The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group - the organization that is overseeing the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process - seem increasingly optimistic about the chances for a settlement in 2009. But experts in Baku remain cautious that the long-running dilemmas that have held up a settlement can finally be solved in the coming year.
While political experts in Baku believe that there is long way to go to reach comprehensive resolution, they emphasize two important results of the end of 2008: Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia caused Western powers to understand that it is dangerous to keep the Karabakh conflict frozen. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, Azerbaijani officials have come to understand that attempting a military solution to the conflict could create more problems than it solves.
Meetings on December 4 involving the Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers, along with representatives of the Minsk Group, resulted in a declaration in which all sides pledged to work for a comprehensive agreement on outstanding issues within the next few months. "We call for intensification of efforts to complete the process of harmonization of basic principles of resolution in the upcoming few months and then to start work over the draft of comprehensive peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia," the document reads.
The co-chairs countries also called Baku and Yerevan to work with each other for stabilization of a ceasefire regime on the frontline and other measures to strengthen mutual confidence.
Matthew Bryza, the US co-chair in the Minsk Group called the declaration "an important document," but added that it would not be accurate to call it a "crucial point."
"The process is going in the right direction and we all see progress," Bryza was quoted as saying by the Turan news agency in Helsinki on December 4. "However, there are still serious disagreements."
Armenian and Azerbaijani officials are still engaging in mutual recrimination. For example, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in an interview broadcast by the Italian RAI channel said that he would not rule out the use of force as a means to solve the conflict. Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian, in turn, criticized Aliyev for not disavowing a military option. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov later insisted that the framework under discussion specifies that a settlement will be rooted in the principle of preserving Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Details of the negotiating framework remain sketchy. But the talks are widely believed to be revolving around a deal in which Azerbaijan's occupied territories are returned in exchange for a deferred referendum on the future political status of Nagorno-Karabakh. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite the ongoing maneuvering, Minsk Group representatives are optimistic that a settlement can be found. Bryza said on December 9 that contacts between President Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, are better far better than they had been with Sargsyan's predecessor, Robert Kocharian. "It is obvious," he said.
Bernard Fassier, the French co-chair of the Minsk Group also said to EurasiaNet in Paris on December 6 that there is mutual trust between Aliyev and Sargsyan. Fassier said that foreign ministers of the United States, Russia and France have offered an approximate schedule for the completion of work on basic principles, with the aim of wrapping up that stage by mid-2009. "Then the work over a draft of a comprehensive peace agreement could begin," the French diplomat said.
However, political analysts in Baku express doubts that a peace treaty can be finalized in 2009. Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas research center, a Baku-based think tank explains that both Azerbaijan and Armenia may lack the political will to make necessary compromises. "The sides are even differently interpreting the 'Madrid principles' that shows that we are still far from any comprehensive resolution," Shahingolu said in a December 21 interview. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Another expert, Rauf Mirkadirov, a political columnist of the Baku-based Zerkalo daily, is also cautious about a breakthrough in 2009. "The remaining issues - Nagorno-Karabakh's status and a land corridor between Armenia and Karabakh - will hardly be easy to solve in the near future," Mirkadirov said.
Editor's Note: Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.