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Haroutiun Khachatrian 1/10/05

As they look back at 2004, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are claiming that fresh hope now exists for a permanent peace agreement on the status of the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet for all the official optimism, few concrete results exist to point to anything but more of the same impasse.

“Progress has been achieved in the settlement of the hardest problem of our country and the region. [The] Armenia-Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told viewers in his New Year’s television address, the state news agency AzerTag reported. “It is no secret that 2004 marked the turning point in this process.”

In Armenia, government officials were no less optimistic. “We were able to eliminate the obstacles that appeared recently on the way to resumption of the negotiations around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian declared at a December 14 news conference.

But in the end, the past year was more about small steps than significant strides. Signs of a possible minor breakthrough began in August, when Oskanian and his Azerbaijanni counterpart, Elmar Mamedyarov held four meetings in Prague. Diplomatic sources state that having the two sides’ foreign ministers meet, rather than Aliyev and Kocharian, resulted in some degree of progress. “The meetings of the presidents are more difficult to organize, whereas the ministers are more free in their schedules and can meet more frequently,” a high-ranking Armenian diplomat told EurasiaNet, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Details from these talks remain a secret, yet Armenian officials have stated that the principles discussed for a potential permanent agreement mirrored those forged by Kocharian and Heidar Aliyev, father of the current Azerbaijan president, in Paris and Key West, Florida in 2001. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The so-called Key West principles reportedly provided for the accession of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in exchange for Azerbaijan gaining unfettered access to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia. No further progress has been made on this deal, although Armenian officials state that both sides are close to a modified version of these principles.

“There have been no principal changes in Armenia’s position on the issue of the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict,” Foreign Minister Oskanian told a news conference in Yerevan on December 22. “We must choose an all-embracing solution of the Karabakh problem. The self-determination of the Nagorno Karabkh people must be recognized, and we will not sign any document without the recognition of this fact.”

While the meetings in Prague had little immediate effect, they did pave the way for Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev to hold detailed discussions at the September 15-16 Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The five-hour meeting, attended in part by the co-chairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group and Russian President Vladimir Putin, led to expressions of cautious optimism by both Kocharian and Aliyev. Reliable diplomatic sources, however, go further, stating that the two leaders had in fact reached a consensus on some principal points, but had required additional time to lobby at home for the agreement.

If so, little sign of that tentative agreement has occurred. On November 23, 2004, Azerbaijan introduced a draft resolution about Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven occupied Azerbaijani territories to the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution criticized Yerevan for allegedly settling these areas with ethnic Armenians. Under pressure from the Minsk Group, Baku eventually withdrew its resolution, in return for the formation of a special OSCE fact-finding mission that will examine conditions in these territories. The mission, which includes the Minsk Group co-chairmen and representatives from Finland, Germany, Italy and Sweden, will travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven territories by late January or early February 2005, AzerNews reported.

In a December 25 interview with the Baku-based newspaper Echo, Yurii Merzlaikov, the Russian co-chaiman of the Minsk Group, the body charged with overseeing the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiation process, commented that the time spent on the resolution had only further delayed discussion of the principles both sides hold in agreement. Nonetheless, hope within the international community still persists. During a December 7-8 meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Sofia, Bulgaria, members of the 55-country organization reached a consensus on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, urging Presidents Aliyev and Kocharian to take the “framework” reached in Astana “into account and to go forward based on it.” (Read the ducument in PDF format)

But in Yerevan, some officials involved with the process say they see no sign of an immediate breakthrough. “The frameworks of the agreements elaborated in Astana are very vague, and there is still a lot of work to do,” the Armenian diplomat told EurasiaNet. The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers have already met twice after the standoff over Azerbaijan’s UN initiative, and another meeting is planned for the near future.

Even if the two reach an agreement on the final outline for a settlement deal, however, Kocharian and Aliyev will then face the task of persuading their countries to agree to the plan. Given problems with political stability that face both leaders, the task is unlikely to be readily accomplished.

Editor’s Note: Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.

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