By Emil Danielyan and Anna Saghabalian
International mediators appeared on Thursday unusually optimistic about prospects for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, saying that the peace process continues to move forward and may yield a breakthrough next year.
U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-heading the OSCE’s Minsk Group said they are satisfied with their Wednesday meeting with President Robert Kocharian and look forward to holding similar talks in Baku on Friday. A written statement issued by them indicated that the conflicting parties are now set to build on significant progress in Karabakh peace talks reportedly made over the past year.
“After our meeting with President Kocharian we believe, as firmly as ever, that events are moving in the right direction,” the group’s U.S. co-chair Steven Mann told a news conference.
“We are convinced that next year [will see] a real window of opportunity to achieve significant progress towards a peaceful settlement based on what has been worked out this year,” agreed his French counterpart, Bernard Fassier.
Fassier stressed the fact that no elections are planned in Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2006, making it easier for their leaders to reach unpopular compromise agreements on Karabakh. “We are convinced that this golden opportunity must not be missed this time,” he said, warning that failure to use that opportunity would mean several more years of deadlock.
This optimism contrasted with the latest comments made by Arkady Ghukasian, the president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic who met the mediating troika twice on Wednesday. He told reporters that the conflicting parties are still “pretty far from a settlement.”
The Minsk Group co-chairs declined to directly comment on Ghukasian’s remarks, with Mann noting that the decade-long Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations are indeed “very tough.” “But what gives us hope as negotiators is that even though the sides are very tough-minded in putting their positions forward, we are seeing a desire on their part to work towards an agreement,” said the U.S. diplomat.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian similarly played down the voice of dissonance. Oskanian said he spoke with the Karabakh leader on Thursday morning and believes that his comments were taken out of context by the media. “I think that the media did not present the Nagorno-Karabakh president’s view correctly,” Oskanian told a news conference. “The president said that we are far from a settlement judging by statements from the Azerbaijani side.”
Oskanian himself was far more upbeat. “There has been positive movement this year,” he said. “If that trend continues, it will be possible to expect some document to be born at the beginning of 2006. A lot depends on the next meeting of the presidents [of Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
The meeting is expected to take place next month. The mediators said its precise date and venue have yet to be confirmed. They again refused to shed any light on peace proposals discussed by the parties.
Merzlyakov confirmed that the co-chairs came up with a written proposal when they met with Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov in Ljubljana, Slovenia last week. “We did pass written proposals on to the ministers,” Russia’s chief Karabakh negotiator, Yuri Merzlyakov, said. “But they were less than one page long.”
Mann referred to them as “fundamental principles” of a Karabakh settlement and said the mediators focused on its details during their meeting with Kocharian. “In our discussions with President Kocharian we covered the entire range of issues that would be involved in a Karabakh settlement, and those are very many issues,” he said without elaborating.
According to Oskanian, a “comprehensive” plan to resolve the conflict will be discussed and possibly made public only if Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Alive strike a framework peace deal.
For his part, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said on Tuesday that the Minsk Group did not come up with a new peace plan in the Slovenian capital. Azimov said the parties are discussing unspecified “nine provisions” that have been on the negotiating table for the last few years. “2006 may see progress in the negotiations on the Karabakh conflict,” he told reporters in Baku.
(Photolur photo: Mann, left, Merzlyakov, center, and Fassier speaking at the news conference.)