By Karine Kalantarian
International mediators met Armenian leaders in Yerevan Monday on the second leg of a fresh regional tour seen as their last-ditch attempt to salvage the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
The American, Russian and French diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group shed little light on their talks with President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as they held a joint news conference before proceeding to Baku. In particular, they would not say if Kocharian is ready hold yet another face-to-face meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev before the end of this year.
The mediators hope that Aliev and Kocharian will again try to iron out their remaining differences on a framework peace agreement put forward by the Minsk Group. The two leader failed to do that when they last met in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg in June, all but dashing hopes for a near-term solution to the Karabakh conflict.
Speaking to journalists earlier on Monday, the Minsk Group’s U.S. co-chair, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, said prospects for Karabakh peace have somewhat improved since then. “I feel relieved that the momentum is not completely gone,” he said. I thought that maybe it was gone after Saint Petersburg.”
“Depending on how the presidents react, maybe there really is room to resolve the last couple of issues we have out there,” he added.
Bryza insisted that the conflicting parties are still “close” to cutting a framework peace deal but avoided assessing chances of a breakthrough in the peace talks before presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan next year. “Whether that breakthrough will happen right now is impossible to say. That depends entirely on the two presidents,” he said.
Bryza went on to warn that Aliev’s and Kocharian’s refusal to meet again this year would raise questions about their commitment to mutual compromise. “If they don’t say yes, then you’ll wonder, ‘What are they thinking in the back of their mind? What are their plans? Are they really fully committed to reaching an agreement?’”
Oskanian told RFE/RL earlier this month that Yerevan will agree to another Armenian-Azerbaijani summit only if the mediators manage to bring the parties’ positions closer to each other during their trip to Yerevan and Baku. It remains unclear that the parties specifically disagree on.
The Minsk Group plan calls for a gradual settlement of the conflict whereby Karabakh’s status will be determined by its predominantly Armenian population in a referendum after an Armenian pullout from Azerbaijani territories surrounding the disputed enclave. In Bryza’s words, the co-chairs have added unspecified “nice, creative ideas” to the plan in a bid to break the impasse. But he stressed that there will be “no radical departure” from its basic principles.
The co-chairs arrived in Yerevan from Stepanakert where they held talks with Bako Sahakian, the recently elected president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. “He seems like a very constructive and creative thinker and, I hope, a partner,” Bryza said of Sahakian. “He made a very positive first impression.”