Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan: Experts skeptical about prospects for Nagorno-Karabakh breakthrough

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Rovshan Ismayilov

Despite evidence of movement toward a settlement of the long-stalemated Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks, Azerbaijani experts remain skeptical that Azerbaijan and Armenia will settle their differences in the near future.

Mediators from the OSCE's Minsk Group have sounded optimistic notes of late about progress in negotiations. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Minsk Group Co-Chair Matthew Bryza indicated in an interview with Voice of America that the two sides appeared on the verge of breakthroughs in several areas. According to a transcript of Bryza's comments distributed by the Today.az website, Azerbaijani and Armenian negotiators were nearing agreement on the return of two Armenian-occupied regions of Azerbaijan - Kalbajar and Lachin. In addition, the two sides were making headway on perhaps the thorniest issue - Karabakh's future political status.

Following an OSCE Permanent Council session in mid-April, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian was quoted as saying that, at least on paper, "we have never been as close to a settlement," the Arminfo news agency reported.

Elmar Mammadyarov, the Azerbaijani foreign minister, was also cautiously upbeat. Speaking to journalists in Baku on April 26, Mammadyarov hinted that progress had been made, but added that all the details had not yet been worked out. "Negotiations have to continue," he said.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian recently revealed that he is likely to meet with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, early in June in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. "After this meeting it will be clear at which stage we are now," Kocharian said. Armenian leaders are currently focused on that country's parliamentary elections on May 12. Pro-Kocharian parties are expected to maintain their solid hold on power, thus it is unlikely that the vote's outcome will not have a significant impact on the Armenian negotiating position. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

On May 4, Aliyev appeared to engage in a bit of negotiating gamesmanship when he claimed during a public ceremony that Armenia had made pivotal concessions. The Azerbaijani president alleged that Armenia had already agreed to withdraw from all seven of the occupied territories surrounding Karabakh, including Kalbajar and Lachin, the two most strategically sensitive areas under discussion. Yerevan had also consented to withdraw troops from the occupied territories before the establishment of a framework for the determination of Karabakh's status, Aliyev said.

In addition, according to Aliyev, internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Azerbaijan would be permitted to return to their homes in the conflict region as soon as Armenian troops withdrew from the occupied territories. Armenia and Azerbaijan have both sanctioned the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in the region for a limited period of time, Aliyev added.

Aliyev's statements run counter to the existing basic principles for an agreement. Under those guidelines, the implementation of any portion of a peace pact cannot begin until all outstanding issues are resolved.

Armenian leaders immediately denied making any negotiating concessions. Meanwhile, Bryza indicated that the two sides remained divided over the composition of a peacekeeping force. A means for determining Karabakh's final status also remains problematic. Azerbaijani officials have said that the return of Azerbaijani IDPs to Karabakh must take place before any kind of vote or referendum of the territory's political status could be considered.

Azerbaijani political analysts in Baku remain unconvinced that a peace deal is within reach. Referring to the recent string of optimistic pronouncements from officials involved in the negotiations, Ilgar Mammadov, Baku-based independent political analyst, said: "We have already heard it in the past."

Alesker Mammadli, a Baku-based lawyer and political analyst, (as well as an IDP from the Agdam Region), expressed the belief that Yerevan's desire to negotiate would weaken after that country's parliamentary elections. Mammadli additionally voiced doubt that Armenia would agree to withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territory unless firm guarantees were in place concerning the determination of Karabakh's status. "The occupied territories are their [Armenia's] main trump card at the talks. From the other standpoint, Azerbaijan cannot give guarantees over the status of Karabakh, as government officials [in Baku] always have said that a settlement will maintain the country's territorial integrity," he said.

Mammadov said that the respective administrations of Aliyev and Kocharian were in relatively strong domestic political positions, and thus had no incentive to budge from their current negotiating stances. "Both countries are not weak now and there is no chance" of pressuring them into making sizable concessions, Mammadov said. "Therefore I do not expect anything serious from the upcoming meeting of the presidents."

Experts' pessimism is related in part to the instability of the ceasefire regime at the frontline. Azerbaijani and Armenian news outlets both have reported widespread and frequent exchanges of gunfire throughout April and into early May.

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

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