Yesterday's talks between visiting Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and top EU officials indicated the bloc is ready for the first time to invest significant diplomatic capital in the region.
Both the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, were unusually critical of the 10-year-long efforts of the so-called Minsk Group -- sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- to negotiate a settlement to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
"It is true that progress does not seem to be taking place in the last part of this period of time,” Solana said. “We would like to see if we can contribute to move the negotiations forward. We hope that the [latest] of the meetings -- not only between the two presidents [of Azerbaijan and Armenia], but the continuous contacts that are taking place between the two ministries of foreign affairs -- may contribute to move the process [forward], restart the process. Whatever we can do -- and I promised the president -- whatever we can do, we'll try and do it."
Solana, like Prodi before him, stressed that the "Minsk process" will continue to be managed by the OSCE. The EU, they say, will try to help where it can and only when invited.
An EU official, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL after Aliyev's talks in Brussels that the Azerbaijani president had lobbied strongly for increased EU involvement. The official said Aliyev had said Azerbaijan feels there is a palpable pro-Armenian bias within the Minsk Group. The group is chaired by the United States, Russia, and France. Both France and the United States are seen by Baku to be susceptible to lobbying by the strong Armenian diaspora in the two countries. Russia still plays a large role in guaranteeing Armenia's security -- for instance, it provides the country's border guards.
Aliyev yesterday told reporters after meeting Solana that although Azerbaijan is not challenging the OSCE mandate of the Minsk Group, he would like the EU to assume a greater role.
"We consider that the EU is playing a very important role in [relation to Nagorno-Karabakh]. Of course, the Minsk Group of the OSCE has a mandate to deal with that issue and of course we are not trying to change that mandate. But at the same time, Azerbaijan is strongly convinced that broader international attention, the attention of European structures, and of public opinion in Europe will help find a quick and peaceful resolution to the conflict," Aliyev said.
The unnamed EU source said the bloc has been well served by its first-ever special envoy to the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, a Finnish diplomat. Talvitie has earlier worked with the Minsk group and knows the region well. His six-month mandate will come up for renewal next month, but its extension is virtually guaranteed.
The EU official said that while maintaining its support for the Minsk Group, the bloc is currently pursuing a wider strategy of "triangulation," involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey. In so doing, the EU is trying to tackle not just Nagorno-Karabakh, but the overall context of Azerbaijani-Armenian relations.
The source said Aliyev had yesterday strongly argued against steps aimed at lifting the border closure between Turkey and Armenia currently in effect. Azerbaijan was said to view the closure as an essential, if not sole, lever to secure Armenian concessions over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied areas.
In fact, when the United States recently put strong pressure on Turkey to lift the blockade, Baku was said to have warned Washington that such a move would result in an end to the search for a solution to the conflict. According to the source, Azerbaijan told the United States that Armenia would then lose interest in working for a settlement.
Conversely, sources say, Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, has announced that in protest of the border closure, he will not be going to the NATO summit in Istanbul next month, where he has been invited as a guest.
The EU official said the strategy of "triangulation" pursues an incremental approach. In order to secure an easing of the border closure with Turkey, Armenia will have to initiate a pullback of its forces from the occupied areas of Azerbaijani territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.
This is a strategy that appears to suit Baku. According to the EU source, Aliyev told Solana that once Armenia withdraws from the occupied territories -- but not necessarily from Nagorno-Karabakh -- Baku would be ready to launch talks on the final status of the breakaway region. Armenia, on the other hand, is seen as demanding a decision on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh before acquiescing to any further talks.
According to the source, the EU favors Azerbaijan's step-by-step approach. The official said the bloc considers it very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a comprehensive settlement at one stroke.
Aliyev made clear yesterday that Azerbaijan would not give up Nagorno-Karabakh. Speaking to the media, the Azerbaijani president stressed that any solution must respect the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
However, the EU source said Aliyev had told the bloc's officials that Baku was prepared to accord full respect to the "Armenian heritage and history" of the region, as well as to its "ancient ties" with Armenia. He did not spell out yesterday the precise details of the kind of autonomy Azerbaijan would be prepared to offer the breakaway republic.
The official also said the EU believes the weak domestic standing of Armenian President Kocharian means it will be very difficult for him to make concessions. In contrast, the official cited Azerbaijan's recent impressive record on domestic issues.
Baku has released hundreds of political prisoners. Ilham Aliyev has resettled the Azeri refugees fleeing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- an issue on which his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev, had stalled. Aliyev junior also presides over a rapidly expanding economy, which grew by 11 percent last year. The EU source said all this strengthens Aliyev's hand.
The official said that although the EU still considers the human rights situation in Azerbaijan "far from satisfactory," the bloc recognizes the recent improvements.
Sources say Aliyev had yesterday asked European Commission President Romano Prodi to open a commission office in Baku. The EU's executive arm already has a mission in Tbilisi and has a "sub-office" in Yerevan. However, EU sources said the current commission, which will step down in October, is unlikely to be in an "expansionary mood" at this stage.