Mediators seeking to break the deadlock surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks believe they have developed "just and constructive solutions" to existing negotiating dilemmas. However, the initial responses from Armenia and Azerbaijan indicate that a peace deal is not imminent.
In Madrid prior to an OSCE ministerial council meeting on November 29, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan were presented with a set of basic principles for a Karabakh peace settlement. "The parties to the conflict were strongly urged to bring to a close the current stage of negotiations by endorsing the proposed basic principles, and to quickly commence work on a comprehensive peace agreement," the OSCE said in a statement.
The US State Department issued a similar statement.
The Minsk Group, which comprises representatives from France, Russia and the United States, has not elaborated on the latest proposals. Neither have Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Eldar Mammadyarov.
Russia's Kommersant newspaper on December 1 quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that the basic principles "includes all positive understandings reached between Baku and Yerevan over the past few years." Following talks with his Armenian counterpart in Moscow, the Russian foreign minister on December 4 told reporters that he and Oskanian both viewed the presentation of the basic principles as a "very important" step in the peace process.
"Work on this document will continue at the very beginning of next year. We hope the efforts of the [Minsk Group] co-chairs will be crowned with success," Lavrov added.
Not everyone shares Lavrov's apparent optimism. Talking to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity, a diplomat familiar with the peace talks said that rather than any progress in the negotiation process, the chief motivation for the Madrid presentation was the time factor.
Presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan are scheduled in February 2008 and in the following fall, respectively. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is likely to seek re-election, but his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Changes in the regional political leaderships are expected next year. Changes among the Minsk Group co-chairs are also expected. So the idea is to try to capture the moment so that we remain on the same page and don't lose those basic principles if the regional leaders, or the co-chairs change," the diplomat said.
Addressing the OSCE's Permanent Council -- the organization's regular decision-making body -- in early November, France's Bernard Fassier and Russia's Yuri Merzlyakov said that despite the absence of breakthrough in the negotiation process, they intended to finalize their proposals and transmit them shortly to Armenia and Azerbaijan. The two diplomats also said that although they believed no agreement on the basic principles could be reached soon, they would nevertheless continue their efforts to have both regional leaders endorse them during the run-up to the Armenian presidential ballot.
The basic principles, which were first made public last year, envisage the progressive liberation of the seven Azerbaijani administrative districts bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces have been occupying since 1992-93. They also provide for the demilitarization of the conflict zone, the deployment of an international peacekeeping force, the repatriation of Armenian settlers, and the return of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons. The future status of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh would be determined later. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But, as Mammadyarov once said, "the devil is in the details" and a number of outstanding differences remain.
Among them are the practicalities of any future referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh's final status. The Minsk Group co-chairs have suggested that, pending a vote, the region be given an interim status that would be recognized by both sides.
Other sticking points include the scope and modalities of the Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijan's occupied Kalbacar and Lachin districts, which are sandwiched between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Yerevan views those two districts as being of vital importance to Karabakh's future security, and has conditioned their liberation on stringent requirements.
What new proposals, if any, the set of basic principles that France, Russia and the United States presented the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Madrid is unclear. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibrahim on December 7 said the package contained "nothing particularly new."
"There are a few nuances, but generally speaking those basic principles are those that have been negotiated within the framework of the Prague process," he told reporters in Baku.
In their respective speeches to the OSCE ministerial council, neither Oskanian, nor Mammadyarov made any reference to the document they had just received.
While noting the existence of a generally positive trend, the Armenian foreign minister denounced what he said were Azerbaijan's persistent threats to resort to a military solution to the conflict. Mammadyarov, in turn, accused Armenia of "deceiving" the international community and pursuing a policy of "fait accompli" by sending settlers and large ammunition stockpiles to the occupied territories.
The Madrid announcement generated relatively little interest in Azerbaijan and Armenia -- something international mediators may view as a frustrating circumstance. According to OSCE officials, the co-chairs had hoped that the presentation of basic principles would stoke public debate in both countries, thereby accelerating the negotiation process. Such hopes, however, have not been fulfilled.
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.