French, Russian and US diplomats, acting under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, are guardedly optimistic about the latest push to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Their optimism is reinforced by the Armenian government's apparent efforts in recent weeks to prepare public opinion for major concessions to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart Vardan Oskanian held "proximity talks" with Minsk Group officials in London on April 15. The discussions sought to finalize details of a summit meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents sometime in May. International mediators believe those talks could prove crucial in breaking the existing stalemate in the Karabakh peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In a rare joint statement timed to coincide with London talks, the mediators declared that the protracted peace process has entered a "sensitive juncture, where a first step towards an agreement mediated by the [Minsk Group] Co-Chairs could be at hand in the framework of the discussions between the parties." At the same time, the Minsk Group co-chairs expressed concern about increased ceasefire violations along the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline east of Karabakh, warning that renewed fighting would be "disastrous" for both South Caucasus neighbors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Participants have remained tight-lipped, declining to speak about the substance of the discussions. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said only that they focused on preparations for the meeting between Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. It is expected to take place in mid-May. Mammadyarov told Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that the talks were "productive," adding that more discussions were needed "to bring the positions of the two countries closer together." Armenian and Azerbaijani diplomats are expected to hold another round of discussions in Frankfurt on April 27.
Yuri Merzlyakov, the Russian co-chair of the Minsk Group, said earlier that the two foreign ministers would be presented with new peace proposals drawn up by the mediating troika. He indicated that Aliyev and Kocharian should personally discuss and pass judgment on those proposals. "The co-chairs believe that there needs to be a political decision at the highest level," Merzlyakov told RFE/RL.
This might explain why the Minsk Group statement urged the conflicting parties to "prepare their populations for a balanced negotiated agreement that will require compromise on both sides." Official Yerevan appears to be doing just that, with Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, Kocharian's most powerful lieutenant, taking center stage in the effort.
"The conflict's resolution will indeed be painful for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples because mutual compromise means giving up some of what you have," he told parliamentary hearings on Karabakh on March 30. Speaking to journalists a few days later, Sarkisian, who commanded Karabakh Armenian forces during their victorious war with Azerbaijan, derided hard-line nationalist groups opposed to any compromise with Azerbaijan. "Do we want another war?" he asked. "Did we lose few of our boys, our comrades [during the first war]?"
Kocharian likewise publicly stated on April 13 that Armenian concessions on Karabakh are "inevitable." One of those concessions is his administration's obvious retreat from its demands for a so-called "package" peace accord that would settle all contentious issues at once. During the Karabakh conflict's "hot" phase from 1992-94 Armenian forces occupied broad swaths of Azerbaijani territory that surround the enclave. Yerevan, along with Karabakh Armenian leaders, have for years insisted that the return of the Armenian-occupied land is impossible without a determination of Karabakh's status -- the main bone of contention. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, wants a step-by-step solution to the territorial dispute, in which a determination on Karabakh's status would be indefinitely postponed until after the return of occupied Azerbaijani lands, the restoration of economic ties between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as other confidence-building measures.
Armenian leaders indicate that they are now ready to accept the step-by-step formula so long as they get other international guarantees of continued Armenian control over Karabakh. Sarkisian noted in his parliamentary testimony that this could include a formal pledge by the international community to hold a referendum of independence in Karabakh. It also could include an international guarantee that Azerbaijan would refrain from undertaking offensive military operations.
Speaking in Yerevan on April 6, Russia's former chief Karabakh negotiator and a staunch advocate of the gradual settlement, Vladimir Kazimirov, said: "Whereas in the past the Armenians were saying,
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.