In the run-up to those ballots, the co-chairs reason, the two countries' leaders will be reluctant to agree on the serious mutual compromises that a settlement will inevitably necessitate.
Consequently, a sense of urgency has imbued successive meetings this year between either the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers or the two countries' presidents.
The meeting in Minsk on November 28 between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev was thus widely perceived as the last chance for some time to reach even a preliminary agreement.
Comments On Azerbaijani TV
The two presidents did not issue any formal statement after their meeting in Minsk. But Aliyev told Azerbaijani National Television on November 29 that since the so-called "Prague process" talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on approaches to resolving the conflict began, the negotiating process has gone through several stages. "We are approaching the final stage," he said.
The first Prague talks took place in April 2004, and Aliyev has met with Kocharian seven times since then; the Minsk meeting was their third this year.
Aliyev said the Minsk talks "were held in a constructive way," and that "we managed to a find a solution to a number of problems we could not agree on before." He added, however, that "divergences remain on crucial points," and that further progress "depends on us ourselves," presumably meaning the conflict sides, as opposed to the Minsk Group.
Aliyev stressed that "Azerbaijan's negotiating position remains unchanged," insofar as any solution must preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. He further stressed that Azerbaijani displaced persons (whose number he said exceeds 1 million, compared with UNHCR estimates of 800,000) must be enabled to return to their homes.
Aliyev also said the four resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh adopted by the UN Security Council (in 1993, and which call for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory) must be fulfilled.
He said the population of Nagorno-Karabakh "must be provided with the highest form of self-government" possible within Azerbaijan. The constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic defines the Nakhichevan Republic as an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan Republic, with its own parliament, but makes no mention of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia, however, rules out any "vertical subordination" of the NKR to the central Azerbaijani government.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, who with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian also traveled to Minsk, similarly described the meeting between the two presidents in a December 1 interview with day.az. He said the meeting took place in a productive and open atmosphere.
Mammadyarov said that only one issue remains on which the two presidents have failed to reach agreement, but he declined to specify what it is, referring to the need to keep the peace process confidential. He added that he plans to meet in Brussels on December 4-5 with Oskanian and the Minsk Group co-chairs.
Foreign Minister Oskanian for his part was more guarded in his comments on the Minsk meeting, telling journalists on his return to Yerevan late on November 28 that "I cannot say concretely whether progress was made or not, but both presidents assessed the meeting as positive in terms of atmosphere and constructive approaches," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on November 29.
Echoing Aliyev, Oskanian said the presidents "mainly concentrated on the issues in the document on which no agreement has been reached," presumably an allusion to a half-page document, drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairs and enumerating general principles, that the two presidents discussed earlier this year.
Oskanian also said that the elections due in Armenia next spring "will not interrupt" the ongoing peace negotiations, but he admitted that they could make it more difficult to reach any agreement.
Lacking Armenian Response
Kocharian declined to comment on the talks. In Stepanakert, however, Armen Melikian, an aide to Arkady Ghukasian, president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), expressed concern over the implications of President Aliyev's pronouncements.
"If President Aliyev is saying that the process is moving in a positive direction, that is quite dangerous in itself," Melikian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on November 30. "To my knowledge, his idea of a positive direction is that Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be an independent and sovereign state."
As outlined by the Minsk Group co-chairmen in June, the draft peace plan under discussion envisages the gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces from territory they currently occupy contiguous to the NKR; the demilitarization of that territory, including the strategic Lachin corridor and Kelbacar, and the deployment of an international peacekeeping force; then, at some future date, the future status of the NKR vis-a-vis the Azerbaijani central government would be decided in a "popular vote or referendum." Insofar as the population of the NKR is overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian, such a vote would indubitably register support for independence.
Even so, Melikian admitted to RFE/RL in February that the Karabakh leadership is not enthusiastic about that draft proposal. He said that any discussion of a referendum is inappropriate in light of Baku's a priori insistence that Azerbaijan's territorial integrity must be preserved at all costs.
The Armenian leadership, for its part, has repeatedly made clear that it will not sign any final peace settlement that is unacceptable to the NKR.
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.Click on the icon to view images of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Flash required)
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