The announcement on October 29 that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan will meet in Moscow on November 2 at the invitation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss ways to resolve the Karabakh conflict has fueled speculation about an imminent breakthrough in the peace process.
Medvedev offered during a visit to Yerevan on October 21 to host such a meeting between the two leaders. But while all sides have publicly affirmed that the August war between Georgia and Russia has demonstrated the futility and risks inherent in trying to resolve conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union by military force, the Armenian and Azerbaijani negotiating positions still remain far apart on several key points.
True, a framework agreement for resolving the Karabakh conflict already exists, in the form of the "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 "Basic Principles for the Peaceful Solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict" that 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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on October 7 as saying the two sides have reached agreement on all but two or three key points of the "Madrid Principles" and that there is "a very real chance" of resolving the conflict. Lavrov added that the main obstacle is lack of consensus on the future of the Lachin Corridor.Sticking Points
A second problematic issue is that of Karabakh's future status. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reiterated on October 24 during his inauguration for a second presidential term that Azerbaijan will never agree to concede part of its territory. "Karabakh will never be independent," news agencies quoted him as saying. "Azerbaijan will never recognize it. Neither in five years, nor in 10, 20 years. Never."
Aliyev's Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian, for his part, told Armenian Public Television on October 27 following a visit to Nagorno-Karabakh during which he toured the heavily militarized Line of Contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces east of the NKR that "a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is possible if Azerbaijan recognizes the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination; if Nagorno-Karabakh has a land border with Armenia; and if international organizations and leading nations guarantee the security of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh."
Sarkisian also stressed on October 27 that Armenia continues to regard the ongoing talks chaired by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group as the sole forum for resolving the conflict. Turkish President Abdullah Gul's much-publicized offer during his visit to Yerevan on September 7 to "assist" in reaching a solution has been widely construed as a bid by Ankara to muscle in on the peace process. The French Minsk Group co-chair, Ambassador Bernard Fassier, has vehemently denied any such Turkish intent.
Yerevan-based U.S. analyst Richard Giragosian too sees Medvedev's initiative as intended to counter and challenge a bid by Turkey to promote itself as a guarantor of stability in the South Caucasus. But even more important, Giragosian says, is Moscow's clear commitment to working together with Washington to achieving a solution to the conflict.
"It is a sign that Russia remains committed to the ongoing OSCE Minsk Group peace process seeking a negotiated solution to Nagorno-Karabakh and, most importantly, despite the fact that this presidential summit is being hosted by the Russians, it is a demonstration and affirmation that the U.S. and Russia still share the same goals of pursuing the Minsk Group process and trying to negotiate a solution to this last frozen conflict in the South Caucasus," Giragosian says.
"The U.S. and Russia do have areas of cooperation, do have areas where they could work together, and in many ways it is in Russia's interest to maintain at least the status quo regarding Nagorno-Karabakh," Giragosian adds, "and both the U.S. and Russia remain committed to preventing any new escalation or outbreak of hostilities, especially to prevent Azerbaijan from trying to solve this unresolved conflict militarily."
From that point of view, therefore, simply hosting the summit may be perceived in Moscow as more important than any actual outcome.
Speculation about a breakthrough in the peace process has focused not on the status issue, but the question of deploying international peacekeepers in the Lachin Corridor and the regions of Azerbaijan bordering the NKR that are currently controlled by Armenian forces. Some analysts have suggested Russia could insist that its 58th Army take on those responsibilities. But Armenian Defense Minister Colonel General Seyran Ohanian told the Armenian newspaper "Iravunk-De Facto" on October 31 that any peacekeeping force will not be 100 percent Russian.
Meanwhile, concern is growing in Armenia that Sarkisian might be constrained to make a major concession, possibly on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory, without securing any tangible benefits in return. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) released a statement on October 31 warning that it will quit the coalition government if Sarkisian betrays "national interests" by agreeing to cede those territories.
The day before, on October 30, a group of prominent Armenian intellectuals and public figures announced the launch of a new movement, named Unification National Initiative, that will actively oppose any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.