It is just over a month now since the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed in Moscow a joint declaration reaffirming their commitment to resolving the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict exclusively by diplomatic means.
The November 2 announcement reasserted the mediating role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group and took as the basis for further discussion the principles presented to the conflict sides in November 2007 in Madrid at the annual OSCE foreign ministers meeting.
On December 4, at this year's OSCE foreign ministers meeting in Helsinki, the Russian and French foreign ministers and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, representing the three countries that jointly co-chair the Minsk Group, issued a joint statement hailing the so-called Moscow Declaration as "the beginning of a new and very promising phase in our joint effort to extend peace in the South Caucasus."
They called on "all sides to the conflict" (specifically referring to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic, which is not represented at the formal peace talks) to take concrete measures within the next few months toward reaching agreement on the basic principles for resolving the conflict. Specifically, the three diplomats urged the parties to engage in confidence-building measures, including the withdrawal by both sides of snipers deployed along the Line of Contact separating the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who also serves as the U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman, told RFE/RL in Helsinki that the co-chairs and the conflict sides "need to build on the momentum" of the Moscow Declaration, and specifically "to see the basic principles finalized." "And we believe they can be soon," he said.
Bryza said it is hoped that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan will meet "within a couple of weeks" to formalize a rapprochement of their respective positions. Fried, speaking on December 5, was even more upbeat, saying a settlement of the conflict "has never been closer."
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, however, told journalists in Helsinki on December 5 that the next meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijan presidents will take place only in early 2009. He also said the Minsk Group co-chairs presented himself and his Armenian counterpart, Eduard Nalbandian, with unspecified amendments to the basic principles on which consensus was reached in Madrid last year.
Such a reference to "amendments" to the basic principles may be related to the confidence-building-measures section of the Moscow Declaration, especially as Azerbaijan has long withheld its agreement to such a provision. In this regard, the Moscow Declaration is doubly significant, not only as the first document signed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, but also in terms of a new Azerbaijani recognition of the need for confidence-building measures, which represents an important shift in Baku's long-standing position.
Those so-called Madrid Principles are believed to comprise specific aspects of an earlier, broader blueprint for resolving the conflict on which Armenia and Azerbaijan have reportedly already reached agreement, with unresolved issues clearly designated as such. That broader framework, the original Basic Principles, was made public in June 2006. It comprises 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 Nagorno-Karabakh republic -- to be decided by "a referendum or vote." While the time frame for that referendum is not specified in the Basic Principles, two of the co-chairs have indicated that it is between 10 and 15 years after a comprehensive peace agreement is finalized.
The Basic Principles include the phased redeployment of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, with special modalities for the Kelbacar and Lachin districts that separate Karabakh from Armenia. All sides are required to renounce the use or threat of force; the territories would be demilitarized; and an international peacekeeping force deployed there based on an undefined mission mandate. A referendum or popular vote would be agreed, at an unspecified future date, to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh. At present, however, the two sides remain far apart on the issue of who exactly would be eligible to participate. International financial assistance would be made available for a wide range of postconflict development projects, including de-mining, reconstruction, and resettlement of internally displaced persons in the formerly occupied territories and the war-affected regions of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azerbaijani website echo-az.com published on November 13 what it claimed was the text of the Madrid Principles, which differ from the Basic Principles in proposing an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh until its final status is determined by a referendum. The purported document also advocates enhancing the role of the EU special representative to the South Caucasus in liaising with the OSCE Minsk Group. Neither the Minsk Group nor the Armenian or Azerbaijani government has either confirmed or denied the authenticity of that draft.
Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani delegation in Helsinki has muddied the waters by circulating yet another set of "principles" that Baku apparently insists should be incorporated into the final settlement document. As summarized on December 5 by day.az, those principles are based on the preservation of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. Crucially, they stress that the "military occupation," meaning the occupation by Armenian armed forces of seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh, be decoupled from the rest of the peace process.
In other words, Azerbaijan insists that the process of determining the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan -- a process that must take place with the "direct, complete, and equal participation" of both the present Armenian population of the enclave and its former Azerbaijani residents, and on the basis of their "constructive cooperation with the Azerbaijani government" -- may get under way only after the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from the seven occupied districts.
That renewed insistence that Armenia should effectively surrender its key bargaining chip (the occupied territories) without having obtained any comparable concession in return cannot but compound the apprehension of many in Armenia -- including the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun that is a member of the coalition government -- who fear an imminent sellout by President Serzh Sarkisian in the wake of the secret talks that preceded the historic visit to Armenia in early September by Turkish President Abdullah Gul. The Moscow Declaration, however, sought to allay Armenian concerns over that approach. The third point of that declaration commits the signatories to an agreement that the process of hammering out a peaceful settlement should be underpinned by "legally binding international guarantees" regarding each successive step to be undertaken.