By Emil Danielyan and Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert
International mediators ended Friday another round of shuttle diplomacy on a cautiously optimistic note, hinting that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan could clear the final hurdle to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict at a meeting next month.
The French, Russian and U.S. diplomats acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group reiterated after longer-than-planned talks with President Robert Kocharian that the compromise peace deal may be sealed in the course of this year.
“We have made a considerable degree of progress in the past year in discussing these issues between the sides,” the group’s American co-chair, Steven Mann, told a joint news conference in Yerevan. “We still have difficult issues before us, but I believe that objective conditions exist for that type of solution … before the end of the year.”
“But there are very difficult issues that are still on the table and real gaps between the two sides,” he added without elaborating. “So although the possibility exists to resolve the conflict, there is no guarantee that it will happen.”
Mann’s Russian counterpart, Yuri Merzlyakov, described the mediators’ meeting with Kocharian as “very open and substantive,” saying that it focused on the unspecified “key elements of the basis of the future settlement.” Merzlyakov said the main result of the troika’s visit to Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan was a confirmation of Kocharian’s next meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev. The Armenian-Azerbaijani summit will take place in the Russian city of Kazan in late August shortly after yet another meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers, he said.
Asked whether the co-chairs anticipate a breakthrough in Kazan, Merzlyakov replied, “We very much hope that this will happen, but not everything depends on us.”
“These are two very serious men,” Mann said for his part. “So I, for one, have the expectation that this will be a detailed and, I hope, very productive discussion.”
Armenian diplomatic sources privy to the peace process told RFE/RL last week that Aliev and Kocharian may well finalize a peace accord that will enable the predominantly Armenian population of Karabakh to determine its status at a referendum to be held within 10-15 years. They claimed that the vote will follow the liberation of all but one of the occupied Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh and the reopening of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
The mediators pointedly refused to confirm or deny the claims, citing the confidentiality of the negotiating process.
Arkady Ghukasian, the president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh republic, also declined a comment on the issue as he met journalists in Stepanakert on Friday. Ghukasian, who has been highly skeptical about Azerbaijan’s commitment to mutual compromise, had rare words of praise for official Baku which he said has adopted a “more constructive” stance and toned down its militant rhetoric.
“Today Azerbaijan is expressing readiness to discuss topics that were closed for them in the past,” Ghukasian said, singling out the pivotal issue of Karabakh’s future status. “The Azerbaijani leadership is discussing that issue today both with the mediators and the leadership of Armenia,” he said.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov insisted on Friday that the negotiating process is being held “on the basis of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and the country’s constitution.” Reports from Baku quoted him as saying that the parties are now discussing a package agreement that consists of nine “elements,” including liberation of occupied Azerbaijani lands, return of refugees and deployment of international peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone. Mammadyarov made no mention of the status issue.
The search for peace could be complicated by Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum in Armenia that are scheduled for this November. The ruling regimes in Baku and Yerevan are expected to face fresh challenges from their political opponents that are not averse to exploiting the Karabakh issue for political purposes.
“Theoretically, these events … should have no impact on the negotiating process,” said Bernard Fassier, France’s chief Karabakh negotiator. “But that is a theory. I can’t predict what will happen in practice in the political life of both countries during the pre-election campaign.”