With talks on a resolution for the 19-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the skids once again, the breakaway region's de facto authorities are increasingly pushing for a new negotiating format, one that allows them to directly participate in the process.
"The current format of negotiations, in which only Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved, is unrealistic and destructive," Arkady Ghukasian, the de facto president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, told reporters on June 7.
While the statement is not the first time the Karabakh leader has called for direct talks with Azerbaijan, its timing underlines the extent to which regional frustrations are growing with the peace talks overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Following a longstanding pattern, the latest summit between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ended on June 10 without results. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The failure of the two sides to hit on anything that can be termed a "compromise" has prompted this fresh tact, Karabakh presidential advisor Arman Melikian noted in an interview with EurasiaNet. Particular concern in Armenia and Karabakh has been raised by recent remarks by President Aliyev that Azerbaijan would use "all means to pressure Armenia" into the return of Nagorno-Karabakh. The declaration is widely seen as a sign that Baku has abandoned an agreed resolution framework reportedly reached last year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Armenia, on which Karabakh relies for economic aid and military assistance, has not yet publicly responded to de facto President Ghukasian's assertion that Karabakh should represent its own interests. In the past, however, President Kocharian, himself a former leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, has effectively played both sides of the issue; stating that the current negotiations format falls short of adequate, yet asserting that Armenia, as a recognized state, is better able to negotiate a settlement.
The extent to which Ghukasian's remarks are meant as a criticism of Armenia's representation of Nagorno-Karabakh's interests has not been publicly broached. Karabakh officials usually shy away from openly criticizing Armenia, and have stated simply that they have "informed" Yerevan of their concerns.
Yet Melikian acknowledged that some "differences" do exist between Armenian and Karabakhi points of view.
The first issue is one of territory, according to Melikian. The current talks define the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as based on the boundaries for the original Soviet-era autonomous region, then part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Karabakh, however, wants its territory to be defined as also including two additional Armenian-populated regions to the north of the original Soviet-era region -- Shahumian and Getashen. Both districts were separated from the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region in the early 1930s, and remain under Azerbaijani control.
The second issue is one of compensation for losses suffered by ethnic Armenians who fled Azerbaijan in the late 1980s in response to the Karabakh conflict. The separatist government believes the current negotiation process has largely ignored the question, Melikian said. Echoing opinions already voiced by some Armenian parties, such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Karabakh leaders want compensation to include the resettlement of ethnic Armenians in the seven occupied territories that form a buffer zone between Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
Without consideration of these points, the separatist Karabakh government's acceptance of any finalized agreement is moot, Melikian stressed.
From 1994-1997, Karabakh representatives took part in the peace talks until Azerbaijan demanded their exclusion. Minsk Group representatives have routinely affirmed that the current format is sustainable, and requires no major overhaul. Azerbaijan refuses all direct contact with the region's separatist leadership.
Meanwhile, within Armenia itself, the fruitless June 10 meeting between Aliyev and Kocharian has triggered a new wave of support for including Karabakh in the negotiations. At the same time, opposition has deepened to the possible withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven occupied Azerbaijani territories that surround the breakaway region.
At a June 20 press conference in Yerevan, however, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian stated that the possibility of changing the Minsk Group process is not under discussion, PanArmenian.Net reported. The question of Nagorno-Karabakh participating in peace talks with Azerbaijan "has always been... [on] the agenda," Oskanian said, but that participation does "not mean [a] change or enlargement of [the] negotiation format."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.