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8 April 2005 -- The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov, will meet in London on 15 April to discuss new proposals drafted by the OSCE Minsk Group for resolving the Karabakh conflict, a Moscow correspondent for RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 5 April quoting Yurii Merzlyakov, the Russian Minsk Group Co-chairman. Merzlyakov did not give details of the new peace plan, other than to warn that it will require mutual concessions from both sides. Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian warned last week that "painful" concessions are unavoidable (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2005). The London talks will also determine whether Armenian President Robert Kocharian will meet with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev in Moscow next month on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit in Warsaw.
Two trends in recent weeks had seemed to call into question the prospects for further progress towards a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict. In late February, Oskanian fell ill with pneumonia, and was unable to travel to Prague for a further round of talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005). Oskanian had hinted at the beginning of a "new phase" in the conflict settlement process following his previous meeting with Mammadyarov in January (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 January 2005). But the Minsk Group's failure to reschedule the Prague meeting fuelled speculation that unanticipated obstacles to the peace process had emerged.
Second, a considerable number of minor violations of the ceasefire agreement signed 11 years ago have been registered in recent weeks on the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. At least six servicemen have reportedly been killed in those exchanges of fire (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). Several Armenian politicians have construed that escalation of low-level hostilities, which Oskanian said on 29 March is the result of Azerbaijani efforts to move their front line closer to Armenian positions, as evidence that Azerbaijan is preparing for a major new offensive -- an assumption that is corroborated by the militant rhetoric of Azerbaijani President Aliev and Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev. Oskanian initially told journalists on 23 March he thinks such rhetoric is intended for a domestic audience, Noyan Tapan reported. But one week later, addressing the Armenian parliament, he admitted the possibility that Baku may seriously intend to start military actions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005).
It is not clear whether, as Oskanian and defense officials from the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) have claimed, Azerbaijan was indeed the aggressor during the recent spate of shootings along the Line of Contact. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Baku was prepared to risk provoking such limited exchanges of fire and blaming them on the Armenian side in order to deflect public attention from the recent report released by the OSCE Minsk Group on the situation in the seven districts adjacent to the NKR which are under Armenian control. That report, presented to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna last month, effectively demolishes Azerbaijani allegations that the Armenian government has over the past decade engaged in a deliberate and systematic attempt to resettle tens of thousands of Armenians on those territories. An OSCE fact-finding mission that toured the districts in question in late January and early February at the request of the Azerbaijani government concluded that resettlement is "quite limited," strictly voluntary, and not the result of a deliberate Armenian government policy, and that most of the Armenians resettlers involved are displaced persons from other regions of Azerbaijan. It estimated the total number of such Armenian settlers as less than 15,000, in contrast to Azerbaijani projections of over 30,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005).
Despite the recent ceasefire violations, both Oskanian and Mammadyarov remain publicly committed to the search for new blueprints for resolving the conflict -- even though their respective priorities may be difficult to reconcile. On 29 March, Oskanian addressed a special two-day session of the Armenian parliament devoted to the conflict settlement process. As the only senior official in either country who has been actively engaged in that process since the early 1990s, Oskanian provided an overview of the OSCE's efforts to resolve the conflict, which he subdivided into four stages. Oskanian reiterated the three principles which Yerevan considers central to any formal solution: that the unrecognized NKR not be vertically subordinated to the Azerbaijani central government (which would rule out autonomous status, but not a joint or federal state); that the NKR should have an overland link with Armenia (which would entail de facto recognition of Armenian control over the so-called Lachin corridor); and that the security of the Armenian population of the NKR should be guaranteed.
At the same time, Oskanian made some statements that are in all likelihood unpalatable, if not anathema, to Baku. He argued that the international community should abandon its insistence that the principle of territorial integrity, which Azerbaijan consistently adduces as central to any settlement of the conflict, should not automatically take precedence over the right to national self-determination. In that context, he cited the examples of East Timor and the ongoing discussion over the future status of Kosova, independence for which could set a precedent for Karabakh. He substantiated the argument in favor of self-determination for the NKR by pointing out, as he has done on previous occasions, that the region has never been part of an independent Azerbaijani state; that it seceded legally from Azerbaijan (in a referendum in September 1991) in accordance with the Soviet legislation in force at that time; and that the Azerbaijani government has had no control whatsoever over the region for the past 15 years, during which time democratization has made far deeper inroads in Karabakh than in Azerbaijan itself. Finally, he argued that by perpetrating violence against the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh when the region was still formally a part of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan "lost the moral right" to hegemony over them.
Mammadyarov, too, has new suggestions to air at his next meeting with Oskanian, according to OSCE Chairman in Office Dmitrij Rupel, who met with Armenian leaders in Yerevan on 30 March and in Baku with President Aliev and Mammadyarov two days later. Also during his talks with Rupel, Mammadyarov signaled a softening of Azerbaijan's position on one key issue: he admitted that "sooner or later" the Armenian community of the NKR should join in the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks on resolving the conflict because "we cannot take any steps without them," according to the independent ANS television station. But Mammadyarov added, "We think we should continue the talks with Yerevan and achieve some results." Previously Baku has ruled out the participation of the NKR in such talks unless the Azerbaijanis who fled the enclave in the late 1980s are also included.