By Karine Kalantarian and Emil Danielyan
International mediators ended yet another visit to Azerbaijan and Armenia on Thursday in advance of the upcoming meeting of the two countries’ presidents which they believe could yield a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
The U.S., Russian and French diplomats leading the OSCE Minsk Group were unusually tight-lipped about their talks in Baku on Wednesday and in Yerevan the next day, refusing to hold news conferences in either capital. Information released by official Armenian and Azerbaijani sources was also very scant.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, according to his press office, discussed with the envoys “certain details” of next week’s Armenian-Azerbaijani summit and “exchanged thoughts on prospects for a settlement.” They were then received by President Robert Kocharian and were due to meet Oskanian again before leaving Yerevan later in the day.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov also declined to divulge details of their meetings with the mediators. The latter avoided any contacts with local media, sparking speculation that their latest round of shuttle diplomacy was not productive. “They have nothing to discuss,” the Baku daily “Ekho” quoted Azerbaijani political analyst Zardusht Alizade as saying. “The positions of Azerbaijan and Armenia are diametrically opposite.”
However, Yuri Merzlyakov, the Russian co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, insisted that he and his French and U.S. colleagues remain cautiously optimistic about peace chances as he briefly spoke with RFE/RL. He also downplayed Aliev’s latest assurances that Baku will never agree to a peaceful settlement that would not restore Azerbaijani control over Karabakh.
“These comments were not addressed to us and we didn’t hear them,” Merzlyakov said as he left the Foreign Ministry building in Yerevan. “It’s therefore hard for me to comment on them.”
Aliev’s remarks came as an implicit rejection of the idea of allowing the Karabakh Armenians to decide their status in a referendum in exchange for their withdrawal from occupied territories in Azerbaijan proper. The conflicting parties have reportedly been discussing it for more than a year.
Citing “several people familiar with the talks,” “The New York Times” effectively confirmed those reports on Wednesday. “One possible plan would involve a withdrawal of Armenian-backed military forces from much of the territory around Nagorno-Karabakh, accompanied by international security guarantees and an international peacekeeping force,” it wrote. “At a later date, the diplomats say, a referendum could be held to determine Nagorno-Karabakh’s political status.”
The paper said Aliev and Kocharian will try to reach a framework agreement on this peace formula when they meet in the Rambouillet suburb of Paris on February 10-11. It quoted anonymous diplomats as cautioning that even if such an agreement is reached “working through details would require at least several months, and might lead to a fresh impasse.”
Speaking after talks with Belgium’s visiting Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht last week, Oskanian similarly stated that Aliev and Kocharian will try to agree on the “basic principles of the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
“There still remain difficult issues on which Armenia and Azerbaijani differ and which make us cautious in our expectations,” Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian said in a statement on Wednesday. “Nevertheless, let us hope that the presidents will succeed in making yet another step forward in Paris.”