By Ruzanna KhachatrianArmenia and Azerbaijan will resume early next week internationally mediated negotiations that could mark a turning point in their protracted search for a mutually acceptable solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov will meet in Prague to try to build on agreements apparently reached by them last summer. They have both expressed cautious optimism about the outcome of the peace talks.
A statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said the meeting will take place on Tuesday in the presence of American, French and Russian diplomats co-chairing the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Mammadyarov’s deputy Araz Azimov announced the same date earlier on Friday.
The two ministers held three separate meetings in the Czech capital last summer and subsequently claimed to have made progress toward the resolution of the territorial dispute. Oskanian says they worked out a “general framework” for the future peace deal.
Azerbaijani leaders insist that it will be based on the so-called “phased” strategy of conflict resolution that would delay agreement on Karabakh’s status until after the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied territories in Azerbaijan proper.
Armenian officials say Baku is making a “one-sided” interpretation of the Prague understandings but stop short of explicitly denying those claims. “We find it boring to comment on propaganda ploys designed for domestic Azerbaijani use,” a spokesman for President Robert Kocharian told RFE/RL earlier this week.
Still, Yuri Merzlyakov, Russia’s chief Karabakh negotiator, was quoted by an Azerbaijani newspaper on Thursday as saying that the Armenians, who demanded a “package” peace accord until now, have finally agreed to the stage-by-stage formula. Officials in Yerevan declined on Friday to comment on this, saying only that Merzlyakov’s statements have been distorted by the Azerbaijani media in the past.
A phased deal would mark a substantial shift in Kocharian’s Karabakh policy toward a settlement favored by his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrosian. Armenian leaders have indicated in recent weeks that they are now ready to embrace at least some elements of the peace strategy preferred by Ter-Petrosian.
“What matters is not definitions but the kind of documents we deal with,” said Tigran Torosian, the deputy parliament speaker affiliated with the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
“As long as there is no document on the table all the speculations will have no value,” Torosian added. “If there will be phases, one will have to look at their integrity and the end result. This is the main thing.”
Hrair Karapetian, a senior lawmaker from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the HHK’s junior coalition partner, was also vague on the subject, saying that Karabakh must not be placed back under Azerbaijani rule under any circumstances.
“The phased variant is not acceptable to us,” said Vazgen Manukian of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance. “But it is worth discussing anything.”