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Caucasus Report: July 9, 2004


9 July 2004, Volume 7, Number 27

FROM SIMMERING CONFLICT TO SIMMERING PEACE PROCESS. There must surely have been moments over the past 12 years when the task of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group seemed only marginally less frustrating than that of a team of conservationist zoologists who, having brought together in one cage two giant pandas from zoos at opposite ends of the planet, find to their chagrin and consternation that even though the survival of the species is in jeopardy, there is no way they can induce the pair to mate.

That is not to deny that the Minsk Group has come very close on at least two occasions to brokering a settlement acceptable to all three parties to the conflict. In 1997, Azerbaijan agreed to a phased settlement of the conflict that Armenia too accepted, albeit with reservations, while the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic rejected it. But further negotiations on that model for resolving the conflict were thwarted by the forced resignation in February 1998 of then-Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Then in early 2001, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan reportedly reached a tentative oral consensus, which was apparently never committed to paper, and which Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev subsequently retreated from.

It is a truism that any number of factors can imperil attempts to reach a political settlement of a decade-old conflict. At the most banal level, personal antipathy between the mediators can inhibit progress. (In a 1991 interview with the German weekly "Die Zeit," then-Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel confessed to being "surprised and shocked" by the realization of how great a role such personal sympathies or animosities play in decisions that affect the lives of millions of people.) The fact that the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers have met three times between mid-April and late June, and that a fourth meeting may take place in August, suggests, though, that at present the negotiating process is not stalled by the quirks of personal chemistry.

But to an even greater degree, the outcome of any peace progress is inevitably hostage to domestic political considerations, specifically, the willingness, or conversely the reluctance of national leaders to risk their careers by agreeing to concessions that many voters consider not only politically unacceptable but an insult to the memories of those who gave their lives fighting. While success could be rewarded by a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, failure, or even badly judged timing, can spell the end of a political career -- as in the case of Ter-Petrossian. Azerbaijan's current President Ilham Aliyev, who hopes to win a second presidential term in 2008, has little incentive to undermine his chances of doing so by making major concessions before then, and indeed has said on several occasions that he will "never" do so.

The conflict sides and the OSCE Minsk Group have a gentlemen's agreement not to divulge either specific proposals under discussion or the reactions of one side to statements by the other. That insistence on the confidentiality of the negotiating process is intended to preclude the leak of details that could destroy a tenuous consensus reached in months or even years of talks by provoking a domestic political backlash that might even endanger the stability of one or other government. Although stage-managed, the Azerbaijani parliament debate that followed the leak in February 2001 of three successive Minsk Group draft peace proposals demonstrated the kind of groundswell of anger and resentment that an unfavorable settlement could unleash (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 23 February 2001).

But the lack of detailed information also serves to engender any amount of speculation, disinformation, and rumors concerning peace proposals that have no formal status -- such as that by EU rapporteur Per Gahrton early this year that Armenia withdraw its forces from five occupied Azerbaijani districts in return for the resumption of rail communication between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Deliberate disinformation can, nonetheless, serve a useful purpose during long-drawn-out negotiations insofar as it may serve to deflect attention from what is really on the negotiating table. Cautiously worded statements by Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and the Minsk Group co-chairs following the most recent meeting between Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov in Prague last month suggest that the talks at present focus on ways to narrow the gap between the two sides' preferred approaches. Since 1998, Armenia has insisted on a "package" solution to the conflict that would address and resolve all disputed issues in a single agreement, without leaving any "loose ends," even if the various provisions of that agreement were implemented not simultaneously but consecutively, over a period of time. Azerbaijan, by contrast, favors the "step-by-step" approach under which a series of separate aspects of the problem would be addressed and resolved one at a time, and the second problem or set of problems would only be addressed after measures to implement the first had been successfully completed. That approach would theoretically enable Azerbaijan to demand a major concession from Armenia (such as the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the regions which they currently control bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) without making a concession of similar magnitude in return. That approach is anathema to Yerevan, insofar as it entails the possible danger of Armenia surrendering its biggest "bargaining chip" -- the occupied districts -- without securing in return what it considers most important, namely a cast-iron agreement that Nagorno-Karabakh should not be vertically subordinated to the Azerbaijani central government.

RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted Oskanian as saying on 17 May after his meeting with Mammadyarov in Strasbourg that "the essence of the problem is Nagorno-Karabakh's status. Everything else is the consequence of the failure to resolve that problem. So if we are to resolve the conflict, we must concentrate on Nagorno-Karabakh's status, rather than try to find solutions to secondary issues, putting the main issue aside." Four weeks later, Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service after his talks with Mammadyarov in Prague on 21 June that the "nature of the ongoing talks is such that one should really opt for a synthesis" of the Armenian and Azerbaijani positions.

Speaking in Moscow on 24 June, Russian OSCE Minsk Group co-Chairman Yurii Merzlyakov said that the co-chairs are drafting a new peace proposal that would "allow us to synthesize incompatible things," meaning the diverging approaches of the two sides. He predicted that "this is possible...if the parties display goodwill."

Merzlyakov's disclosure suggests that there are indeed grounds for cautious optimism that a solution to the conflict can be reached. But Mammadyarov warned that it will take time: the Azerbaijani daily "Ekho" on 24 June quoted him as comparing the negotiations to cooking, implying that for the best results, neither process should be rushed. At the same time, Mammadyarov expressed confidence that the final product will be both "tasty" and "digestible" to everyone.

On 1 July, Oskanian said the Minsk Group co-chairs will travel to Yerevan, Stepanakert, and Baku later in July, but will not bring a new peace proposal, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added that "negotiations at the level of presidents and foreign ministers have not yet reached a point where the co-chairs have enough material to put something on paper." On 8 July, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian said the co-chairs will visit Yerevan on 12 July, Stepanakert on 13 July, and then Baku, Noyan Tapan reported. (Liz Fuller)

EU COMMISSIONER DISCUSSES 'NEW NEIGHBORS' POLICY WITH ARMENIAN LEADERS. Janez Potocnik, the European Union's junior commissioner on enlargement affairs, discussed with Armenian leaders on 8 July practical consequences of Armenia's inclusion in the list of countries entitled to privileged ties with the EU. After talks in Yerevan with President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and other senior officials, Potocnik reiterated the EU's position that Armenia itself should decide the extent of its cooperation with the bloc under the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). He said the EU's executive commission would only support and encourage Yerevan's efforts to meet European standards on free elections, human rights, and freedom of speech.

The decision to extend the ENP, also known as "Wider Europe," to Armenia as well as neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia was formally made by the EU foreign ministers on 14 June. EU diplomats have since been keen to stress that none of the three countries will draw any material benefits from the scheme until 2007. They say each South Caucasus state will have to negotiate separate "action plans" on economic and political reforms by that time. The EU has also made clear that it will consider developing relations with the three countries on the basis of individual merit. So far, Georgia has emerged as a clear leader -- something that was acknowledged by the union's special representative to the region, Heikki Talvitie, in Yerevan late last month (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 July 2004).

Potocnik said that he will submit a report on Armenia to the European Commission by the spring of 2005, after which the two sides will begin discussing joint programs on a broad range of issues. He also reiterated the EU's insistence on the timely closure of the Metsamor nuclear plant "for safety reasons."

"I think we have a kind of mutual agreement that sooner or later the decommissioning of the Metsamor nuclear plant will be needed," the Slovenian official said, reaffirming the EU's offer of a 100 million-euro ($124 million) compensation for the shutdown.

EU officials in Brussels told RFE/RL earlier this week that during his regional tour Potocnik will reaffirm the bloc's willingness to take a more active approach to regional conflicts. They said although the EU bloc will not act as a mediator it will use incentives inherent in closer ties to foster compromise. (Gevorg Stamboltsian)

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