Azerbaijan Says it is in "No Hurry" to Settle Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
International mediators and political analysts expected the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process to accelerate once Azerbaijan completed a transfer of power from former leader Heidar Aliyev to his son Ilham. The dynastic transition of authority occurred as expected, but Karabakh developments have not gone as many envisioned. Instead of picking up the pace of talks with Armenian officials, Azerbaijani authorities now say they are in "no hurry" to reach a Karabakh settlement.
In recent weeks, Azerbaijani officials, including Aliyev and Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev, have sought to scrap years of painstaking negotiations brokered by the OSCE's Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States. "I am not in favor of making compromises," Ilham Aliyev declared in a February 9 television interview.
The Karabakh peace process has been in a state of suspended animation for well over a year, with political factors in both Armenia and Azerbaijan combining to bring talks to a halt. Presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2003 preoccupied Armenia. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In Azerbaijan, an ailing Heider Aliyev appeared to set aside the Karabakh question in order to orchestrate the take-over by Ilham. Heidar Aliyev's incapacitating illness starting last April merely deepened the policy paralysis in Baku. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Many observers believed that once Ilham was securely installed as president he would strive to resolve the Karabakh issue quickly, driven by a desire to improve the regional security environment for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which is scheduled to start pumping oil towards Western markets in 2005. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Armenian and Azerbaijani officials were believed to have hammered out the framework of a peace deal during talks held at the US resort island of Key West, off Florida. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The framework reportedly called on Azerbaijan to cede Karabakh to Armenia. In return, Armenian forces would withdraw from occupied lands in Azerbaijan proper. The Key West principles were believed to have provided a point of departure for future talks.
Ilham has confounded those expectations, however. Azerbaijani officials have denied that any agreement in principle was reached in Key West. Now, instead of being eager to deal with Armenia, the new president has repeatedly said that Azerbaijan is not in a rush to come to a political settlement. Azerbaijani officials appear to believe they can increase their negotiating leverage against Armenia simply by waiting.
"Justice is with us, and time will work for us," Aliyev said in the February 9 television. "Assessing the countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] in terms of economic potential, you will see that we are in better position."
In addition, Guliyev, the Azerbaijani foreign minister, left open the possibility that Baku might resume armed operations. He characterized Yerevan's insistence that Karabakh is Armenian territory as an intentional effort to stall the peace process. "We did not promise a permanent ceasefire [over Karabakh] and Yerevan must be sure that if a war begins, it will be Azerbaijan that will start it," the Baku daily Ekspress quoted Guliyev as saying February 20.
Domestic political factors continue to exert considerable influence over Azerbaijan's Karabakh policy, some observers suggest. They point out that Ilham's rise to power did not go as smoothly as many in government had hoped. In the eyes of many Azerbaijanis, widespread vote-rigging in the October presidential election, along with the government's post-vote crackdown, have tainted Ilham's legitimacy, political analysts add. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Analysts also speculate that Ilham may be having trouble exerting his will over all portions of his father's vast bureaucratic apparatus. Ilham could thus benefit from more time to establish his authority -- both within the ruling New Azerbaijan Party and, more broadly, in the general public before taking what would undoubtedly be a politically painful step of making concessions to Armenia.
A few policy experts suggest that Ilham is siding with hardliners in his presidential apparatus, which has remained largely unchanged from his father's administration. The hardliners reject compromise and insist that Karabakh remain territorially part of Azerbaijan.
In adopting a "no hurry" policy, Azerbaijan may be trying to take advantage of changing geopolitical conditions in the Caucasus. In particular, Baku appears to be trying to play the United States and Russia off each other in order to secure increased international support for Azerbaijan's desire to keep Karabakh.
Russia figures prominently in Baku's political calculations. Karabakh was the major topic of discussion when Ilham Aliyev flew to Moscow in early February to meet top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Ilham's apparent aim was to weaken the special relationship between Russia and Armenia.
His efforts met with limited success. While Moscow did not give any indication that it was prepared to diminish its close ties with Armenia, Russian leaders gave vague assurances that it would not take sides on the Karabakh question. Putin told a joint press conference on 6 February that Russia could not force either Armenia or Azerbaijan into making concessions. "We'll accelerate our activities to help the conflicting sides reach a peace agreement," Putin said.
Most members of Azerbaijan's policy-making elite believe that Russian support played a key role in Armenia's triumph in the Karabakh war. A Russian pledge of neutrality, then, would significantly enhance Azerbaijan's position on the Karabakh issue, many in Baku believe.
However, it remains a matter of debate in Baku whether Russia did indeed take a vow of neutrality. Vafa Gulazade, an adviser to three Azerbaijani presidents, including Heidar Aliyev, has said Putin's so-called Karabakh formula did not mark any substantial change in the current Russian position. Rasim Musabeyov, a Baku-based political analyst close to the Musavat opposition party, concurred with Gulazade's assessment.
"During his visit to Baku two years ago, Putin talked about this formula," Musabeyov said. "The formula suggests that Russia is not going to offend Armenia, and that Azerbaijan should either sign a peace agreement, confessing its loss of the war, or keep the existing "no war, no peace" situation."
But Aydin Musayev, a political analyst of the American and European Studies Department at the Baku State University, believes that recent events in Georgia are pushing Russia closer to Azerbaijan's Karabakh position. The so-called Rose Revolution in Georgia had installed a clearly pro-Western leadership in Tbilisi, Musayev said. Moscow is now concerned that if it does not do more to accommodate Aliyev, Azerbaijan could also turn to the West. "Putin realizes quite well that should Russia fail to help resolve [Karabakh], Aliyev could also turn in an absolute pro-Western direction as Georgia did," Musayev said.
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