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Analysis: Mediators Seek New Formula For Karabakh

On 21 June, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group met for the third time in 10 weeks to discuss approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict.

Three days later, Russian co-chairman Yurii Merzlyakov announced in Moscow that the discussions focused on a new peace proposal that would bridge the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two sides.

Since 1998, Armenia has insisted on a "package" solution to the conflict that would address and resolve all disputed issues in a single agreement, without leaving any "loose ends," even if the various provisions of that agreement were implemented not simultaneously but consecutively, over time.

Azerbaijan, by contrast, favors a "step-by-step" approach, under which a series of separate aspects of the problem would be addressed and resolved one at a time, and the second problem or set of problems would be addressed only after measures to implement the first had been successfully completed. That approach would theoretically enable Azerbaijan to demand a major concession from Armenia -- such as the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the regions that they currently control bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic -- without making a concession of similar magnitude in return.

That approach is anathema to Yerevan, insofar as it entails the possible danger of Armenia surrendering its biggest "bargaining chip" -- the occupied districts -- without securing in return what it considers most important, namely a cast-iron agreement that Nagorno-Karabakh should not be vertically subordinated to the Azerbaijani central government.

U.S. diplomats previously involved in the Minsk Group process say that the "package" approach was the basis for the tentative agreements, known as the "Paris principles," arrived at during the spring of 2001 during talks in Paris and Florida between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev. Aliyev, however, apparently subsequently realized that it would be more difficult than he originally thought to persuade the Azerbaijani people to accept a peace agreement that required a major concession from Baku. (Precisely what status Nagorno-Karabakh was to have been granted under the "Paris principles" remains a matter for conjecture. Aliyev rejected a proposal by the Minsk Group in late 1998 that Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh should form a "common state.")

The failure of the "Paris Principles" underscores the degree to which the outcome of any peace process is inevitably hostage to domestic political considerations, specifically, the willingness or the reluctance of national leaders to risk their careers by agreeing to concessions that many voters consider not only politically unacceptable but an insult to the memory of those who gave their lives fighting. While success could be rewarded by a nomination for the Nobel Peace prize, failure, or even badly judged timing, can spell the end of a political career.

One of the reasons for Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian's forced resignation in February 1998 was his readiness to accept a "step-by-step" peace plan unveiled by the Minsk Group the previous September. Azerbaijan's current president, Ilham Aliyev, who hopes to win a second presidential term in 2008, has little incentive to undermine his chances of doing so by making major concessions before then, and indeed has said on several occasions that he will "never" do so.

The conflict sides and the OSCE Minsk Group have a gentlemen's agreement not to divulge either specific proposals under discussion or the reactions of one side to statements by the other. That insistence on the confidentiality of the negotiating process is intended to preclude the leak of details that could destroy a tenuous consensus reached in months or even years of talks by provoking a domestic political backlash that might even endanger the stability of one or both governments. But the lack of detailed information also serves to engender any amount of speculation, disinformation, and rumors concerning peace proposals that have no formal status -- such as that by EU rapporteur Per Gahrton early this year that Armenia withdraw its forces from five occupied Azerbaijani districts in return for the resumption of rail communication between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Merzlyakov's Moscow disclosure suggests that there are indeed grounds for cautious optimism that a solution to the conflict could be reached. But Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov warned that it will take time. The Azerbaijani daily "Ekho" on 24 June quoted him as comparing the negotiations to cooking, implying that for the best results, neither process should be rushed. At the same time, Mammadyarov expressed confidence that the final product will be both "tasty" and "digestible" to everyone.

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