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Nagorno-Karabakh: U.S. Mediator Says Elections No Obstacle To Accord

  • Emil Danielyan --> Matthew Bryza (file photo) (Trend) YEREVAN, July 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not necessarily remain unresolved even if Armenia and Azerbaijan fail to hammer out a framework peace accord this year, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on July 29.

Bryza is the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is tasked with facilitating negotiations to resolve the conflict. He insisted that elections due in the two countries in 2007 and 2008 will not present an insurmountable obstacle to a solution.

Listen to the complete interview (about 28 minutes):
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Finish The 'Heavy Lifting'

“I think it’s possible to work through an election season and still make progress,” Bryza said. “It’s up to the [Armenian and Azerbaijani] presidents as to whether or not they have enough good will and political courage to do so.... It’s just easier, much easier, if we get the heavy lifting done now.”

Bryza said he hopes that presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian will iron out their differences in the coming months.

“Of course I’m still hopeful,” he said. “If I weren’t hopeful, why would I even want to put in an effort? This isn’t about theater; it’s about results.”

Looking For A Breakthrough

Bryza was speaking in Yerevan after what he described as “encouraging” talks with Kocharian that marked the start of his first tour of the conflict zone since his appointment as U.S. co-chair. He replaced fellow State Department official Steven Mann in that position in early June, following the failure of Kocharian’s last face-to-face negotiations with Aliev. That failure all but dashed hopes for a near-term solution to the Karabakh dispute.

In two subsequent statements, the mediating group’s U.S., French, and Russian co-chairs indicated their frustration. They said they will initiate no more Armenian-Azerbaijani talks until the two sides display greater commitment to a lasting peace.

“It’s really up to presidents Kocharian and Aliev whether or not they will agree to the formula,” Bryza said. “We are just waiting for a sign from the presidents as to whether or not they would like to restart a formal process."

Bryza, who proceeded to the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, later on July 29, said he is visiting the region to get “some more guidance from the presidents themselves to determine how they would like to take the process further.”

He said he was assured by Kocharian that the Minsk Group plan is essentially acceptable to Yerevan.

“I enjoyed hearing his account of where things stand and how we got here,” he said. “I felt a constructive, candid attitude on his part. He was very open. And he helped me think through what sort of recommendations I might bring to my fellow co-chairs.”

'There Is Political Will Here'

Asked whether he found the kind of “political will” for compromise that was demanded by the mediators, Bryza replied: “I think there is political will here, definitely, to keep the process going. There have been public statements that the [Minsk Group’s proposed] framework, the principles are agreeable [for Armenia].

Armenian President Robert Kocharian arriving for talks with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in Paris in February (RFE/RL)

“What’s never clear is whether or not there is enough will on both sides to eliminate or to resolve the distance that still stands between them," he added. "But I will just say I feel encouraged after today’s discussions.”

Armenian officials have claimed implicitly that the two rounds of negotiations between Kocharian and Aliev this year collapsed because the latter backtracked on his earlier acceptance of the key principles of the peace plan that were officially disclosed by the Minsk Group co-chairs last month. Bryza, however, was careful not to blame any of the parties for the deadlock, saying that they both want to “enact some changes to the ideas that are on the table.”

“The principles that are on the table don’t constitute an agreement,” Bryza said. “They are principles, suggestions. So it’s not possible for anyone to walk away from an agreement, if there isn’t an agreement.”

At the heart of those principles is the idea of holding a referendum on Karabakh’s status after the liberation of most of the Armenian-occupied districts in areas of Azerbaijan surrounding the disputed enclave. Bryza confirmed that the mediators believe the status should be decided by the “people of Karabakh”

“But the question is how do you define the people of Karabakh? And there were residents there in 1988 who wish to participate,” he added in a clear reference to the region’s displaced Azerbaijani minority. “All these things have still to be worked out as part of a broad package.”

No Breach Of Territorial Integrity

Aliev and other Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly stated in recent weeks that they will never accept any deal that could legitimize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was quoted by the news service earlier this week as indicating that Baku is only ready to let the Karabakh Armenians decide the extent of their autonomy within Azerbaijan.

“The principle of self-determination does not mean a breach of territorial integrity,” Mammadyarov said.

This might explain why the leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) has expressed serious misgivings about the proposed peace formula.

Bryza, who is apparently the highest ranking U.S. official ever to visit Karabakh, appeared to downplay Stepanakert's objections, implying that Baku and Yerevan have the final say in the peace process.

“It’s really up to presidents Kocharian and Aliev whether or not they will agree to the formula,” he said. “We are just waiting for a sign from the presidents as to whether or not they would like to restart a formal process."

'Now Is The Time'

Bryza, who traveled to Baku on July 30, also said he will meet the group’s French and Russian co-chairs in Paris early next week to brief them on the results of his shuttle diplomacy. The mediators stressed in their recent statements that “now is the time” to resolve the Karabakh conflict.

Some of them warned earlier that failure to do so before the end of this year would keep the peace process deadlocked for at least three more years. They pointed to parliamentary and presidential elections due in Armenia in 2007 and 2008, respectively, and an Azerbaijani presidential ballot scheduled for 2008. Many observers believe that it will be even more difficult for each side to make painful concessions to the other in the run-up to the polls.

But in an indication of the mediators’ fading hopes for 2006, Bryza insisted that a Karabakh settlement will be feasible even during the election period.

“I don’t necessarily feel that there needs to be a hard deadline on the peace process,” he said. “It’s better if we have a sense of what compromises might be suggested before other political events [in Armenia and Azerbaijan] move forward. But it doesn’t have to be by the end of this year.”

“I would argue that the elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t pose an obstacle to reaching an agreement,” he continued. “They just pose an additional complicating factor. It’s up to the presidents to guide their populations or societies, their voters in whatever direction they wish (a) to win the vote for themselves and their political parties, but (b) to build support for the agreement.

“If the presidents succeed, with our help as mediators, in finalizing and eliminating the final differences with regard to this framework agreement and if they come up with an agreement that’s mutually acceptable, that should be a plus in an election," Bryza argued. "That’s a huge achievement that should actually help political leaders and their parties to win votes. So it could be useful to have elections. The is question is, though, will the presidents have decided to take these tough decisions in time?”

Universal Principles?

President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)

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