Azerbaijan will not achieve a military solution to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, President Serzh Sarkisian said on Friday as he attended official ceremonies in Stepanakert to mark the 25th anniversary of the Armenian-populated territory’s declaration of independence from Baku.
Sarkisian joined Karabakh’s political leaders as well as thousands of ordinary people in marching to Stepanakert’s military cemetery where many Karabakh Armenians killed in the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan were laid to rest. He laid flowers at an adjacent war memorial.
“You fought and won an unequal war,” he said in a statement issued on the occasion. “You built a state and society which is now freer than ever before. You created an army which is now stronger than ever before.”
Born and raised in Karabakh, Sarkisian commanded Karabakh Armenian forces in 1992-1993 and went on to become Armenia’s defense minister.
The war broke out shortly after Karabakh Armenian leaders declared what was then an autonomous region of Soviet Azerbaijan an independent republic. The hostilities left at least 20,000 people from both sides dead before being stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement in May 1994.
The war nearly resumed on April 2 after the Azerbaijani army went on an offensive at two sections of the demarcation line around Karabakh. Russia helped to halt the fighting four days later.
Sarkisian mentioned the April fighting in his statement, saying that Azerbaijani troops will again be repelled if they make further attempts to “solve the issue in a military way.” The four-day hostilities demonstrated that “no power in the world” can achieve a military solution to the dispute, he said.
“There is no military option,” he added. “There can only be a political option.”
Following the April escalation, international mediators scrambled to not only bolster the ceasefire regime but also revive substantive Armenian-Azerbaijani talks on a framework peace accord jointly drafted by the United States, Russia and France.
The three mediators’ so-called Madrid Principles of a peaceful settlement call for a return to Azerbaijan of virtually all seven districts around Karabakh that were fully or partly occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. In return, Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would be able to determine the disputed territory’s internationally recognized status in a future referendum.
Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hinted at progress towards such a peace deal after holding talks in Saint Petersburg, Russia hosted by their Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on June 20. Armenian media commentators and other observers have since speculated that Moscow made changes in the Madrid Principles favorable to Azerbaijan and is pressing Yerevan to accept them.
Citing statements made by some Azerbaijani officials, they have claimed that Putin specifically wants the Armenian side to pull out of five of the seven districts around Karabakh without receiving any firm guarantees on the Karabakh referendum.
According to Matthew Bryza, a former senior U.S. diplomat who was Washington’s chief Karabakh negotiator from 2006-2009, Putin apparently proposed Armenian withdrawal from only two Azerbaijani districts “in exchange for Azerbaijan resuming normal transit and economic connections to Armenia.”
“All other aspects of the Madrid Principles, including the remaining five occupied territories, would be subject to further negotiations,” Bryza wrote in an August 18 article published by the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think-tank.
Putin did not publicly confirm the alleged Russian push for Armenian territorial concessions to Baku after holding talks with Sarkisian in Moscow on August 10. He said only that Russia will continue to mediate Armenian-Azerbaijani talks together with the U.S. and France.
Sarkisian, for his part, stressed that international recognition of the Karabakh Armenians’ right to self-determination must be at the heart of any workable peaceful deal. “It’s impossible to resolve this conflict by referring to the elimination of its consequences, rather than its causes,” he told a joint news conference with Putin.
The Armenian leader similarly reiterated earlier in August that Karabakh can never be placed back under Azerbaijani rule.
By contrast, Aliyev and other Azerbaijani leaders have repeatedly rejected a settlement that would stop short of restoring Baku’s control over Karabakh.