In an extensive weekend interview with RFE/RL, Oskanian insisted that the basic principles of the Karabakh settlement that were formally unveiled in Madrid in November 2007 are "incomparably" more favorable for the Armenian side than any of the peace proposals made by the U.S., Russian, and French mediators in the past.
"Whereas in the past we were offered at worst a high degree of [Karabakh's] autonomy within Azerbaijan and at best horizontal ties between Azerbaijan and Karabakh within the framework of a common state, the Madrid principles...provide for the self-determination of the Nagorno-Karabakh people, which obviously means Nagorno-Karabakh's independence or reunification with Armenia," said Oskanian.
"I am convinced that if we let slip this recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh people's right to self-determination, it will be very difficult to gain it again in the future, and the negotiations could go in a totally different direction and they could start upholding [Azerbaijan's] territorial integrity," he said. "Today we have an advantage over Azerbaijan in terms of the upholding of this [self-determination] principle. That is why I think we should be careful in our statements, our criticisms and should pick the right target."
Phasing In Peace
The so-called Madrid principles envisage a phased resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that would start with a gradual liberation of the districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Karabakh that were partly or fully occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the 1991-94 war. In return, Karabakh would retain a land corridor to Armenia and be able to determine its final status in a future referendum.
Like his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, President Serzh Sarkisian appears to have essentially accepted this peace formula. According to the American, French, and Russian diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group, Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev made significant progress in face-to-face meetings held this year and could iron out their remaining differences before the end of this year.
The prospect of a breakthrough in the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks has given rise to serious concern from Armenian nationalist groups opposed to major territorial concessions to Baku even in return for international recognition of Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), has warned that it will campaign for Sarkisian's resignation if he signs up to the Madrid principles.
Oskanian dismissed the hard-liners' position, saying that no peaceful settlement is possible without the return of most of the Armenian-controlled territories surrounding Karabakh.
"If the Armenian side wants to exclude the issues of return of territories, return of [Azerbaijani] refugees from future principles and be guided by the principle of 'not a single inch of land to the enemy,' which would be an absolutely marvelous solution, then Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh or both of them should pull out of the negotiations," Oskanian said. "If we are to negotiate, these principles will always be on the table."
The Madrid principles have also been rejected by some leading members of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) headed by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who in late 1997 vigorously advocated signing a similar peace accord drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairs. It too called for an Armenian withdrawal from at least six of the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts, but contained no mechanisms for determining Karabakh's status, the main bone of contention.
Bar Was Set 'High'
On July 31, David Shahnazarian, a leading HAK member who served as national security minister under Ter-Petrossian, challenged Oskanian to a public discussion of the "Madrid Principles," blaming him and former President Kocharian for creating a situation in which Armenia is under pressure to make unacceptable concessions.
Oskanian insisted that in 1997 the international community sought Karabakh's eventual return under Azerbaijani jurisdiction and came to terms with its de facto independence only during Kocharian's presidency. "Sometimes we are driven by revenge and don't think before saying and doing something," he said in a clear reference to the Ter-Petrossian camp.
Oskanian argued that instead of rejecting the Madrid document out of hand, Armenian opposition forces should focus on the crucial details. "Today their task must be to clarify what the bar set by the authorities is," he said. "Our bar was set high. I have many doubts about today's bar," he added, implying that Sarkisian is ready to make more concessions to Azerbaijan than Kocharian was.
The Minsk Group co-chairs said last week that they are working on an "updated version" of the Madrid document to increase the chances of its acceptance by Baku and Yerevan. It is not yet clear just how significant the changes are.
Speaking in RFE/RL's Yerevan studio, Oskanian also reaffirmed his criticism of Sarkisian's conciliatory policy toward Turkey that has earned him praise from the West, but has not produced any tangible results so far. "Turkey has gotten from this Turkish-Armenian process what it wanted," he said. "The Armenian side has not gained anything yet."
Oskanian, who set up last year a private think tank called Civilitas, was unimpressed by Sarkisian's recent announcement that he will not travel to Turkey this October for the return match of the two countries' national football unless Ankara takes "real steps" to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border. He said Sarkisian should have made a more explicit linkage between the visit and the opening of the border.
"He left the window open," the Syrian-born ex-minister said. "I think that's what the Turks want,... I just don't know when our leaders will finally realize that the Turkish side is exploiting the process. They should have realized that a long time ago."
-- Anna Israelian and Aghasi Yenokian