By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia and Azerbaijan are edging closer to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and may well pen a peace deal by the end of this year, international mediators confirmed on Thursday.
The United States’s and France’s chief Karabakh negotiators sounded unusually upbeat about peace prospects as they and their Russian counterpart prepared to meet senior Armenian officials in Yerevan, the final leg of their latest tour of the conflict zone.
“Yes, there is a possibility of a Karabakh settlement in the course of this year,” said Steven Mann, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. He added that an agreement will be signed “this year or within the next hundred years,” indicating that the peace process has reached a make-or-break point.
Bernard Fassier, the group’s French co-chair, clarified that the conflicting parties are more likely to sign a framework agreement on “the basic principles” of the peaceful settlement. Both he and Mann stressed that the successful outcome of the negotiations is still not a forgone conclusion.
The two diplomats spoke to RFE/RL during an official reception at the French embassy in Yerevan. They as well as Russia’s top Karabakh envoy Yuri Merzlyakov are due to meet with President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on Friday.
The troika arrived in Yerevan from Stepanakert where they held talks on Wednesday with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. NKR President Arkady Ghukasian was quoted by his press service as speaking of “great expectations” from the current stage of the peace process. But Ghukasian also told the mediators that the parties have yet to bridge their differences on key issues.
Senior Armenian government sources have told RFE/RL that the two sides are close to a peace deal that will enable the population of Karabakh to determine its status at a referendum to be held in 10-15 years time. They claimed that the vote will follow the liberation of all but one of the occupied Azerbaijani districts and the reopening of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Some Armenian opposition leaders have already rejected that formula. One of them, Vazgen Manukian, called it “absolutely unacceptable” on Thursday. “We give away those territories and there will be a referendum in 10 or 15 years time,” he told RFE/RL. “What would we gain from that? I don’t know.”
“Karabakh’s status must be determined now, not after 10 or 15 years,” he said. “Armenia and Azerbaijan must declare that they want a referendum to be held in Karabakh now and will accept its results.”
The reported settlement has also been denounced by opposition figures in Azerbaijan who believe that Baku would never stand a chance of winning back Karabakh in that case.