By Emil Danielyan
In a move hailed by Azerbaijan, the U.S. State Department has restored the original version of its annual human rights report that refers to Nagorno-Karabakh as an Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia.
The reference was dropped from the report’s chapter on human rights in Armenia last week following strong protests from official Yerevan and Armenian lobby groups in the United States. Its revised version stopped short of describing Karabakh as an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan.
The significant change in the report’s wording was condemned by Azerbaijan which cancelled on Sunday a planned visit to Washington by a high-level government delegation. The move prompted U.S. officials to reassure Baku that Washington recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in the Karabakh conflict
The State Department denied on Thursday that it restored the controversial passage under Azerbaijani pressure. “We didn’t do anything under pressure,” an official at the department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs told RFE/RL from Washington. “We were trying to correct some unclear language that led to confusion about our policy. We’ve determined that our policy has not changed and that we need to stand by the original human rights report.”
“I think this whole thing from our side was a mistake in the way that it was handled, and I’m sorry that that mistake has led to all of this exaggerated press attention and has been blown out of proportion,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The Azerbaijani government was quick to welcome the restored sentence of the report which says, “Armenia continues to occupy the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories.” “This change is a very important news for me,” Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said Thursday, according to the Day.az news service.
Predictably, Armenian reaction to the development was diametrically opposite. “We thought the mistake [in the report’s original version] was corrected and are bewildered by such an unserious approach to the matter,” Vladimir Karapetian, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL.
Karapetian said Yerevan hopes that the State Department will again revise the report, arguing that U.S. diplomats had “recognized their mistake” during talks with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and other Armenian officials. He also pointed to comments made by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza in an interview with the Azerbaijani Azertaj news agency on Wednesday.
“We have admitted and corrected our mistake,” Bryza was quoted as saying. “We can not predetermine the outcome of negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.”
Bryza, who is also the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group on Karabakh, could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.
The State Department official stressed that U.S. policy on the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute has not changed. “We support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but we hold that the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter of negotiations between the parties,” he said.
The Minsk Group’s existing peace plan, strongly backed by the U.S., paves the way for international recognition of Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan by envisaging a referendum of self-determined in the Armenian-controlled disputed territory. Diplomats privy to the peace process say the conflicting parties have already agreed on most basic principles of the proposed settlement.
In a joint statement last week, the group’s American, French and Russian co-chairs reiterated their hopes that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan will meet and cut a framework peace deal shortly after the May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections. They said another Armenian-Azerbaijani summit “could mark an endpoint for negotiations on basic principles and a starting point for a process to develop a comprehensive settlement agreement.”