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Armenia: Karabakh summit delivers no breakthrough from Yerevan's viewpoint

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Emil Danielyan
Publication Date 5 November 2008
Cite as EurasiaNet, Armenia: Karabakh summit delivers no breakthrough from Yerevan's viewpoint, 5 November 2008, available at: [accessed 1 June 2016]
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Emil Danielyan: 11/05/08

Armenian officials have expressed general satisfaction with the results of the November 2 meeting in Moscow involving the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, but many observers in Yerevan doubt that the summit will produce a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Most analysts cite a lack of specifics in the joint declaration signed by the three leaders as a sign that significant progress cannot occur quickly.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev sat down with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, at the Meiendorf Castle official residence outside Moscow amid fresh hopes for the signing of a framework peace agreement on Karabakh before the end of the year. Their joint declaration announced no such agreements, however, with Aliyev and Sargsyan only pledging to seek a "political" settlement and to "intensify further steps in the negotiating process." They also affirmed the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, will continue to spearhead the peace process.

Armenia's Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian described the talks as "constructive" and "productive." "The declaration is not an agreement, but it is important because it noted the importance of a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict and continued mediation by the Minsk Group's co-chairs," he told Armenian state television on November 4. Nalbandian did not comment on the likelihood of the conflicting parties agreeing to a set of basic settlement principles that were formally put forward by the mediators in November 2007.

"The meeting could not have resulted in agreement," Aleksandr Iskandarian, a well-known pundit managing the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, told EurasiaNet. "The meeting was not even supposed to produce any serious outcome."

Iskandarian suggested that the main motive behind Medvedev's decision to host the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit was to burnish Russia's reputation in the West, an image tarnished by its recent war with Georgia. "After what happened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia Russia wanted to show that it can behave constructively in other cases," he said.

According to Hakob Badalian, a commentator for the online journal, the signing of the Armenian-Azerbaijani declaration was an unsuccessful attempt to paper over the failure of the Moscow summit. "It would be quite undesirable for Russia if the trilateral meeting was not different in any way from previous Armenian-Azerbaijani meetings," Badalian wrote on November 3. The purpose of the declaration was thus to underline the summit's "particularity," he said.

"That meeting has had no historical significance except for the symbolic fact that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have signed a joint document for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire agreement," 168 Zham, an independent Yerevan newspaper, editorialized. The pro-government paper Hayots Ashkhar went further, saying the Moscow talks demonstrated that "it is desirable, but still not possible to bring the process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution to a final conclusion at this stage."

But former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the top leader of Armenia's main opposition alliance, claimed the opposite on November 4, telling the news service that the Moscow declaration amounts to Aliyev's and Sargsyan's official acceptance of the so-called "Madrid principles." Ter-Petrosian predicted that the two presidents will likely sign the framework peace accord in December. He earlier cited an impending "denouement" in the Karabakh peace process as the main reason for his decision to suspend his year-long campaign of anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan.

The principles in question were the main topic of the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations even before the Minsk Group co-chairs formally submitted them to the conflicting parties one year ago during an OSCE summit in Madrid. They call for a gradual settlement of the conflict that would involve the withdrawal of Armenian forces from at least six of the seven Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh that were partly or fully occupied during the 1991-1994 war.

In return, Karabakh's predominantly Armenian population would be able to determine the disputed region's status in a referendum to be held some time in the future. This provision does not seem to sit well with Azerbaijani leaders. As he was sworn in for a second term on October 24, President Aliyev reiterated that his country would not accept Karabakh's loss.

Sargsyan, on other hand, made clear, in remarks broadcast by Armenian state television two days later, that the conflict would remain unresolved unless Azerbaijan "recognizes the Nagorno-Karabakh people's right to self-determination." In what might be a sign of lingering Armenian-Azerbaijani disagreements on this pivotal issue, the Moscow declaration makes no explicit reference to the Madrid principles, saying only that the parties should take into consideration their November 2007 contacts with the mediators.

Another major hurdle to a peace deal has been the fate of Kelbajar, one of two Azerbaijani districts sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia proper. According to Armenian sources privy to the Minsk Group process, former President Robert Kocharian insisted that Armenian withdrawal from Kelbajar begin only after the Karabakh referendum, meaning such a drawback could be years, even decades away. Azerbaijan rejected Kocharian's position, the sources add. Whether Sargsyan agrees with his predecessor's view on the matter is not known.

The incumbent Armenian president will face strong domestic opposition to the return of occupied territories, even if Azerbaijan agrees to the proposed referendum. Hard-line nationalist groups, within and outside his government, are increasingly speaking out against any territorial concessions to Baku. One of them, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party), has threatened to pull out of the governing coalition if Sargsyan goes along with the peace formula proposed by the Minsk Group. Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership is also understood to be against the proposal.

The recent upsurge in Russian diplomatic activity over Karabakh has raised fears in Armenian nationalist circles traditionally sympathetic to Russia. They have speculated that Moscow may be turning its back on Armenia and trying to win over Western-leaning Azerbaijan as part of its new strategy of boosting Russian influence in the South Caucasus. "To that end, [the Russians] need to force Armenia into making essentially unilateral and absolutely unacceptable concessions on the Karabakh issue," the ARF weekly Yerkir wrote on October 24.

For analyst Iskandarian, such speculation says more about the Armenian opinion-makers' "propensity to panic" than about Russia's true intentions. He believes that Russian and Western pressure on the conflicting parties is still not strong enough to change the Karabakh status quo. "There is some pressure, but it has so far been outweighed by resistance from within the region," he said. "I don't see any reasons why this situation should drastically change anytime soon."

Editor's Note: Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.

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