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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Karabakh talks grind to a halt -- again

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Originally published
Rovshan Ismayilov 6/11/07

It has become a familiar routine: the international community launches into a figurative drum roll of anticipation ahead of a meeting between the presidents of Azerbaijani and Armenia over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh. Expectations continue to build over the possibility of a breakthrough in stalemated negotiations. Then, following the talks, there is nothing to celebrate.

On June 9, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian met in St. Petersburg on the sidelines of a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit; the pair met first with their foreign ministers and the four chairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, which oversees the negotiations, and then tête-à-tête -- reportedly for over three hours.

No statements about any breakthrough have been made, however.

At a press briefing following the meeting, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov stated only that the presidents had come across details that require closer analysis, with participation by the OSCE Minsk Group. Meanwhile, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told reporters that the talks were "serious," while admitting that it was "difficult to say" whether or not Kocharian and Aliyev would meet again this year, according to a report broadcast on Armenian public radio. The meeting was the two presidents' first encounter since November 2006.

Some Azerbaijani experts suggest the negotiations are caught in a fruitless cycle, with expectations continually dashed by geopolitical realities. The 2008 presidential elections in both countries -- and the recent May parliamentary elections in Armenia -- are not especially conducive to a settlement, the experts suggest.

International mediators, these analysts contend, contributed to the pattern of frustration by hyping the possibility of a settlement. Optimism peaked during the weeks prior to Armenia's May 12 parliamentary elections after Matthew Bryza -- the US deputy assistant secretary of state, as well as Minsk Group co-chairman -- indicated that the two sides appeared on the verge of breakthroughs in several areas. Around the same time, Oskanian was quoted as saying that "we have never been as close to a settlement."

That tone started to change during the run-up to the St. Petersburg meeting, with various OSCE representatives sending mixed signals. For example, OSCE Chairman-in-Office Miguel Angel Moratinos told a June 5 press conference in Baku that "[n]ever before have the parties been so close to mutual consent," while Bryza stressed the next day that "[n]othing is clear yet." Bryza attributed his earlier optimism to "quality changes" in the negotiating process itself, adding that "I am optimistic because I am a mediator and I work to regulate the conflict," the Trend news agency reported.

Definitions of optimism, however, appear to vary: Bryza's French colleague, Bernard Fassier, added that the Minsk Group co-chairs will only be optimistic when the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers start work on a draft peace agreement.

Those not directly involved in the OSCE peace process seem to be growing increasingly skeptical that a settlement can be reached in the near future. "The co-chairs did not bring anything new [to the CIS meeting] and all their statements are a [collective] bluff," commented Vafa Guluzade, a former foreign policy advisor to the late Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev. "We are as far from peace now as we were at the beginning of the process in 1994."

Ilgar Mammadov, a Baku-based independent political analyst, is similarly downbeat. "The negotiation process and [any] peace agreement have to answer the main question: Who will enjoy sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh territory after a settlement? It is clear that any decision that goes beyond the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is unacceptable for Baku," commented Mammadov. "I cannot understand what fuels so much optimism for the OSCE Minsk Group's co-chairs."

The chief sticking point in negotiations appears to be a mechanism for determining Karabakh's future status. In 2006, Aliyev and Kocharian reportedly agreed to a referendum in Karabakh that would determine the territory's status. Since then, the referendum idea has stalled amid discord over its scope and timing. It has now reached a point where Azerbaijan's foreign minister, Mammadyarov, maintains that such a vote is "unacceptable" to Baku.

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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