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Caucasus Report: March 7, 2002

7 March 2002, Volume 5, Number 9

FRONTS HARDEN ON EVE OF MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRS' VISIT. The three co-chairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group are scheduled to arrive in Baku on 8 March, bringing what have been described as "improved" "practical proposals" for resolving the Karabakh conflict based on the agreements reached last spring in talks in Paris and Florida between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Those talks generated hopes that a Karabakh peace agreement might be signed by the end of 2001. But within weeks, the co-chairs were sounding a more cautious note, warning that the two presidents needed time to prepare public opinion in their respective countries for the compromises that a settlement would inevitably require (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 18, 14 May 2001).

Since then, all three parties to the conflict have hardened their position. During the most recent visits by the Minsk Group co-chairs to Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan in July and early November, Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev repeated his earlier criticisms of the OSCE, accusing it of being either unable or unwilling to adopt a "principled position" and coerce Armenia to abandon what he characterized as its insistence on either annexing Nagorno-Karabakh or securing its independence. In addition, both Aliyev and Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev repeatedly denied the existence of the so-called "Paris principles." In November, Azerbaijan rejected as "unacceptable" what was described as an expanded version of the broad agreement reached in Paris and Florida (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 November 2001).

Moreover, both Aliyev and Azerbaijan's defense minister, Colonel General Safar Abiev, have repeatedly hinted that if no peace agreement is reached, Baku may resort to force to bring Karabakh back under its jurisdiction. Those threats prompted the Minsk Group co-chairs to issue two separate statements warning that a resumption of hostilities could have "catastrophic" results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 July and 9 November 2001).

On 7 March, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Guliev again harshly criticized the Minsk Group. Meeting with Portuguese Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Jaime Gama, Guliev said that when the Minsk Group was created (in March 1992), "the OSCE could have achieved significant results. The tragedy wouldn't have reached disaster proportions, Azerbaijani lands wouldn't have been occupied, and we wouldn't have refugees." He went on to characterize as "a new tragedy" the international community's demand that Baku agree to "significant compromises." And he implicitly accused the OSCE of double standards, pointing out that it seeks to preserve the territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova but not that of Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani leadership has not, however, commented on the recent proposal by independent analyst Eldar Namazov that since the OSCE Minsk Group mediation effort is deadlocked, a parallel commission comprising Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian, and Turkish representatives should be formed to seek a solution to the conflict.

Opposition party leaders with whom Gama met were similarly critical: Civic Solidarity Party Chairman Sabir Rustamkhanli, for example, also accused the Minsk Group of adopting "double standards" and argued that it is "absurd" to suggest that it is possible to come up with a formula for resolving the conflict "that is acceptable to both the victim and the aggressor."

The leaders of both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have also come out with maximalist statements in recent months. Addressing the Ninth OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said in Bucharest on 4 December that the population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has "earned the right to live peacefully on their historic lands, free of alien domination and foreign occupation." Oskanian described the enclave's declaration of independence from Azerbaijan in late 1991 as "legal, peaceful and just" and Azerbaijan's claim on Nagorno-Karabakh as legally and morally invalid. He harshly criticized the Azerbaijani leadership's subsequent disavowal of tentative agreements reached in March-April 2001 on ways to resolve the conflict, asking, "[I]f our negotiating partner cannot make room for compromise on paper, how are we to expect that it can create it on the ground?"

And at a meeting last month with students of Yerevan State University, Armenian President Robert Kocharian ruled out any future political status for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic within Azerbaijan, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. "Nagorno-Karabakh has never been part of Azerbaijan and never will be," Kocharian said. "This is the bottom line" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2002).

Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, for his part has consistently argued that the formal recognition of the unrecognized republic's de facto independent status is the sole guarantee of peace and stability in the region. Ghukasian also insists that his participation in direct talks between Aliyev and Kocharian (which Baku rejects), would facilitate reaching a settlement.

And as in Azerbaijan, opposition political parties and war veterans in Armenia are swift to criticize any sign that the leadership is prepared to retreat from its current position. For example, the recent suggestion by Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian (in a 21 February interview with "Azg") that Armenia might be prepared to withdraw from part of the occupied Azerbaijani territories in return for official recognition by Baku of Karabakh's independence triggered a protest statement by 11 former Armenian commanders who fought in the Karabakh war. In a statement released on 26 February, they argued that "neither the defense minister nor any other authority in Yerevan or Stepanakert has the right to trade in land. The return, even the idea of the return of 'some territories' conquered at the cost of our brothers' blood and which are without exception an inseparable part of our homeland is a treachery that jeopardizes the existence of the Armenian people" living on those lands.

Such uncompromising rhetoric on the part of all three parties to the conflict suggests that the chances of a peace settlement this year, which President Aliyev on 7 March urged Gama to work for, are bleak. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENT LOOKS TO UPCOMING ELECTIONS. Levon Ter-Petrossian, Armenia's reclusive former president, is understood to be pressing his divided loyalists to join forces to contest upcoming elections, showing the first signs of political activity since his forced resignation in February 1998. Supporters of current President Robert Kocharian view that possibility with alarm: Parliament Deputy Gurgen Yeghiazarian has rebuked Kocharian for not taking measures to prevent such a consolidation, arguing that the former leadership intends to use the money it "plundered" during its eight-year rule to seize power.

The Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), the former ruling party of which Ter-Petrossian is the unofficial leader, is holding talks with several other pro-Ter-Petrosian groups on the possibility of fielding joint candidates for the next local, parliamentary, and possibly presidential elections. The renewed effort to unite the center-right opposition came "at the ex-president's suggestion," a senior HHSh source told RFE/RL on 7 March.

The small parties currently being courted by the HHSh had split from it over the past few years but now appear ready to cooperate with its leadership. They are still, however, reportedly divided over what concrete form that cooperation should take. The source said most of them have rejected the HHSh offer to reunite into a single political party. Vigen Khachatrian, whose Liberal Democratic Party supports that option, likewise commented that, "As far as the creation of a new party is concerned, I am not an optimist because I see that people still find it hard to subordinate their political ambitions to our common goal."

"More feasible is the creation of an [electoral] bloc," said Ara Sahakian of the Armat organization, which unites veteran HHSh figures who fell out with the party's current leadership three years ago. Armat is against the formal merger of the pro-Ter-Petrosian forces, which are bitterly opposed to President Kocharian. Leaders of those parties admit that a powerful comeback by Ter-Petrossian could serve as a powerful catalyst for the reunification of his allies. "It is obvious that for all of us there is one indisputable authority: Levon Ter-Petrossian," Khachatrian said.

Sources said some of those parties would like the 57-year-old ex-president to be their common candidate in the next presidential elections due in March 2003. But Ter-Petrossian, who ruled Armenia from 1991 to 1998, has so far given no indications about his political intentions. He has had virtually no contacts with the media since being forced to step down.

None of Ter-Petrossian's allies, discredited by the former authorities' poor economic track record, is represented in the current parliament. The HHSh fared extremely poorly in the 1999 parliamentary elections, while most of the other parties chose to boycott the polls.

Nor is it clear whether the present attempt to find common ground will be any more successful than talks last summer between parties that had split from the HHSh, including "Armat," the Azatutiun party of former Premier Hrant Bagratian, and the 21st Century party headed by former national security chief David Shahnazarian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 26, 16 July 2001).

Shahnazarian's party announced earlier this week that it will disband and urge its members to return to the HHSh. (Anush Dashtents and Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Inviting the American military to Georgia is another political mistake on the part of [Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze." -- Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, quoted by Caucasus Press on 2 March.

"Today Karabakh is independent and I am confident that we shall preserve this status." -- Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, speaking at a news conference in Yerevan on 6 March (quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service).