International mediators voiced misgivings about the planned launch of commercial flights from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday as they visited Stepanakert at the start of a new round of regional shuttle diplomacy.
“We think that the launch of the [Stepanakert] airport in the existing situation can cause tension in relations between the parties,” said Igor Popov, a Russian diplomat co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group along with fellow envoys from the United States and France.
“At the same time we think that the issue should be settled through diplomatic means based on the existing [international] experience,” Popov told journalists after the co-chairs held talks with Bako Sahakian, the president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).
Azerbaijan has repeatedly condemned the plans by the NKR leadership to reopen the newly reconstructed Stepanakert airport for flights to Yerevan, saying that they would violate its internationally recognized sovereignty over Karabakh. Earlier this month, Baku renewed its threats to forcibly halt those flights.
The authorities in Stepanakert and Yerevan brushed aside the threats, warning of retaliatory military action.
The U.S. responded by urging both sides on November 2 to seek a “diplomatic solution” to the potentially dangerous row “in keeping with the relevant international agreements.” A State Department spokeswoman also cited statements on the issue that were made by the Minsk Group co-chairs earlier this year.
In one such statement issued in July, the mediators said they “received renewed assurances from the sides that they will reject any threat or use of force against civil aircraft, pursue the matter through diplomatic steps, and refrain from politicizing the issue.”
The mediating troika began its latest tour of the Karabakh conflict zone nearly one month after hosting renewed negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. The ministers met in Paris for the first time since an international scandal sparked by the release from prison of an Azerbaijani army officer who hacked to death an Armenian colleague in Hungary.
The co-chairs said after the Paris talks that they presented the sides with an unspecified “working proposal to advance the peace process.” “The Ministers and the Co-Chairs agreed to a further discussion of these ideas during the Co-Chairs’ visit to the region in November,” they said in a statement.
Popov and his U.S. opposite number, Robert Bradtke, refused to divulge any details of that proposal after the Stepanakert talks. Bradtke said only that Washington remains “strongly committed to doing what it can to assist in the peace process.”
Sahakian was quoted by his press office as telling the mediators that the conflict can be resolved only if they focus on its “causes, rather than consequences.” “Any attempt to return to the past would be doomed to fail,” he said.
The envoys are scheduled to meet President Serzh Sarkisian in Yerevan on Friday before proceeding to Baku at the weekend.