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Analysis: Armenia's Outgoing Foreign Minister Defends Karabakh Policy

By Anna Saghabalian and Liz Fuller Vartan Oskanian, who stepped down as Armenia's foreign minister on April 9 after serving for a decade in that capacity, has shrugged off criticism that Armenian diplomacy remained passive during his time in office ostensibly leading to a number of failures, including last month's nonbinding UN General Assembly resolution on Karabakh.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Oskanian called that resolution, which defines the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan, a "tactical error" on the part of Azerbaijan. Earlier, Oskanian downplayed the impact of the resolution by saying that only 39 UN member states, most of them affiliated with the Organization of Islamic Conference, voted for it, while over 150 other countries abstained or did not vote. The three states that co-chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group-- the United States, Russia, and France -- were among the seven countries that voted against the resolution.

Oskanian believes the resolution was rather a sign that Azerbaijan is on the defensive, and displaying "nervousness" in its foreign policy. "They [Azerbaijan] are trying to take the issue to the UN, dissolve the whole Minsk process, do away with the Prague process and the document that has been produced as a result of our joint work with Azeris and the co-chairs during the past two years," Oskanian told RFE/RL, referring to the Basic Principles for resolving the conflict that the two sides have come close to agreement on.

The basic principles, as outlined in a statement by the co-chairs on June 22 to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna and posted on June 28 on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, point to a "phased-package" approach to resolving the conflict, meaning that the various elements of a settlement are agreed on simultaneously, even though they are implemented successively, with one key aspect -- the final status of the NKR -- to be decided by "a referendum or vote" at some unspecified future date.

"These principles include the phased redeployment of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, with special modalities for Kelbacar and Lachin districts [separating Karabakh from Armenia proper]," the co-chairs said. "Demilitarization of those territories would follow. A referendum or popular vote would be agreed, at an unspecified future date, to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh."

"An international peacekeeping force would be deployed," added the statement. "A joint commission would be agreed to implement the agreement. International financial assistance would be made available for de-mining, reconstruction, resettlement of internally displaced persons in the formerly occupied territories and the war-affected regions of Nagorno-Karabakh. The sides would renounce the use or threat of use of force, and international and bilateral security guarantees and assurances would be put in place."

Those provisions correspond very largely to the ones contained in the draft peace settlement proposed by the Minsk Group in May-July 1997, the key difference being that the 1997 document contained no specific mention of Kelbacar.

The mediators said the conflicting parties would also have to work out practical modalities of the Karabakh referendum. "Suitable preconditions for such a vote would have to be achieved so that the vote would take place in a noncoercive environment in which well-informed citizens have had ample opportunity to consider their positions after a vigorous debate in the public arena."

"Clearly the Azeris are not happy with the content of that document, which has been formalized by depositing at the OSCE Secretariat, and in which Karabakh's right to self-determination has been clearly codified, and this is what makes the Azeris very nervous," Oskanian explained.

"What they did at the UN is not a preemption. It's a reaction to the Minsk process. The document is a reaction to the co-chairs' move to deposit for the first time ever in the history of this conflict a document that they thought has reached the maturity which can be put at the OSCE Secretariat as a clear guideline and clear principles that have been codified as a result of the joint work of the past two years."

Oskanian, who was succeeded in office earlier this week by former Armenian Ambassador to France Eduard Nalbandian, said Armenia's options in the Karabakh process remain limited but refrained from prejudging what might happen under the new administration. "At this moment it is difficult to predict what the next president will do. It's his choice what kind of foreign policy he will implement, whether he will maintain the notion of 'complementarity' or not. But given my experience I don't think Armenia's room to maneuver is very wide. Our options are limited. What can be done is simply to make some changes in the accents not necessarily in direction," Oskanian said. "My expectation will be that there will not be major changes, but again I don't want to speak prematurely without waiting to see what decisions will be taken by the new president and the foreign minister."

"Given Azerbaijan's positions and change of heart, I do expect that there will be some modifications in our foreign policy that will be done by default, because Azerbaijan itself seems to be deviating from the established path. If Azerbaijan changes direction, then Armenia has no choice but to make corresponding adjustment in its policy. What exactly those changes will be, we have to wait and see," Oskanian concluded.

President Serzh Sarkisian paid tribute on April 16 to Oskanian's stint as foreign minister, noting in particular his role in the search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict and in strengthening Armenian statehood, reported on April 17. Sarkisian said that in the next few years Armenia's foreign policy will become "more proactive and oriented toward initiative," while remaining true to the policy of complementarity (which was largely Oskanian's brainchild). Specifically, Sarkisian affirmed that Azerbaijan must accept once and for all time that the existence of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is irreversible. It is impossible to envisage that the NKR could in some way be subordinate to Azerbaijan."
RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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