International mediators will open on Friday a new round of regional shuttle diplomacy to prepare for next week’s meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents which they hope will mark a further step towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group will start their joint regional tour with talks in Baku with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev. One of them, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, was in Yerevan on Thursday to meet with Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian.
Aliev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, are expected to meet in the Russian city of Saint-Petersburg on June 4 for the second time in less than a month. According to the mediators, the two leaders further narrowed their disagreements over the basic principles of a Karabakh settlement, proposed by the troika, during their last face-to-face talks held in Prague.
“They made significant progress in Prague and I expect the same in Saint-Petersburg,” Bryza told RFE/RL in an interview. “I hope that the world will then see, within the next couple of months, that they have achieved a breakthrough.”
Bryza made clear that Aliev and Sarkisian are unlikely iron out all of their disagreements on “a handful of remaining principles” in Saint-Petersburg and will therefore need to hold more talks “relatively quickly.” “Based on their conversation in Prague, I do believe that a breakthrough can happen at Saint-Petersburg and/or shortly thereafter,” he said.
Some Azerbaijani officials take a dim view of the cautious optimism expressed by the mediators. A top aide to Aliev last month denounced Bryza’s upbeat statements, while Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov claimed over the weekend that the conflicting parties have not moved closer to a settlement since Sarkisian took office in April last year.
Bryza dismissed these statements as negotiating ploys that are not indicative of the current state of the Karabakh peace process. “That’s normal,” he said. “Each side has to follow its own tactics to try influence the other side. That’s fair game.”
The U.S. official was at the same time reluctant to speculate about chances for the signing of an Armenian-Azerbaijani framework peace accord this year. “The presidents could have a peace deal tomorrow if they wanted to,” he said. “They are close. But I have no way to predict whether or not they will be sufficiently confident that they are getting the best possible agreement for their countries by any specific day on the calendar.”
The agreement proposed by the mediators reportedly calls for a gradual solution to the bitter dispute that would end in a referendum of self-determination in Karabakh. The disputed region’s predominantly Armenian population would presumably be able to legitimize its secession from Azerbaijan after the liberation of Armenian-occupied territories surrounding Karabakh.
Aliev claimed on Wednesday, however, that “there is and there can be no mechanism for Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan at the negotiating table.” “Nagorno-Karabakh will not be an independent state neither today, nor in 10 or 100 years,” he said in a televised address to the nation. “Despite all the pressures, we will assert this position till the end.”