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Haroutiun Khachatrian 1/23/06

Despite international community optimism, many Armenian politicians and pundits are skeptical that a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is imminent.

Hopes for a Karabakh settlement have been rising in recent months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Even so, no definite framework on how to end the 18-year conflict yet exists. A January 18-19 meeting between Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov in London resulted only in a short preliminary document that outlines the principles for future actions. The meeting was intended to prepare for a summit between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to be held in February in Paris. The summit’s date has not yet been specified.

Much of the currently available information on the peace talks has come from foreign and unofficial sources. In December, for example, the Economist Intelligence Unit reported that the settlement process would include the withdrawal of Armenian troops from five out of the seven occupied territories outside of Karabakh; the return of Azerbaijani refugees and/or displaced persons to those territories and to Karabakh; the opening of communication routes blocked by Azerbaijan; and the holding of a referendum in Karabakh on the region’s status.

Observers note that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have made recent efforts to break a long-standing stalemate in negotiations. In particular, Yerevan has abandoned an earlier demand for a “package” solution, under which the withdrawal of the occupied territories would be made only after Karabakh’s status was determined. Meanwhile, Armenian media have cited initial reports published by Jane’s Information Group stating that Azerbaijan has supposedly agreed to a referendum on Karabakh’s future status. At the same time, Aliyev administration representatives say the issue is not the subject of present talks.

Given the lack of specifics, Armenian observers remain wary. Both political analysts and politicians state that it is too early to share the optimism expressed by many foreign observers, as too much will depend on the details of potential future agreements. On January 21 commentary in the daily newspaper Hayots Ashkharh, for instance, suggested that Azerbaijan would try to find a way to avoid fulfilling its referendum commitment once it regained control over the occupied territories. In a report distributed by the Regnum new agency, Democratic Party leader Aram Sargsian said the expected deployment of international peacekeeping forces could create geopolitical tension, noting that Iran would likely view the possible appearance of NATO troops near its border as a threat to Tehran’s security.

Prime Minister Andranik Margarian has stated that Armenia’s preconditions for a deal have not changed. In a report published January 14 in the Hayastani Hanrapetutiun newspaper, Margarian said that Yerevan continues to exclude the possibility of a top-down relationship between Baku and Stepanakert. Armenia also will not budge on its demand for a land link between Armenia and Karabakh, as well as security guarantees for the territory.

Margarian, who is also the leader of the Republican Party, went on to state that the Republicans wanted an interim status established for Karabakh, governing the time between Armenia’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and the referendum, a period that could last as long as 10-15 years. “Nagorno-Karabakh should be given a status different from what it has now. Otherwise, all the talks are useless,” Margarian said. He explained that this interim status must enable Karabakh to establish direct ties with international organizations and foreign governments in order to facilitate the territory’s development efforts. “This is one of our preconditions. At least, this is the position of the prime minister and the Republican Party,” Margarian said.

The role of Karabakh authorities themselves in the settlement process represents another potential sticking point. Although the territory’s leaders have maintained that they are interested in establishing peace with Azerbaijan, there are indications that Stepanakert and Yerevan differ in their approaches on the settlement process.

In apparent contradiction to the Armenian government’s position, Seyran Ohanian, the unrecognized republic’s defense minister, told journalists on January 18 that “there should be no word about the return of refugees unless the issue of the status of Karabakh is solved,” the 168 Zham weekly reported. In his turn, Samvel Babayan, Ohanian’s predecessor, now the leader of Armenia’s Dashink Party, told the Chorrord Ishkhanutiun newspaper that he has information that indicates serious disagreements exist between Yerevan and Stepanakert over which occupied territories should be freed, the positions to be held by any international peacekeeping forces and on the timing of the referendum on the territory’s status.

Domestic political factors could potentially hamper the Armenian government’s negotiating flexibility. Political parties are already preparing for parliamentary elections to be held in May 2007. A presidential vote will follow in 2008. The looming elections could leave Armenian politicians less likely to take political risks.

Public opinion in Armenia tends to be wary about peace prospects, as surveys show that a majority of Armenians do not believe that Azerbaijan is sincerely interested in peace. Recent reports about Azerbaijani soldiers’ alleged destruction of Armenian khachkars, or cross-stones, near the town of Julfa in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, have exacerbated such feelings of skepticism. According to a survey by the Caucasus Institute for Democracy development fund, made public on December 21, only 19.2 percent of the population in Armenia would agree to cede the occupied territories if Azerbaijan agrees to recognize Karabakh as an independent state.

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