Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov on July 13 floated a new approach to expediting the Karabakh peace process, which is widely perceived as bogged down following the failure
of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents during their meeting in Kazan on June 24 to sign the most recent version of the so-called Madrid Principles for resolving the conflict.
But Mammadyarov's Armenian opposite number, Eduard Nalbandian, immediately rejected
Mammadyarov's proposal to proceed to drafting a framework peace treaty even before disagreements over the Madrid Principles are ironed out. Nalbandian said that initiative reflected Azerbaijan's desire to abandon the principles currently under discussion. He did not elaborate.
Mammadyarov's proposal, floated in a lengthy interview
with the Russian news agency Interfax, raises a crucial procedural question: whether and when representatives of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) will join the ongoing peace talks under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group. The consensus among Armenian and NKR officials and the Minsk Group co-chairs is that Nagorno-Karabakh will join the talks after agreement is reached on the Basic Principles and the sides begin to parlay those points into a full-fledged peace agreement.
Mammadyarov recapitulated in some detail the various stages of the so-called Prague Process that got under way in the summer of 2004, just weeks after his appointment as foreign minister.
The first draft of the Basic Principles
was the fruit of two years of talks between 2004 and 2006 between Mammadyarov and his then-Armenian counterpart, Vartan Oskanian.
That initial draft was finessed over the next 18 months, and the Minsk Group co-chairs unveiled a revised version at the ministerial conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Madrid in late 2007 that became known as the Madrid Principles. (The terms "Basic Principles" and "Madrid Principles" continue to be used interchangeably.)
That version in turn has undergone further fine-tuning, and in late 2009 the co-chairs unveiled a new, more explicit variant that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in January 2010 he "largely" accepted. According to Nalbandian, it encompasses 14 points, six of which are listed in the successive statements issued in 2009 and 2010 by the presidents of the three Minsk Group co-chair states (France, Russia, and the United States) on the sidelines of Group of Eight (G8) summits.
Disputes On Three Issues
But the conflict sides have still not succeeded in bridging their disagreements over several key points
. The disputes reportedly center on three issues: the time frame and sequence in which Armenian forces will be withdrawn from seven districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to Nagorno-Karabakh that they currently occupy; the so-called Lachin Corridor that forms an overland bridge between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia; and the nature of the "interim status" to be accorded to the unrecognized republic pending an "expression of popular will" at some future juncture in which the region's population will decide on its future status.
Addressing the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London on July 13, Nalbandian defined the "interim status" as "the status quo plus," i.e. all that Nagorno-Karabakh has today, plus international recognition of that status.
The Minsk Group co-chairs have not made public the optimum time frame for the Armenian troop withdrawal. But President Aliyev told a cabinet session
in Baku on July 12 that the most recent version of the Madrid Principles envisages the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from five Azerbaijani districts (Agdam, Fizuli, Gubatly, Jabrail, and Zangelan), and five years later from the two remaining districts (Kelbajar and Lachin).
Mammadyarov was less explicit: he told Interfax only that Armenian troops are to withdraw from the occupied territories "according to a precisely formulated timetable," in return for which Nagorno-Karabakh will be granted "temporary self-determination" within Azerbaijan. Ali Gasanov, who heads the social-political department within the Azerbaijani presidential administration, says granting Nagorno-Karabakh interim status constitutes the concession
that Azerbaijan has been called upon to make in the interests of resolving the conflict.
Mammadyarov predicted that when the final "expression of popular will" is held, the Armenian population of the region will opt on economic grounds to remain part of the "flourishing" Azerbaijan Republic -- a prediction that will doubtless raise eyebrows in both Yerevan and Stepanakert.
There are still a number of outstanding issues in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations.
Echoing earlier statements by President Aliyev, he said Baku was ready to offer Nagorno-Karabakh "the broadest possible autonomy."
Mammadyarov cited two arguments in support of his proposal to proceed to drafting the framework peace treaty. The first was that the points on which agreement has not yet been reached will have to be resolved anyway during work on the final peace agreement. The second was the need to capitalize on the unspecified progress he says was achieved in Kazan.
In that context, Mammadyarov denied that the finalization of the Madrid Principles in Kazan was thwarted by President Aliyev's insistence at the last minute on 10 amendments to the text. Mammadyarov said Aliyev asked for fewer than 10 changes, all of which he had called for repeatedly over the previous two years.
Finalizing, Not Signing, The Basic Principles
Mammadyarov also said that it was never envisaged that the conflict sides should actually append their signatures to the Madrid Principles. He said the only document to be signed is the framework peace agreement. Successive statements by the co-chairs and by the presidents of the three Minsk co-chair countries indirectly corroborate that claim insofar as they call on the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan not to "sign" but to "finalize" the Basic Principles.
Regardless of the manner in which the Basic/Madrid Principles are to be formally endorsed, Armenia considers the NKR's approval of them essential. Speaking in London last week, Nalbandian said that "without the approval of the Basic Principles by Nagorno-Karabakh, it is impossible to draft the peace agreement, and without the direct participation of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiations, it is impossible to sign an agreement, the settlement of the issue."
In an interview last week
with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, the unrecognized republic's president, Bako Sahakian stressed that the NKR must be directly involved and have a final say in those negotiations. "While welcoming Azerbaijan's and Armenia's participation in negotiations and expressing our gratitude to Armenia, we always add that within that [existing] framework it's impossible to reach an agreement because the Artsakh Republic must also be involved in those discussions," he said.
Sahakian claimed that the mediators agree with that argument. "At the moment we have a certain satisfaction with the fact that the Minsk Group co-chairs point out in their statements that a final solution without the participation of the Artsakh Republic is impossible," he said.