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EU Prague Summit Could Yield Progress On Karabakh Conflict

In early November, Armenian President Sarkisian (right) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev (left), met in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
In early November, Armenian President Sarkisian (right) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev (left), met in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's Eastern Partnership Program will be officially launched at an EU summit in the Czech capital on May 7. But the anticipated absence of the presidents of Belarus and Moldova has cast a pall over the event.

The summit could nonetheless still prove to be memorable for expediting a solution to the longstanding conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The program was devised by Poland and Sweden last fall in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war. It aims to promote good governance in, and closer economic integration with, six former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) considered vulnerable to Russian pressure.

The scheme encompasses "a substantial upgrading of the level of political engagement" with the EU. It also envisages far-reaching integration into the EU economy, easier travel to the EU, enhanced energy security arrangements, and increased financial assistance.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian enthusiastically endorsed the program in March, telling visiting EU officials that "we welcome the Eastern Partnership's endorsement at the [May 7] EU summit [in Prague].... We are confident that it contains beneficial provisions for Armenia and would love to implement programs beneficial for our country."

But although the program aims to promote people-to-people contact, it will not immediately abolish the tortuous bureaucratic hassles citizens of those countries face in applying for a visa to visit the European Union, or have an immediate positive economic impact.

Substantive Progress

Statements in recent weeks by the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that has sought since 1992 to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict and by Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders suggest that since the beginning of this year, the two sides have made substantive progress toward narrowing their differences.

The catalyst for that progress was the five-day August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia that highlighted the disruptive potential of renewed conflict anywhere in the South Caucasus. That war also served as an incentive for Turkey to intensify its claims to the role of a regional power.

In early November, Armenian President Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, met in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The three presidents signed a statement affirming their commitment to resolving the Karabakh conflict peacefully, on the basis of the so-called Madrid Principles that the Minsk Group co-chairs presented to the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers at the annual OSCE Ministerial meeting in Madrid in November 2007.

Those Madrid principles have never been made public, but they are believed to encompass some, but not all, of the provisions of the so-called Basic Principles made public by the Minsk Group in the early summer of 2006.

Those Basic Principles included the gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to Nagorno-Karabakh that they currently occupy; the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to safeguard overland communication between Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia; postconflict reconstruction; and an agreement on holding at some unspecified future date a referendum in which the Nagorno-Karabakh population would vote on the region's future status.

Timing 'No Coincidence'

Sarkisian and Aliyev met in late January in Switzerland, and were scheduled to meet again on May 7 on the sidelines of the Prague EU summit. On May 4-5, the foreign ministers of both countries met in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the conflict-resolution process.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told the Azerbaijani news agency APA that the timing of those meetings was "not a coincidence." He recalled that both Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama "have pointed out...that they want to achieve a breakthrough in the Karabakh peace process."

A related process that could have a positive effect on the search for a Karabakh settlement is the ongoing diplomatic engagement between Turkey and Armenia. The two countries embarked last year on an attempt to overcome their shared legacy of enmity and mistrust. Those perceptions date partly from the 1915 killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which Armenia describes as the first genocide of the 20th century, and more recently from the military defeat Armenia inflicted on Azerbaijan in the 1992-93 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Following Turkish President Abdullah Gul's visit to Yerevan in September and months of Swiss-mediated talks, Turkey and Armenia announced on April 22 that they had reached consensus "on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner."

Richard Giragosian, who heads the Yerevan-based Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), explained the significance of that agreement by saying that "while the Turkish-Armenian diplomatic engagement or process of normalization is actually moving in fits and starts, it is now on the right track and we see a window of opportunity."

According to Giragosian, progress toward a normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations could contribute to the search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict, even though such a solution is no longer directly linked to the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.

"I do think that any momentum or breakthrough on the Turkish-Armenian track will inherently speed up the process and momentum for greater trust-building and conflict resolution," Giragosian said.

The View From Ankara

Not everyone in Turkey sees the two processes as separate, however. On April 29, the chief of the Turkish Armed Forces General Staff, General Ilker Basbug, told journalists that the armed forces "completely agree" with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence that Turkey will not open its border with Armenia until all Armenian forces are withdrawn from the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts.

But that apparent tough line could simply be part of a public-relations exercise to mollify Baku. Ipek Yezdani, who is a diplomatic correspondent for the Turkish daily "Milliyet," sees "no resistance whatsoever" either on the part of the Turkish military or within the ruling AKP to the rapprochement with Armenia.

"I believe that if Turkey has started this normalization process, it wouldn't have started without the positive opinion of the military," Yezdani says.

Yezdani believes that public opinion in both Turkey and Azerbaijan was not ready to consider the prospect of normalization, and that hard-line rhetoric by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was directed primarily at Azerbaijan.

"What the prime minister says about Nagorno-Karabakh he has to say to calm down the Azerbaijani side," Yezdani says.

Erdogan is scheduled to travel to Baku on May 12, where he will meet the following day with President Aliyev.

Yezdani said she thinks Nagorno-Karabakh figures in the "road map" for normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations, but that it will be addressed only after formal diplomatic relations are established between the two countries and the border is opened.

There would be a most pleasing symmetry in Prague serving as the venue for at least a preliminary agreement on resolving the Karabakh conflict, given that it was in Prague five years ago that the OSCE-mediated talks that yielded the Basic Principles got under way.

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