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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Hopes and fears after Karabakh declaration

Russian-inspired initiative provokes furious debate on future of Karabakh conflict.

By Sabuhi Mamedli in Baku, Naira Melkumian in Yerevan and Karine Ohanian in Stepanakert (CRS No. 467 06-Nov-08)

An agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict this week has renewed hopes of peace - but also sparked fears amongst Armenians and Azerbaijanis about what this would mean for them.

The November 2 declaration by the presidents of the three countries marked the first occasion that the leaders of the opposing sides had put their signature to the same document since the 1994 ceasefire agreement that halted three years of war.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who hosted the talks at his residence, the Meidendorf castle outside Moscow, read out the declaration, which reaffirmed a commitment by all sides to the current negotiations under the so-called co-chairmen of the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, France, Russia and the United States.

In the declaration, the three presidents pledge to "facilitate improvement of the situation in the South Caucasus and establish stability and security in the region through political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on the principles of international law and the decisions and documents approved within this framework, thus creating favourable conditions for economic growth and all-round cooperation in the region".

The agreement emphasises that all steps in the process "should be accompanied by legally binding guarantees for every aspect and stage of the settlement process".

Its final point calls for "confidence-building measures" to assist a peace agreement.

The document pledges its support for continued discussion on the basis of negotiations

last November in Madrid. This implicitly means the basis of talks will be the "Madrid document", a three-page "document of basic principles" whose latest draft was written down at that meeting.

This sets out the first stage of an agreement, with withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven Azerbaijani regions outside Nagorny Karabakh wholly or partially under Armenian control; the granting of an intermediate international status for the disputed territory itself; and the prospect of an eventual vote by the residents of Karabakh on its status.

In Azerbaijan, neither the president nor the foreign minister have commented publicly on the declaration. Foreign ministry spokesman Khazar Ibragim said that it reaffirmed the Azerbaijani position that the Nagorny Karabakh was a conflict between two states, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and that respect for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity was reaffirmed by the document's reference to international law.

Most analysts said the document was too vague to have real significance.

Azerbaijani political analyst Rasim Musabekov said, "In the declaration there are no concrete opinions on serious issues. It does not talk about territorial integrity nor about the status of Nagorny Karabakh, nor about the liberation of the occupied territories by the Armenians."

Vafa Guluzade, formerly foreign policy aide to former president Heidar Aliev, called the document a "manoeuvre by Russia designed to demonstrate its importance to the West. But the gesture turned out to be an empty one as the result was a document that had no weight and means nothing".

Guluzade said the document could have a calming effect on the Armenian side, "In Armenia people could be worried that Armenia could go on the [military] offensive. And now there is no threat of this kind, neither in fact nor in words."

Opposition leader Isa Gambar was more hostile, saying that several of its points "contradict the interests of Azerbaijan", because they potentially meant a referendum on the status of Nagorny Karabakh and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers, which he said was a "direct threat to the territorial integrity of our country".

But some Azerbaijanis refugees from Nagorny Karabakh derived hope from the meeting.

"I saw on television that our president had signed something with the Armenian president. Does that mean it's all over? My husband didn't live to see this, he's dead now and we buried him in Baku. Does this mean I can die in my native land? May Allah grant this!" said Nasiba, an elderly woman from the Karabakhi town of Shusha, now living as a refugee.

On the Armenian side, officials have hailed the declaration as an important step forward in the peace settlement.

"This initiative is extremely important in opening a new phase from the point of view of activating the negotiations," said Armenian foreign minister Eduard Nalbandian. "The presidents have entrusted the foreign ministers of the two countries to re-activate the negotiations."

Analyst Levon Melik-Shakhnazarian welcomed the document on the grounds that it did not specifically emphasise the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and underlined the importance of a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Others were more sceptical. Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus Institute, said, "There's nothing bad written there, but it seems to me that nothing of enough importance is written there to make me think that serious progress is on the way.

"The motivation for signing this document lies more in Moscow, than in Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert and has more to do with the Russian-Georgian conflict than with Karabakh itself."

Aram Sarkisian, leader of the small opposition Democratic Party of Armenia, said the document contained points that worked against each other.

"On the one hand it records the vital importance of a settlement of the conflict by political means, on the other hand [of settlement] on the basis of principle of international law," he said. "In diplomacy the concepts 'political' and 'legal' cannot work together at the same time."

Former Armenian president and opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian criticised the declaration on the grounds that it formally excluded the Nagorny Karabakh Armenians from the peace process.

"In this way, the declaration conclusively buries the decision by the Budapest summit of the OSCE in 1994 under which Nagorny Karabakh was recognised as a full third party to the conflict," Ter-Petrosian told the A1+ television company. "And that means that Karabakh will not play any role in the process of further negotiations that will determine its own fate."

In Nagorny Karabakh itself, officials welcomed the declaration, while stressing their determination to play a role in the peace process.

Movses Hakopian, defence minister of the unrecognised Nagorny Karabakh Republic, said, "Politicians have come to the conclusion that there is no solution of the problem by military means."

David Babayan, head of the presidential information department, said the document was a recognition of the new realities that had formed after the August conflict in Georgia.

"The declaration is a positive event," said Babayan. "Its key aspect is the readiness of the parties for a peaceful settlement of the issues that exist through direct dialogue."

He said that although the Karabakh Armenian side was not mentioned directly in the document, its first point referred to previous documents, which did ensure that Nagorny Karabakh would be represented in future negotiations.

Another analyst, David Karabekian, was less happy, saying that that failure to mention Nagorny Karabakh as a party to the conflict and the reference to the Madrid principles would not please the inhabitants of Nagorny Karabakh.

Many in Karabakh are opposed to the current draft peace plan, as they say it will require Armenians to give up the occupied territories without sufficient security guarantees.

"The 'big daddies' who sign these documents don't think about people, who know from their own personal experience know what a danger bombs and real war can present to the inhabitants of Karabakh," said Lilit Tovmasian, a teacher and mother of two children.

"The most important thing for us is our security and this is not guaranteed in the points of our declaration. There is no mention even here of what people here feel - the people who really live here and for whom a settlement is not just a signature on a document but a matter of life and death."

Sabuhi Mamedli is a correspondent with Yeni Musavat newspaper in Baku. Naira Melkumian is a freelance journalist in Yerevan. Karine Ohanian is a journalist with Demo newspaper in Nagorny Karabakh.