The brief August war between Georgia and Russia served to highlight the destabilizing potential of unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus and thus lent a new urgency to ongoing efforts to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Speaking on October 21 during a visit to Yerevan, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev argued that one of the lessons to be drawn from the fighting over South Ossetia is that such conflicts can and must be resolved peacefully, through negotiations.
To that end, Medvedev offered to host a summit in Moscow early next month between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his newly reelected Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in order to seek a solution to the Karabakh conflict "based on international principles." Basic Principles
The September visit to Yerevan by Turkish President Abdullah Gul fuelled hopes for a normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia that could in turn facilitate an accord on Karabakh. At the same time, some analysts construed Gul's statement that Ankara is ready to help mediate such a solution as a bid, possibly supported by Russia, to sideline the OSCE's Minsk Group. And some political figures in Yerevan fear that under pressure from both Russia and the West, Sarkisian might agree to compromises they consider unacceptable and detrimental to Armenia's long-term interests.
A framework agreement for resolving the Karabakh conflict already exists, in the form of the so-called Madrid Principles presented by the French, U.S., and Russian Minsk Group co-chairmen to the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Madrid in November 2007. That blueprint in turn was based on the so-called Basic Principles for the Peaceful Solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, which were made public in June 2006.
The Basic Principles envisage the phased withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani territories contiguous to Nagorno-Karabakh, including the district of Kelbacar and the strategic Lachin corridor that links Armenia and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR); the demilitarization of those previously occupied territories; the deployment of an international peacekeeping force; demining, reconstruction, and other measures to address the impact of the conflict and expedite the return to their homes of displaced persons; and, finally, a referendum among the NKR population to determine the region's future status vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government in Baku.
Meeting for the first time on the sidelines of a CIS summit in St. Petersburg in June, Sarkisian and Aliyev gave the green light for their respective foreign ministers to continue talks on ways to resolve the conflict on the basis of the Madrid Principles. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who traveled to Yerevan in early October for talks with Sarkisian and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, was quoted by "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on October 7 as saying that all three co-chairs see "a very real chance" of resolving the conflict, assuming that agreement can be reached on the "two or three" still unresolved issues.
Lavrov added that the main obstacle is lack of consensus on the future of the Lachin corridor. The Azerbaijani website day.az back on April 1 quoted Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov as saying Azerbaijan has no objections to both Armenia and Azerbaijan using the corridor, provided it remains territorially a part of Azerbaijan. Resolution Hopes
Visiting Yerevan on October 17, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried was even more upbeat than Lavrov. He told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that a breakthrough in the conflict-resolution process in the coming weeks is "possible," given that "the war in Georgia reminded everyone in this region how terrible war is" and thus made a resumption of hostilities less likely. But, Fried went on, "possible does not mean inevitable, and there are hard decisions that have to be made on both sides. If this conflict were easy to resolve, it would have been resolved already."
Fried did not mention any heightened role for Turkey in the peace process. But meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh) in Washington on October 14, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discounted speculation that the Minsk Group would be superseded as the mediating body.
Speaking to journalists in Yerevan on September 17, French Minsk Group co-Chairman Bernard Fassier similarly sought to dispel the perception that Turkey was seeking to torpedo the work of the Minsk Group. Fassier explained that since Turkey is one of the 12 members of the OSCE Minsk Group, "its efforts directed at providing assistance to the settlement of the Karabakh conflict do not imply a change in the format of negotiations." He said that Turkey "has always shown a constructive approach, supporting the activities of the three co-chairmen," and that "any proposal made to support the negotiations, in particular from Turkey, is desirable and welcome," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.
Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian nonetheless argued at a rally of his supporters in Yerevan on October 17 that the West is trying to squeeze Russia out of the Karabakh peace process as part of a broader effort to minimize Russian influence in the South Caucasus, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.
Ter-Petrossian accused President Sarkisian (after whom, according to official returns, he polled second in the February 19 presidential ballot) of being ready to "put Karabakh up for sale" and renounce Armenia's long-standing political and military alliance with Russia in an effort to legitimize his rule in the eyes of the international community. By doing so, Ter-Petrossian continued, Sarkisian is in effect entrusting the West in general, and Turkey in particular, with achieving a "unilateral settlement" of the Karabakh conflict.
Even the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), a member of the four-party coalition government, is uneasy at the prospect that, under pressure from the international community, President Sarkisian might make unacceptable concessions over Karabakh. HHD parliament faction secretary Artashes Shahbazian told journalists in Yerevan on October 13 that his party, and Armenian society as a whole, opposes the return to Azerbaijan of the districts currently under the control of Armenian forces, Noyan Tapan reported.
Asked on October 20 why the HHD remains in government if it rejects President Sarkisian's Karabakh policy, senior HHD member Kiro Manoyan explained that "it is the chance to convince our partners and influence them that keeps us in the coalition," Noyan Tapan reported. Manoyan added that if the HHD concludes that it no longer wields any influence, it will quit the coalition.