Whether and to what extent the prospects for signing at least a preliminary accord on resolving the conflict have improved in recent months remains unclear, however.
Speaking on July 4 on Russia's Vesti TV channel, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev implied that the crucial issue of the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic could remain undecided for decades.
"As regards the question of Nagorno-Karabakh's status, a mechanism for a provisional status could be agreed in the first stage [of the peace process], while the issue of the final status will be solved only when the parties agree on that," Aliyev said. "This could happen in one year, in 10 years, in 100 years, or this could never happen. Time will tell."
Aliyev also insisted that the final status will fall short of independence. "We naturally don't see a possibility of Nagorno-Karabakh's existence as an independent state," he said. "Azerbaijan will never agree to that, and we think that the Armenian side understands this. At the same time, the Armenian side reckons that the level of self-rule that exists in Nagorno-Karabakh must be maintained."
The so-called Madrid Principles for resolving the conflict that the Minsk Group co-chairs presented to the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in November 2007 are believed to make provision for "a referendum or popular vote" at some unspecified future date on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan's constitution, however, does not permit a referendum on the territorial-administrative structure of the country.
The decision on Nagorno-Karabakh's future permanent legal status would, moreover, be made only after the consequences of the conflict have been addressed, meaning, after Armenian forces withdraw from seven districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to Nagorno-Karabakh that they occupied between 1991 and 1994.
Aliyev said on July 4 that five of the seven districts would be liberated at the first stage of implementing the peace agreement, while the Lachin Corridor and Kelbacar would revert to Azerbaijani control five years later.
The Madrid, or Basic Principles, however, take into consideration Armenia's insistence on an internationally guaranteed overland link between the Nagorno-Karabakh republic and the Republic of Armenia, and to that end envisage "special modalities" for the Lachin Corridor, which constitutes such a link, and for Kelbacar, which lies between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Specifically, the Basic Principles provide for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force and for "international and bilateral security guarantees and assurances."
Up till now, Armenia has been reluctant to withdraw unconditionally from Kelbacar. Former Armenian President Robert Kocharian's reluctance to consider such a withdrawal until shortly before the envisaged referendum on Karabakh's future status is believed to have been one of the main reasons why he and Aliyev failed to reach a formal peace agreement in 2006.
A further potential obstacle to a breakthrough is Azerbaijan's refusal to condone the return to the negotiating table of Karabakh representatives. The online daily zerkalo.az on July 8 quoted President Aliyev as telling visiting Armenian dignitaries on July 3 that the current format of peace talks is perfectly adequate, and that the inclusion of representatives of the Armenian and former Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh would disrupt it.
Nagorno-Karabakh republic President Bako Sahakian for his part told visiting OSCE Chairwoman in Office Dora Bakoyannis in Yerevan last week that it will remain impossible to reach a comprehensive solution to the conflict unless or until the Nagorno-Karabakh republic returns to the negotiating table as a full-fledged participant to the peace talks.
Despite those obstacles, the Minsk Group co-chairs remain cautiously optimistic. U.S. co-Chairman Matthew Bryza told Reuters late last month that the co-chairs hope that Aliyev and Sarkisian will "agree conceptually" on the broad outlines of the peace agreement when they meet in mid-July.
Bryza said the parties would then go line by line through the 3 1/2 pages of text to agree the fine details. "Once that happens, which we the co-chairs are shooting for by the end of the year, then we could say, it would be true, that a framework agreement has been reached," Bryza added.
-- Liz Fuller and Emil Danielyan