The seven districts in question have been under the control of Armenian forces for the past 12 years, and many observers consider them Yerevan's sole "ace," to be traded for a major concession by Baku on the NKR's final future status under any eventual peace agreement (the so-called "land for status" model of conflict resolution).
Mammadyarov said on 17 May that talks are already under way on the timeframe for an Armenian withdrawal from the seven occupied districts. He added, however, that this would be a lengthy process, in light of the need to address related problems such as mine-clearing, postconflict rehabilitation of the districts in question, and the return to their abandoned homes of those districts' ethnic Azerbaijani population, according today.az on 17 May.
On 18 May, however, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeman Hamlet Gasparian released a statement in Yerevan denying that Armenia has agreed to liberate the seven Azerbaijani regions. At the same time, Gasparian described as "a further step forward" towards resolving the Karabakh conflict the talks between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Warsaw on 15 May on the sidelines of the Council of Europe summit. In line with the long-standing confidentiality agreement surrounding the negotiations (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 9 July 2004), Gasparian did not divulge any details of what the two presidents discussed. But both he and the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is mediating the peace talks, said the Warsaw meeting opens the way for a continuation of the so-called "Prague talks" between Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian that began one year ago. Mammadyarov and Oskanian met in Warsaw on 15 May with the Minsk Group co-chairs.
Rumors of a possible Armenian withdrawal from three, five, or all seven of the occupied Azerbaijan districts have been circulating for several years. In early 2004, the European Parliament rapporteur for the South Caucasus, Per Gahrton, circulated a draft report on the South Caucasus that included a proposal that Armenia should cede five of the occupied districts in exchange for the resumption of rail traffic from Azerbaijan to Armenia. The five districts in question were Jebrayil, Fizuli, Zangelan, Agdam, and Gubadla, but not the strategic Lachin corridor that serves as the sole overland road link between the NKR and Armenia. Senior Azerbaijani officials, including Parliament Speaker Murtuz Alesqerov, were quoted as expressing support for Gahrton's proposal. Alesqerov told the European Commission's special envoy, Antonius De Vries, in Baku on 29 January that "Azerbaijan accepts this plan. We believe the liberation of the districts can promote the restoration of the territorial integrity of the country," Interfax-Azerbaijan reported on 30 January 2004. But the European Parliament ultimately deleted that proposal from the draft resolution before adopting it (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 27 February 2004). Mammadyarov's deputy, Araz Azimov, told journalists in January 2005, following the most recent Prague meeting between the two foreign ministers, that an Armenian withdrawal from all seven districts was on the agenda of the Prague talks, according to zerkalo.az on 14 January. But Armenian officials, including Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, have dismissed any talk of an exchange of the occupied districts for the resumption of rail traffic as "unserious."
If Presidents Kocharian and Aliyev did indeed make progress at their meeting in Warsaw -- their first meeting in eight months -- it is unclear why Mammadyarov should have immediately jeopardized that progress by violating the confidentialty of the talks with a statement that Yerevan immediately rebutted as untrue. One possible explanation, suggested by Armenian majority Republican Party of Armenia parliament faction head Galust Sahakian in an interview with A1+, is that Mammadyarov's announcement was intended first and foremost for domestic consumption to create the impression that Baku has scored a major diplomatic victory at a time when the Azerbaijani leadership is under increasing pressure from the international community to amend its election legislation and take other related steps to ensure that the parliamentary elections due in November are free, fair, transparent, and democratic. Alternatively, Mammadyarov's statement may have been intended to derail the Karabakh peace talks temporarily (until after the parliamentary elections?) by putting the Armenian side on the defensive in the face of accusations from the opposition that it has sold out and compromised the future security of the NKR by ceding control of the Lachin corridor. Such a delay would obviate the need for Azerbaijani to announce publicly in the run-up to the November ballot any unpalatable concessions on Karabakh which the opposition could seek to turn to its advantage.