By Aza Babayan in Moscow and Armen Zakarian
Azerbaijan left on Tuesday the clearest indication yet that it is considering a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would enable the predominantly Armenian population of the disputed region to determine its status at a referendum.
That the referendum option is at the heart of a peace accord currently discussed by the conflicting parties was also reportedly confirmed by government officials in Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest ally.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov did not rule out the possibility of its acceptance as he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service before starting crucial talks with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian in Moscow. “There is a number of variants that are being discussed,” he said. “Naturally, one of the variants is the expression of the people’s will. Another variant is how and when it will happen. This question is not yet discussed.”
Senior Armenian officials told RFE/RL last June that the parties are close to cutting a deal that would lead to an internationally supervised referendum on independence in Karabakh in 10 to 15 years from now. They claimed that the vote would follow the liberation of all but one of the seven Armenian-controlled districts in Azerbaijan that surround Karabakh. International mediators have refused to confirm or deny the claims.
A Turkish newspaper cited unnamed government officials in Ankara on Monday as revealing exactly the same peace formula for Karabakh. “Diplomatic sources said that the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders are expected to break the deadlock on Nagorno-Karabakh and progress on a plan that foresees Armenian withdrawal from at least five of its seven occupied regions, and recognition of Karabakh's future status through a referendum within 15 years,” the English-language “New Anatolian” daily reported.
Presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian are scheduled to meet this weekend in the Russian city of Kazan on the sidelines of a summit of former Soviet republics. Oskanian and Mammadyarov are supposed to prepare for the potentially decisive Armenian-Azerbaijani summit.
The two ministers began what they called “informal” negotiations in Moscow in the presence of the French, Russian and U.S. mediators on Tuesday. The “official” part of the talks is scheduled for Wednesday. Both men sought to guard against excessive expectations from the Aliev-Kocharian meeting, saying that it will not result in the signing of any agreements on Karabakh.
Asked whether the parties have reached any agreements on Karabakh’s status, the key stumbling block, Mammadyarov said: “No, I can’t say that.”
“It is too early to speak of an agreement,” Oskanian told RFE/RL, for his part. “We are now focusing on elements of the settlement. When we feel that we have found common ground on a sufficient number of elements it will be worth putting all of that on paper. We are still very far from that situation.”
The Turkish paper said Ankara hopes that a breakthrough in the Aliev-Kocharian talks will allow it to take the first steps towards the normalization of its relations with Yerevan. “Turkish officials say that they're considering reopening the border with Armenia, if and when Yerevan commits to a pullout from Nagorno-Karabakh,” it said.
Senior Armenian and Turkish diplomats held confidential talks in Vienna in May and July to discuss a possible rapprochement. Diplomatic sources in Yerevan reiterated on Tuesday that they failed to reach any major agreements or make progress. They said the Karabakh issue was not on the agenda of those talks.