various ideas, combining them, refining them and making new combinations, rather than trying to develop a completely new idea.”
Merzlyakov noted in this regard that the new Minsk Group plan may contain elements of the so-called step-by-step strategy of ending the dispute that would delay agreement on Karabakh’s status. He declined to elaborate, however.
The mediators’ attempts to broker a phased solution already ended in failure in February 1998 when Armenia’s then President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who strongly advocated the idea, was forced to step down by his key ministers, including Kocharian. The Kocharian administration has since insisted on a “package” accord that would settle all contentious issues.