Armenia and Azerbaijan seem prepared to make yet another attempt at settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The presidents of the two states are now tentatively scheduled to hold their second summit meeting of the year.
Armenian officials revealed May 5 that President Robert Kocharian hopes to meet his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in June. The precise time and venue for the summit will be determined at a meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers later in May. The announcement followed an early May meeting of the OSCE's Minsk Group comprising representatives of the United States, Russia and France. Following that Minsk Group meeting in Moscow, French Minsk Group Co-Chair Bernard Fassier traveled to Yerevan and Baku to secure both parties' agreement to another summit.
There were high hopes for a breakthrough heading into the first summit meeting of the year between Kocharian and Aliyev, held in February in France. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, that meeting ended without any tangible progress toward a lasting peace settlement. Both sides have remained tight-lipped about the discussions in France, as well as about any new proposals currently under consideration.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian indicated that Karabakh discussions remained in an acutely sensitive phase, in which the slightest misstep by either side could derail the renewed efforts to foster a peace deal. "The problem now is to avoid a setback, and we expect appropriate moves from Azerbaijan," the Armenpress news agency quoted Oskanian as saying on May 7.
Since the summit meeting in France, Azerbaijan has appeared to be the party most dissatisfied with the proposed peace framework. The first Kocharian-Aliyev summit talks appeared to stumble over differences on a proposed referendum that would determine Karabakh's political status. Aliyev and other Azerbaijani officials have since repeatedly stated that they will never to agree to Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan.
Prior to first summit of 2006, Armenia made what officials in Yerevan considered to be a major concession, abandoning their insistence on a so-called "package" settlement, in which Karabakh's status would have been determined in tandem with a decision to return to Azerbaijan territory occupied by Armenian forces. Armenian leaders are now willing to go along with a "step-by-step" settlement, in which the return of occupied lands, along with the return of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons, is followed by settlement of Karabakh's status.
The United States has been the most active Minsk Group member in promoting a Karabakh settlement. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried visited the region in March, and US Minsk Group Co-Chair Steven Mann engaged in a round of shuttle diplomacy in late April, just days prior to Aliyev three-day visit to Washington.
Nagorno-Karabakh figured prominently in Aliyev's discussions with US officials, including President George W. Bush. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Armenian officials and policy analysts had feared that Aliyev would strike a geopolitical deal with the Bush administration, in which Washington would provide unqualified support for Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue in return for Baku's backing on the tough US stance toward Iran.
Following Aliyev's trip, Azerbaijani officials voiced satisfaction with the US position on Karabakh. Nevertheless, Armenian officials were relieved that no Azerbaijani-American geopolitical deal was struck. "We know that Aliyev was made to understand in Washington . . . that seeking a military solution to the Karabakh conflict is not an option. We appreciate it," Oskanian said, according to Armenpress.
Even if the second summit meeting is held in June as currently planned, and the two presidents somehow manage to agree on a peace framework, there are concerns that they will have trouble selling a settlement to the Armenian and Azerbaijani public. In Armenia, for example, there appears to be substantial opposition to the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories around Karabakh. For example, Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian, who is also a leader of Yerkrapah, the influential organization of the Karabakh war veterans, recently spoke out against the return of occupied territories. "We have no lands to cede," Grigorian said at a Yerkrapah meeting May 8.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.