In early July, Armenian officials told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Armenia and Azerbaijan had reached agreement on the key points of a formal peace accord ending the Karabakh conflict, and that agreement could be signed by the end of this year. Days later, the Minsk Group co-chairmen likewise expressed cautious optimism. U.S. co-Chairman Steven Mann told journalists in Yerevan on 14 July that "there is a possibility of a Karabakh settlement in the course of this year," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mann repeated that prognosis the following day but qualified it, saying, "There are very difficult issues that are still on the table and real gaps between the two sides." Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, who is President Aliyev's special envoy for the Karabakh conflict, was even more upbeat, telling journalists in Baku on 18 July that "we are closer to peace than ever before," according to the website day.az.
Citing the need for confidentiality, the Minsk Group co-chairmen have consistently declined to divulge any details of specific issues under discussion. But both Azerbaijani and Armenian officials have gone public in recent months, identifying aspects of the hypothetical peace agreement. In mid-May, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov claimed that Yerevan had agreed to, and the two sides were already discussing the time frame for, the withdrawal of Armenian forces from seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The Armenian Foreign Ministry rejected Mammadyarov's claim the following day.
Three weeks later, on 7 June, Mammadyarov told journalists in Baku that the two sides were discussing between seven and nine issues related to a peace settlement, and that those issues have to be addressed in a specific order, with each made secure before the following is added, "like pearls knotted on a silk thread." Mammadyarov said Azerbaijan insists on the liberation of the seven districts currently occupied by Armenian forces, and that the two sides are discussing which countries or organizations could provide peacekeeping forces to be deployed on those territories after their liberation, according to day.az. He also said that "after the frontiers are opened we must revive trade links and transport." Echo-az.com quoted Mammadyarov as saying that the two sides are discussing both the "phased" and the "package" approaches to resolving the conflict. But a senior Armenian Foreign Ministry official told this writer on 8 June on condition of anonymity that the final agreement will be a package one, although its various provisions might be implemented one after the other, rather than simultaneously.
Then in early July, a senior Armenian official told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that under the anticipated peace deal, Armenia would return to Azerbaijani control five of the seven districts adjacent to Karabakh currently controlled by Karabakh Armenian forces, excluding the strategic Lachin corridor. A peacekeeping force comprising troops from countries that are not members of the OSCE Minsk Group would be deployed in the conflict zone. Then, after 10-15 years, the population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would be required to vote in a referendum on whether the region should become independent, become a part of Armenia, or revert to Azerbaijan. That blueprint is very similar to one proposed in December by former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche. But both Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Azimov and NKR Foreign Minister Arman Melikian promptly denied that the two sides were discussing a possible referendum. Azimov made the point that the constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic does not make provision for a referendum to be held only on selected parts of Azerbaijan's territory, or on issues related to the country's territorial integrity.
Since the beginning of August -- when Mammadyarov visited Washington -- the upbeat statements by both the Minsk Group co-chairs and officials from the Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministries have given way to more guarded pronouncements. Commenting on 6 August on Mammadyarov's visit, U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Mann said the Karabakh conflict was one of the issues Mammadyarov discussed with his U.S. counterpart Condoleezza Rice, day.az reported. Mann added that despite "certain progress" in the peace talks, the degree of consensus reached to date is not sufficient to sign a peace treaty. In an interview published on 17 August in the online daily zerkalo.az, Mann similarly said that "it is still early to speak of a specific document. It would be a mistake to affirm that we shall sign some document right now." At the same time, he stressed repeatedly that the two sides "have achieved a great deal over the past 18 months," and he predicted that the upcoming Kazan meeting between Kocharian and Aliyev "will give an additional impulse to the talks."
Also on 17 August, Mammadyarov echoed Mann almost word-for word, telling day.az that "the negotiations have not yet reached the level of signing a document." Echoing his comments of 7 June, he said that between seven and nine issues would be on the agenda at his 24 August meeting with Oskanian, and "we shall try to reach agreement on certain elements and inform the presidents, so that they can discuss them in Kazan."
The timing of the Kazan summit -- two months before the 6 November parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan -- in itself makes it unlikely that the two presidents would sign a formal peace deal that would require a major concession from Baku, because any such concession could alienate many voters. But Russian Minsk Group co-Chairman Yurii Merzlyakov was quoted on 17 August by day.az as suggesting that the two presidents might issue a joint statement hinting that a formal peace deal is imminent. A 17 August EurasiaNet analysis similarly quoted an unnamed Azerbaijani official as saying that the most that can be hoped for from the Kazan meeting is "a statement by the presidents in which they would order their foreign ministers to start working on the text of a future agreement." Such a joint statement would serve to send the message to Azerbaijan's electorate that peace is finally within reach -- provided its elects a parliament in which Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaycan Party has a comfortable majority.
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