By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Stepanian
President Robert Kocharian will be invited to the Kremlin for urgent talks on Nagorno-Karabakh, in what his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin presented as an attempt to salvage the Karabakh peace process during an official visit to Azerbaijan on Wednesday.
Putin announced the diplomatic initiative after talks in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev. “I agree with Ilham Aliev in that despite all the difficulties, both sides can find a mutually acceptable solution,” he said, according to the Itar-Tass news agency. “Russia will do everything it can to ensure a positive outcome of the negotiations.”
“I promise that we will initiate and hold additional consultations with our Armenian partners. I will contact Robert Kocharian soon to invite him to Moscow,” added Putin.
Putin would not say if that means he and Aliev have reached important agreements on the issue. He assured reporters that Moscow will not seek to impose solutions on the conflicting parties. "We absolutely exclude the possibility of putting pressure on any one of the negotiating parties," he said.
The Russian imitative follows the failure of Aliev’s and Kocharian’s February 10-11 meeting in France that had been widely expected to result in a framework peace deal. French, Russian and U.S. diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group are scheduled to meet in Washington early next month to decide on their next steps. The United States seems particularly keen to prevent a loss of what it regards as the best chance of Karabakh peace in years, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly discussing the issue with Aliev by phone last week.
Rice had already phoned Aliev and Kocharian on the eve of their two-day talks at Rambouillet castle near Paris. Armenian officials say she did not contact Kocharian after the summit, giving weight to their claims that it collapsed because of Aliev’s last-minute rejection of a peace plan put forward by the Minsk Group. At the heart of the plan is the idea of holding a referendum in Karabakh that would almost certainly formalize Armenian control over the disputed territory.
Also, there have been reports that the foreign ministers and even presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan may meet in Washington as early as next month.
It is not clear if the United States and France were informed about the announced Russian push for Karabakh peace beforehand. Putin’s statements may spark speculation that Moscow is trying to wrest the initiative from Washington or simply thwart any settlement.
While in Baku, Putin was at pains to dispell persisting suspicions that his country is disinterested in the conflict’s resolution. “Russia is in fact extremely interested in resolving all the conflicts in the post-Soviet space,” AFP quoted him as saying. “Those who say it is not have been misled or are trying to mislead.”
“Azerbaijan counts on Russia’s continued participation … in efforts at a just resolution of the Karabakh conflict,” Aliev was reported to say for his part. He said his Karabakh-related discussions with Putin were “very substantive” but did not elaborate.
Russia’s involvement in the peace process was also praised on Wednesday by a senior Karabakh official. "We highly appreciate Russia's mediation efforts as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group to reach a solution to the Karabakh-Azerbaijani conflict,” Georgi Petrosian, foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, told the Russian Regnum news agency.
The NKR leadership maintains that the negotiating process will remain deadlocked as long as Azerbaijan refuses to directly negotiate with the Karabakh Armenians. In a weekend interview with RFE/RL, NKR President Arkady Ghukasian said official Yerevan should refrain from further talks with Baku until the latter recognizes Karabakh as a separate party to the conflict.
But Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian ruled this out on Wednesday, reiterating his government’s assurances that Armenia will cut no peace deals without the consent of the authorities in Stepanakert. “There is an understanding among all, including the Azerbaijanis, that once agreement has been reached on the basic principles and the work has begun on the details of the agreement, Nagorno-Karabakh will join the talks,” he said in a written statement.
Oskanian also argued that Minsk Group proposals have grown more acceptable to the Armenian side in recent years despite the Karabakh Armenians’ effective exclusion from the peace process. “There was a time when Armenia’s position was the following: Whatever Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan agreed to would be acceptable to Armenia,” he said. “However, in those days we received proposals which were completely unacceptable to the Armenian side. From the time when the Republic of Armenia became more actively involved in the negotiations, the kinds of proposals which have been tabled are based on principles which can indeed be discussed.”
Leaders of Armenia’s three-party governing coalition also effectively dismissed Ghukasian’s calls. Galust Sahakian, the parlaimentary leader of the Republican Party, denied that they exposed a growing rift between Yerevan and Stepanakert. “I think [Ghukasian’s] statement was more of a diplomatic ploy than a sign of differences between Armenia and Karabakh,” he told RFE/RL.
“If Armenia pulls out, the ongoing negotiating process will stall,” said Levon Mkrtchian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. “We must think just how beneficial the interruption of that process would be for the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. We need to find answers to these questions before taking any steps.”