Yerevan, 12 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Mediators from the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have proposed creating what they called a "common state" between Azerbaijan and its ethnic Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The mediators from Russia, the U.S. and France --the three co-chairmen of the Minsk Group-- toured the region this week seeking to restart deadlocked peace efforts. In discussions with reporters in the Azerbaijani and Armenian capitals, they made public a few details of their still largely secret proposals.
The common state, they said, would be formed by the Azerbaijani government as one party and Karabakh Armenians as the other. Reportedly, the OSCE plan makes no mention of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, a sensitive issue for the Armenians.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said yesterday that the new proposals are more realistic than previous OSCE suggestions.
The OSCE plan differs substantially from its predecessor, which had been rejected both by Nagorno-Karabakh leaders and Armenia. First, it apparently offers a comprehensive package strategy that addresses all the major points of contention. OSCE mediators previously had proposed to delay some decisions until the last phase of the peace process.
Second, the plan avoids any talk of Nagorno-Karabakh secession from Azerbaijan, while at the same time ruling out subordination of the enclave to Azerbaijan. Effectively, this seems to permit the enclave's ethnic Armenians to maintain their armed forces, retain an overland connection with Armenia, manage their own domestic affairs and --possibly-- enjoy international security guarantees.
Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev has complained that the proposals fail to guarantee restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the entire enclave. If this is true, Baku would exercise little, if any, effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh under the plan..
Still, peace would bring substantial benefits to Azerbaijan even if its control of the enclave became more a matter of law than fact. Resolution of the decade-long conflict would allow for the return of almost all of the seven districts in Azerbaijan proper that were occupied by Karabakh Armenians during the 1991-94 war. That conflict left tens of thousands of people dead and turned 800,000 Azerbaijanis into refugees.
In addition, peace would free Azerbaijan to develop its oil riches. The unresolved conflict hangs over the 40,000-million-dollars worth of contracts that Azerbaijan has signed with foreign oil companies, the biggest investment package in the post-Soviet world.
Top executives from the largest of 10 multinational consortia developing Azerbaijan's offshore fields are expected to announce early next month their choice of a main pipeline route to pump the oil to world markets. Regardless of where the pipeline terminal is located -- either in Georgian Black Sea ports or along the Turkish Mediterranean coast-- it will pass just 50 kilometers from the dividing line between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces.
A shaky cease-fire between the two, mediated by Russia in May 1994, can hardly serve satisfactorily as a guarantee for Western investment. That explains the West's vital interest in the region's stability generally and in a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem in particular. Some analysts say Russia is not interested in a breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh before a final decision on the pipeline is made. Russia has for some time been trying to get the bulk of Caspian oil routed through its territory. But continued instability in the South Caucuses might discourage the multinationals from using the region for oil transit.
But the fate of the OSCE peace initiative will depend on more than the politics of oil. It remains to be seen, notably, whether the new plan is acceptable to the Armenians as well.
Apart from the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh's status, there are several specifics that might cause controversy. Perhaps chief among them is the future of the Lachin corridor, one of the two Azerbaijani districts straddling Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. With their insistence on full Armenian control, both the Armenian government and the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian leadership have rejected past OSCE offers to provide international supervision for the corridor.
The OSCE mediators said that the contending parties have pledged to consider thoroughly the new proposals. A Russian OSCE negotiator told reporters in Yerevan yesterday that the Minsk Group co-chairs expect a prompt response from the governments and leaders involved.
(Emil Danielyan, a freelance journalist based in Yerevan, regularly contributes to RFE/RL.)