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Caucasus: Mediator Says Karabakh Peace Requires Trade-Offs

Matthew Bryza (Trend) WASHINGTON, June 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In an interview with RFE/RL --> last week, Matthew Bryza, the new U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group tasked with moderating negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, spoke about the prospects of a resolution to the conflict. The Minsk Group is under the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Some of Bryza's comments -- particularly about the possible terms of a framework agreement -- caused a commotion in Armenia and Azerbaijan with both Foreign ministries commenting on the interview. RFE/RL Washington correspondent Julie Corwin spoke to him again on June 28 about his original interview and what the heads of state need to do to achieve peace.

RFE/RL: How surprised were you that the interview caused a stir in the region?

Matthew Bryza: I was not surprised it caused a stir to tell you the truth, because we knew -- the co-chairs knew -- and my predecessor Steven Mann, the co-chair before I assumed responsibility on the very day of that interview, knew that what they had just announced at the OSCE was significant and would make people think twice, and would spark, as we like to put it, a robust debate in the region. I was simply in the unenviable position of having been on this newest assignment for an hour and I was the guy that got to explain the decision that others had made before me. No, I wasn't surprised that a robust debate was sparked. What did surprise me though was that people spoke so quickly in reacting to the interview without reading the publicly available document that the co-chairs issued at the OSCE in Austria, which laid out in much greater detail everything.

RFE/RL: Among the responses to your interview have been comments from each side blaming the other for failing to agree to a referendum. Which side, if any, is actually telling the truth?

Bryza: We can't go through every single account and every single statement by both sides during this interview obviously, but leave it to say that these core principles that were developed over the course of two years by the co-chairs and [Armenian President Robert] Kocharian and [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev and their foreign ministers, ultimately weren't agreed to by the two presidents. So the two presidents share responsibility for not reaching an agreement, and I wouldn't say that either is more responsible than the other. But it's not over either, I mean, any time they can simply say, "OK, we agree to these core principles or we've agreed to alter them a bit and let's take the package."

RFE/RL: In your earlier interview, you said it was very unhelpful for either side to discuss the possibility of the resumption of the conflict. Nevertheless, on Friday of last week [June 23], Ilham Aliyev described the efforts of international mediators as hopeless and he said that Azerbaijan would retake Nagorno-Karabakh by whatever means necessary. How do you read his statement? Were you disappointed to hear him taking such a belligerent stance?

Bryza: Those statements have been more commonplace than they ought to be and I'd stand by what I said last Thursday, on June 22, that talk about recapturing Karabakh by force or any use of force by any party is simply not helpful. It's not necessary because there is a viable framework on the table that just requires a little bit more political courage on both sides to forge a compromise, though I stand by what I said, it's not helpful.

RFE/RL: In the statement [by the OSCE co-chairs] you said, "We see no point now in continuing the intensive shuttle diplomacy, which we've engaged in over several months." Is that a strategic decision to say we're going to back away and hope that that prompts them to renew momentum or is it just exhaustion or frustration?

"The two presidents share responsibility for not reaching an agreement, and I wouldn't say that either is more responsible than the other."

Bryza: It's a mere statement of fact that my predecessor, Steven Mann, and my current fellow co-chairs, have exerted all of the creativity and all the negotiating energy that they could and they have gotten this framework of core principles as honed as possible in their judgment, such that the presidents, in their mind, need a little time to think things over and decide whether or not they can accept or adjust this framework. But what we're saying in the statement is that there is no more room for diplomatic creativity to make this piece of metal shine a little bit more brightly. It's honed and you have to decide whether you want it or not, or the trade-offs that would have to be made are so significant politically that it requires the head of state to make the trade-off.So we're saying OK, it's yours now.

I know these leaders pretty well. I like them, I hope I can spend a fair amount of time with them doing many things, working on Karabakh over the next few months, but working on everything I need to do with Azerbaijan and Armenia. So I know I personally will have a lot of interaction with them. So it's not like we're going to sit on our hands and nothing is going to happen. And we're not saying here either that the negotiating process is dead forever. What we're saying is that we've taken this phase as far as we can and we need guidance now, or decisions from the heads of state.

RFE/RL: It's been suggested that there are too many strong emotions to melt this frozen conflict. And that what is needed in the interim is a reduction of tensions, for instance Armenian troops pulling back from the territory around Karabakh. Would you advocate that?

Bryza: It's sort of circular to say that an agreement wasn't reached because the time wasn't right or the tensions were too high. That is a statement of fact, yes. So then the question is how can we reduce tension, because everybody agrees it's good to reduce the tension. Would an Armenian troop pull-out reduce tension? Well, sure as hell it would. That's why it's a core element of our core principles. But the Armenians aren't just going to pull back the troops because we say, "Golly, gee, that would help reduce tension." They'll do it if they get something for it and that's precisely what these core principles are all about.

RFE/RL: Is there anything you would like to identify that would be reciprocal to a removal of Armenian troops?

Bryza: I would just point you to the statement.... It's very clear, and lays out in a lot of detail what exactly the overall set of trade-offs would be. Demilitarization is the phrase used for troop pull-back, and that, as the framework indicates, should be, or could be, accompanied by some sort of process that would lead to a population vote, or a referendum vote on the future status of Karabakh. I think that's, in the Armenian mindset, extremely important, so that's what the Azerbaijani side would have to offer the Armenians, along with the other things within this statement to which I refer you. On the Azerbaijani side, I think that they are willing to consider the possibility of some type of a vote on the status of Karabakh if many other elements of this overall package are present. What gets difficult is how you correlate the withdrawal, or the redeployment, of Armenian troops with the timing of a vote on the future status of Karabakh.

RFE/RL: Will the issue of Karabakh or other frozen conflicts be on the agenda of the G8?

Bryza: Well, I personally hope so, parochially. I saw that [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov announced today that they will be. He said that, at least for the foreign ministers, that several of the G8 foreign ministers have pressed for Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniester, to be on the G8 agenda. And he said because of that they will be. So I guess I can say, yeah, it appears they will be, and we have very much wanted all these conflicts to be on the agenda.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Click on the image to view an enlarged map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone

In February 1988, the local assembly in Stepanakert, the local capital of the Azerbaijani region of NAGORNO-KARABAKH, passed a resolution calling for unification of the predominantly ethnic-Armenian region with Armenia. There were reports of violence against local Azeris, followed by attacks against Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. In 1991-92, Azerbaijani forces launched an offensive against separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Armenians counterattacked and by 1993-94 had seized almost all of the region, as well as vast areas around it. About 600,000 Azeris were displaced and as many as 25,000 people were killed before a Russian-brokered cease-fire was imposed in May 1994.

CHRONOLOGY: For an annotated timeline of the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-94 and the long search for a permanent settlement to the conflict, click here.

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