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ARMENIA AND AZERBAIJAN HOPE TO MAKE 2006 A `YEAR OF PEACE´

By Taleh Ziyadov

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

For Armenia and Azerbaijan, the year 2005 was marked by intensified negotiations over a possible agreement in the Karabakh peace process. The presidents and foreign ministers of the two countries met several times during the year, and the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs from France, Russia, and the United States increased their visits to the region in hope of working out the wide differences in the positions of the two states.

As early as April, the Russian co-chair of the Minsk Group, Yuri Merzlyakov, declared that the parties have reached a “sensitive juncture” and that a “meeting of the presidents [of Armenia and Azerbaijan] should give a new impetus to negotiations” (TDN, May 21, 2005).

Since then, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian have met twice, and their discussions apparently gave the needed “impetus” to the negotiation process. A planned late-January meeting between Aliyev and Kocharian is seen as an important landmark that could lead to a final and long-awaited peace accord.

Officials from Europe and the United States have already voiced their optimism about a possible agreement in 2006. On December 5, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs discussed the details of a peace proposal with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart, Vardan Oskanian, on the sidelines of the 13th OSCE Ministerial Council held in Ljubljana, Slovenia (Zerkalo, December 6)

EU Commissioner for External Relations and Neighborhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner declared, “Very shortly we may witness big progress in the Karabakh peace process” (Regnum, December 15).

The U.S. OSCE Minsk Group co-chair, Steven Mann, said that there were no elections scheduled for 2006 in either Armenia or Azerbaijan, which creates a good chance for a settlement (Zerkalo, December 6). His French counterpart, Bernard Fassier, stated that 2006 would be “a real window of opportunity to achieve significant progress towards a peaceful settlement based on what has been worked out [in 2005]” (Baku Today, December 16).

Local newspapers in Armenia and Azerbaijan have circulated news that the OSCE Minsk Group is currently drafting a peace agreement, which Aliyev and Kocharian will discuss during their meeting later this month (Day.az, December 21). Mammadyarov, however, said that it is premature to talk about the final agreement, since “there is not yet an official peace document” (Day.az, December 23).

Nonetheless, the recent visit by European military experts to the conflict zone to examine possible areas for stationing peacekeeping troops reinforced previous reports that the parties may have reached a consensus on certain issues (Assa-Irada, December 20).

Although the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan recognize the detrimental effect of the current status quo in the Karabakh conflict, changing it remains a far more difficult challenge. Last month’s official statements from both states illustrated well why selling the potential peace agreement to the public in Armenia and Azerbaijan will not be an easy task.

In his statement at the 13th OSCE Ministerial Council, Oskanian described the Karabakh conflict as “a people’s struggle for self-determination” and called on the international community to recognize the self-declared and unrecognized Karabakh republic. He also referred to the referendums held in East Timor and Sudan as a possible blueprint for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict (A1plus.am, December 5).

Mammadyarov said that such “offensive statements” by the Armenian leadership “directly [undermine] the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan.” He added that the status of Karabakh could “only be determined by taking due and equal account of views of both Azerbaijani and Armenian communities” and “the liberation of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan is the main prerequisite to make the whole thing possible” (MFA.gov.az, Speeches, December 5).

In a recent interview, President Aliyev repeated, “There is no change” in Azerbaijan’s position and the Karabakh conflict could only be resolved “within the framework of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan” (AzerTaj, December 28). “The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is not a subject of negotiations, and Azerbaijan will not make any concessions [on this issue],” Aliyev added.

Hence, the main challenge for the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan will be to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints on the issues of self-determination and territorial integrity.

The recent developments in the peace process indicate that Armenia and Azerbaijan are indeed close to striking a peace deal. Armenia seems willing to pull its troops out of the occupied regions surrounding the former Karabakh autonomous region. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, appears ready to discuss the possibility of determining the final status of the Karabakh region by a referendum in the next 15 years, after the exiled Azerbaijani community returns to the region.

It is too early to say that the talks between Aliyev and Kocharian later this month will result in the signing of a final agreement. Yet, there is no question that the resolution of the Karabakh conflict will have tremendous economic, political, and geostrategic implications for the region as a whole. It will not only help reconcile the differences among Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey and boost regional integration and cooperation, but it will also move the South Caucasus region closer to the Euro-Atlantic community.

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