By Emil Danielyan
Contradicting a recent statement by President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian has said that Armenia and Azerbaijan could reach a framework peace agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh before the Armenian presidential election.
"I don't think the presidential election should impact on these negotiations. I am very hopeful, confident even, that we can still reach a conclusion on such a framework before then," he told Reuters news agency in an interview published late Wednesday.
Sarkisian, who is the favorite to win the February 19 vote, argued that he is aware and approves of the existing peace proposals by the OSCE Minsk Group. “I am well aware of all the details and now when new proposals are coming, there are also coming with my consent,” he said. “That is why I don't think that the presidential elections can disturb the negotiation process.”
Kocharian, however, claimed the opposite last October as he commented on similarly upbeat statements made by the Minsk Group’s U.S. co-chair, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza. Kocharian said the conflicting parties are unlikely to agree on the proposed basic principles of a Karabakh settlement before presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008.
The remarks did not stop Bryza and the group’s two other co-chairs from making more trips to Baku and Yerevan. The mediators are due to again visit the conflict zone by mid-January in what appears to be a last-ditch attempt to clinch a pre-election peace deal. They presented the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers with a slightly modified, final version of their peace proposals at an OSCE ministerial council meeting in Madrid on November 29.
Sources privy to the negotiating process say the parties have essentially accepted the main points of the framework accord and mainly disagree on how those should be phrased.
The document envisages a gradual resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that would begin with the liberation at least six of the seven Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh and culminate in a referendum of self-determination in the disputed region. But it sets no time frames for the holding of the referendum, suggesting that Karabakh’s status, the main bone of contention, would remain unresolved in the foreseeable future.
This makes the Minsk Group plan similar to a solution proposed by the mediators in 1997 and strongly advocated by Armenia’s then President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Ter-Petrosian had to resign after key members of his administration, notably then Prime Minister Kocharian and then Interior Minister Sarkisian, rejected the plan as “defeatist” and demanded a package deal that would solve all issues at once.
The Kocharian administration’s stated readiness to revert to the so-called step-by-step strategy of conflict resolution thus represents a major policy change. Analysts say that by embracing the proposed deal Sarkisian would significantly boost Western support for his bid to succeed Kocharian as Armenia’s president.
The Armenian prime minister was interviewed by Reuters while visiting Brussels for talks with senior European Union and NATO officials. His office said Karabakh was high on the agenda of the talks. Sarkisian was due to proceed to Strasbourg on Wednesday to meet top Council of Europe officials.
Ter-Petrosian and his pro-Western loyalists claim that neither Kocharian or Sarkisian is committed to compromise on Karabakh. Ter-Petrosian has repeatedly said that the two Karabakh-born men, whom he had promoted to high-ranking positions in Yerevan in the 1990s, believe that the best way to ensure continued Armenian control over the territory is to perpetuate the status quo.
In a separate interview that could earn him more points in some Western capitals and Washington in particular, Sarkisian said that Turkey’s accession to the European Union would be “good” for Armenia. “Maybe the problems between us could find a solution within an EU framework,” he told “The Financial Times” newspaper after his talks in Brussels.
Other Armenian leaders, notably Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, have said that Turkey should not be allowed to join the EU without normalizing relations with Armenia and facing up to the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Sarkisian, by contrast, did not demand any EU preconditions for the Turkish membership. He also said he thinks Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is interested in a rapprochement with Armenia.
“I don’t think it’s correct to say he’s not committed to establishing relations with Armenia,” said Sarkisian. “We’ll see what happens in the future.”
(Photolur photo: Sarkisian awards a soldier during an inspection of the Armenian army's frontline positions.)