Talking on the sidelines of a Turkish-Armenian summit in Istanbul last week, officials close to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process suggested that Azerbaijan might agree to surrender the disputed territory to Armenia in return for sovereignty over a strip of land that would offer direct access to Turkey through the Nakhichevan autonomous republic. In Baku, former government officials familiar with the peace talks acknowledge that such an option has been discussed in the past, but they believe the plan is no longer on the agenda. They also argue that renewed speculation about the possible deal, which they describe as detrimental to Azerbaijan's national interests, could be fraught with political consequences for President Heidar Aliev.
Prague, 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent reports that Armenia and Azerbaijan might soon agree to a swap of territories in a bid to settle their 14-year-old territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh have prompted much debate in both South Caucasus states.
The Karabakh dispute broke out in 1988 when the mainly ethnic Armenian region decided to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan. The conflict that followed has left thousands on both sides dead and has turned an estimated 800,000 Azerbaijanis into refugees.
Despite a 1994 cease-fire, the two countries are still formally at war and Armenian troops still occupy an estimated 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, including Karabakh itself.
In comments made to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 26 June on the sidelines of a Turkish-Armenian meeting in Istanbul, a high-ranking official close to the talks said the status of the disputed territory no longer constituted a problem and that the only remaining obstacle to an accord was the so-called "corridors issue."
Baku insists that in return for the formal transfer to Yerevan of a strip of land around the town of Lachin, which links Karabakh to southern Armenia, it should be allowed to exert total control over another passageway. This is the Meghri corridor, which runs along the Iranian border and links the ethnic Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan to the rest of Azerbaijan.
Armenia, which partly controls the southern part of the Meghri corridor, is opposed to having the area transferred entirely to Azerbaijan and insists instead on a scheme that would leave Baku without sovereignty but with open land access to Nakhichevan.
But in the words of the official speaking last week in Istanbul, "the negotiating process has reached a point where the Karabakh conflict can be considered resolved once a solution is found to the problem of corridors."
The official, who asked not to be identified, said that in return for Meghri, Baku would be ready to recognize Yerevan's de facto control over Karabakh -- in other words, granting the region independence. He also claimed that Ankara, Baku's main ally in the region, supports this option because it would give it access to Azerbaijan through Nakhichevan.
The official's remarks were reminiscent of comments aired in Baku on 14 June by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev.
Aliyev made his remarks shortly after talks with Hugues Pernet, France's newly appointed envoy to the so-called Minsk Group of countries that oversee the Karabakh peace process on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Speaking to journalists, Aliyev blamed his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, for allegedly retreating from an earlier agreement on Lachin and Meghri.
Aliyev then claimed that he and Kocharian, during talks in Paris last year, had agreed that both corridors be granted equal status and placed under the respective sovereignties of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Although Kocharian's office denied the claim and said that any agreement on the corridors should be "asymmetrical," Aliev's revelations -- the first time he admitted to the existence of the so-called "Paris principles" -- prompted a wave of protest in Armenia, with the opposition criticizing the president for allegedly agreeing to surrender the strategic southern strip of the Meghri corridor to Azerbaijan.
Eldar Namazov is the former head of Aliev's chancellery. In an interview with our correspondent, he described the remarks made by the official last week in Istanbul as reflecting Armenia's response to Aliev's initial comments. "First, there was a 'leak' from Azerbaijan that caused some agitation in Armenia. Then, as a kind of answer, came this second 'leak' from Armenia. Each side is apparently seizing the opportunity offered by the present pre-electoral period to somehow weaken its adversary," Namazov said.
Azerbaijan has not yet officially reacted to claims that Aliyev -- who returned to Baku on on 28 June following a visit to Turkey, where he participated in a summit of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization -- might agree to give up Karabakh in return for sovereignty over Meghri.
Yet, as the independent Russian-language "Zerkalo" daily noted on 29 June, the absence of reaction from government officials clearly testifies to the embarrassment in Baku prompted by the remarks aired on the sidelines of the Turkish-Armenian summit.
Aliyev and Kocharian have pledged to settle the Karabakh issue before their respective mandates expire next year. Yet, the two leaders -- who both have to deal with a sensitive public and opponents prone to using the Karabakh issue as a political bargaining chip -- have very little room for maneuver.
Echoing Namazov's comments, former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofiq Zulfugarov told our correspondent that he believes recent leaks regarding the possible corridor swap "meet a logic that aims not at preserving the peace process, but rather at each side discrediting the other."
In Zulfugarov's view, such leaks are all the more tempting for both sides now that the idea of exchanging territories, he believes, is no longer on the agenda. "One could find different explanations for these leaks. One possible explanation is that, perhaps, the opinion is now prevailing that such a plan is not realistic and that to leak it would inevitably lead to its shelving. I believe this is one possibility, although there could be other explanations. This is difficult to say. In any case, I am deeply convinced that it will no longer be possible to keep these agreements secret because of domestic political agendas that will push both countries' leaders into making more and more revelations. Aliyev disclosed some of the provisions of the Paris agreements that prompted discontent in Armenia and, in order to maintain, say, his political prestige at home on the eve of presidential elections, Kocharian will in turn disclose other provisions [of these agreements]," Zulfugarov said.
Following the Paris meeting and subsequent negotiations held in the Florida resort island of Key West in April of last year, both South Caucasian leaders pledged not to divulge any details of the talks before a final peace agreement is reached. Last month, France, which co-chairs the Minsk Group along with Russia and the United States, chided Aliyev for disclosing the alleged existence of a draft accord on the Lachin and Meghri corridors.
Opposition groups in both countries are now pressing Kocharian and Aliyev to publicize the integrity of the Paris principles.
Yet, Zulfugarov believes such a development might be fraught with consequences for both South Caucasian leaders, especially for Aliev. "I believe there is serious ground here for a major political crisis. For whatever state, to lose part of the national territory is a very important issue and, should anybody in the government admit to such a possibility, it would lead to a political crisis. This is an axiom. Especially when there is a campaign for presidential elections under way. [In Azerbaijan,] the campaign has already kicked off and [the territorial issue] will be one of the major arguments used in the [upcoming] struggle for power. This is certain," Zulfugarov said.
Both Zulfugarov and Namazov told RFE/RL that at a particular stage of the peace talks, the sides seriously considered a possible territorial swap. That happened prior to an OSCE summit held in Istanbul in December 1999 when, both men point out, "the idea of a territorial swap was in the air."
The two former government officials said they resigned from their respective positions shortly before the Istanbul summit, in October 1999, to protest a peace proposal that they say ran counter to Azerbaijan's interests. "Prior to the Istanbul summit, agreements were reached that, in my view, were not suitable for Azerbaijan. For that reason, I decided to resign along with several of my colleagues. These agreements amounted to granting Karabakh independence, not de jure of course, but de facto. On the paper, this de jure-de facto formula that is being used by the Armenian side and some of the [Minsk Group] co-chairmen reads that Nagorno-Karabakh would remain part of Azerbaijan. Yet, in fact, Azerbaijani laws would not be recognized in the region and Karabakh would be allowed to conduct its own domestic and foreign policies. That, in fact, amounts to independence," Namazov said.
There was no mention of a possible swap among the various OSCE-sponsored draft peace plans that Aliyev offered for public discussion last year.
Following a public debate in parliament, Azerbaijan's political parties endorsed a national charter that set up the basic principles for a Karabakh settlement. The document reads that, prior to starting negotiations on the status of Karabakh, Armenian troops must withdraw from all the occupied districts that border the disputed territory and internally displaced persons be allowed to return to their home regions.
Conversely, Armenia favors a so-called "package agreement," under which all issues should be settled simultaneously.
Zulfugarov said any modification of Azerbaijan's borders should be put on a nationwide referendum. But he is convinced that any deal that would lead to Baku's relinquishing its sovereignty over Karabakh would not be supported by the population. Yet, Zulfugarov said the fact that both sides have apparently decided to disclose details of a possible, though unworkable, territorial swap does not make him feel pessimistic about the future prospects of peace negotiations. "When a plan that is obviously not realistic is thrown away, there is no reason to be pessimistic and one can reasonably believe that realism will eventually prevail," Zulfugarov told RFE/RL.
Namazov, however, sounded more cautious. "There is a basic principle in negotiations that says that, until everything is agreed upon, nothing is agreed upon," Namazov said.