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Analysis: Presidents Give Green Light For Continuation Of Karabakh Talks

(RFE/RL) The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev, met for one hour on June 6 on the sidelines of a CIS summit in St. Petersburg to discuss prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict.

It was the first such top-level meeting since Sarkisian's inauguration as president on April 9; Aliyev refused to meet with Sarkisian on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest several days earlier, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 31.

The two presidents agreed on June 6 that their foreign ministers should continue the ongoing talks on ways to resolve the conflict on the basis of the so-called Madrid Proposals presented to the conflict sides in November 2007 by the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group. In an interview with Russia's Vesti-24 television on June 2, Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian characterized those proposals as "a good basis for finding a solution to the conflict." In addition, the co-chairs will travel to Armenia and Azerbaijan at the end of this month for further talks aimed at narrowing the differences between the two sides.

Both Nalbandian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, described the June 6 talks to journalists as "constructive" and "positive," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. On June 10, the website quoted Mammadyarov as saying that Sarkisian's approach differed slightly from that of his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, in terms of unspecified "nuances."

The two ministers also explained on June 6 that the Madrid Proposals were not discussed during the talks, as the approach of both sides requires further evaluation. U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza made the similar point that the Madrid Proposals "are simply proposals...and the two sides do not agree with them completely," the website reported. "They need to be perfected, and both the mediators and the presidents agreed to continue work to that end," Bryza continued.

The written text of the Madrid Proposals has not been made public, but they are reportedly based on the so-called Basic Principles for resolving the conflict that the co-chairmen went public with two years ago. "These principles include the phased redeployment of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, with special modalities for Kelbacar and Lachin districts [separating Karabakh from Armenia proper]," according to the text posted on June 28, 2006, on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan.

"Demilitarization of those territories would follow. A referendum or popular vote would be agreed, at an unspecified future date, to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh." "An international peacekeeping force would be deployed," added the statement. "A joint commission would be agreed to implement the agreement. International financial assistance would be made available for de-mining, reconstruction, resettlement of internally displaced persons in the formerly occupied territories and the war-affected regions of Nagorno-Karabakh. The sides would renounce the use or threat of use of force, and international and bilateral security guarantees and assurances would be put in place."

In a June 5 interview with the Russian news agency Regnum, Bryza said the Minsk Group co-chairs see their task as "developing an agreement or formula that would allow the two sides here -- Armenia and Azerbaijanis -- to agree on the status of Karabakh. I do not know what their agreement will be. All I know is that we need to try to get two sides to get to an agreement on status and that's going to take a long, long time."

Bryza acknowledged the risk involved in insisting that Armenian forces be withdrawn from the seven districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to Karabakh that they currently occupy before a firm agreement is reached on the unrecognized republic's future status vis-a-vis the Azerbaijan Republic, noting that the withdrawal will not happen unless the Armenian side feels it has secured from Azerbaijan a concession of comparable magnitude. Similarly, Bryza continued, on the Azerbaijani side there is a political risk to giving to Armenia what Armenia needs to agree to give back the territories.

At the same time, Bryza stressed that an Armenian withdrawal would improve the security situation in the conflict zone and lessen the potential for a resumption of hostilities (such as took place in March of this year). He said that "there are many elements of this peace plan that are attractive to Armenia," including the provision of a land corridor (the so-called Lachin corridor) connecting Karabakh with the Republic of Armenia. Such a land link is one of Armenia's three basic requirements from any potential peace plan.

While Bryza continues to insist that any solution to the Karabakh conflict will require concessions from both sides, some Azerbaijani officials clearly believe that Baku is in a stronger position to resist any unpalatable concessions in the wake of the adoption in mid-March by the UN General Assembly of a resolution condemning the continued occupation by Armenian forces of Azerbaijani territory.

Commenting on the June 5 St. Petersburg talks, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibrahim told journalists in Baku on June 9 that resolution has given rise to "a totally new situation." He also stressed that discussion of Karabakh's final status should not begin until Armenian forces have withdrawn from all the Azerbaijani territory they currently control, and he implied that Baku will insist that the proposed referendum on Karabakh's final status should exclude any variant that would not preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and that it might not even grant the disputed region autonomy within Azerbaijan.

Like Bryza, Ibrahim did not mention any time frame for conducting such a referendum, but the online daily on May 28 quoted former Russian Minsk Group Co-chairman Vladimir Kazimirov as saying that it should be held no later than five years after the signing of a formal settlement, rather than waiting for 10-15 years.

Mammadyarov on June 10 inferred that Azerbaijan's commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully, rather than militarily, itself constitutes a concession, and that the only other concession it would agree to would be to grant Nagorno-Karabakh any conceivable level of autonomy within Azerbaijan. In that context, the example he cited was that of Tatarstan within the Russian Federation.

Nalbandian for his part told journalists in Yerevan on June 11 that he considers it imperative that representatives of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic participate in the "final stage" of negotiations on resolving the conflict, Noyan Tapan reported.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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