Just one week ago, it seemed as though Armenia and Azerbaijan were closer than they had been for years to resolving the Karabakh conflict.
The two countries' presidents, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev, met one-on-one for more than an hour on May 7 on the sidelines of the EU's European Partnership summit in Prague. While neither president made any official statement after those talks, the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that has been mediating peace talks since 1992 were upbeat, speaking of an imminent "breakthrough."
But within days, a senior member of the Azerbaijani presidential administration told RFE/RL that the co-chairs were seeking to deceive world public opinion by claiming progress had been made during the Prague talks. Were those remarks intended to reassure the Azerbaijani public? Or is the peace process now deadlocked?
The Minsk Group co-chairs' assessment of the Prague meeting gave the impression that the momentum generated by meetings between Aliyev and Sarkisian with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in November, and again in January in Switzerland, was sustained.
In Moscow, the three presidents signed a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to resolving the Karabakh conflict without recourse to military force, and within the framework of the OSCE-mediated talks. Following the January talks, U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Matthew Bryza said that the two presidents made progress on "several key elements" of a draft peace deal, but he did not specify what they were. Disparate Views
The Minsk Group assessment of last week's Prague talks was even more upbeat. Bryza told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on May 7 that the two presidents continued to narrow the differences between their respective positions with regard to the so-called Basic Principles. Those principles were drafted by the Minsk Group and have been on the table since the summer of 2006.
"Presidents Aliyev and Sarkisian were able...to reduce their differences on our Basic Principles and generally agree on the basic ideas that they came here to discuss," Bryza said.
He added that the Minsk Group would continue to work with the two countries' foreign ministers "to finalize the details of these key remaining concepts within the Basic Principles."
But on May 11, Novruz Mammedov, who heads the international relations department within the Azerbaijani presidential administration, contacted RFE/RL's Baku bureau and offered to give an interview on the Karabakh peace process. During that interview, Mammedov said the Minsk Group co-chairs' claims of progress in the peace talks and of a narrowing of outstanding differences were untrue. He said those claims reflected bias toward Armenia, which Azerbaijan consistently says was the "aggressor" in the Karabakh conflict.
Mammedov implied that the co-chairs wanted to delay a solution of the conflict indefinitely in order to enhance their own importance. He suggested that Bryza might deliberately have been feeding false information to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to President Barack Obama in the hope of gaining a promotion. He further accused Armenia of adopting an "unconstructive approach" during the Prague meeting.
"In the last meeting [of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in Prague], Armenia's position was very unconstructive," Mammedov said. "They did not want to take a single step toward resolution of the conflict and once again made their claims on Azerbaijan's territory."Niggling Details
Mammedov's disavowal of the Minsk Group's claims of progress in Prague was all the more surprising and unexpected because it contradicts a recent assessment of the peace process by Aliyev himself. On April 17, three weeks before his meeting with Sarkisian in Prague, Aliyev traveled to Moscow, where he discussed the Karabakh issue with Russian President Medvedev. Aliyev told journalists after those talks that "certain progress has been made in the negotiation process," although many contentious issues still need to be resolved.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service talked to Bryza
on May 14 in an attempt to clarify the situation. Bryza said that Mammedov was not present at the Prague talks and therefore could not give a firsthand assessment. Bryza said that the co-chairs "catalyzed a very lively round of discussions" in the course of which the two presidents did indeed "make significant progress."
"We've got a series of between 10 and 20 Basic Principles in our Madrid document and a handful of those still need to be worked out conceptually," Bryza said. "The presidents did in fact work through the concepts of that handful of Basic Principles that had not been agreed. What they didn't do was agree on the details, and that's the focus of our negotiations right now."
Bryza said that the French Minsk Group co-chairman, Ambassador Bernard Fassier, is currently in Yerevan, and will travel from there to Azerbaijan, to present to the two presidents ideas that the co-chairs drafted after the Prague talks and which flesh out the details of the concepts on which broad agreement was reached in Prague.
Bryza rejected the suggestion that the peace process is in jeopardy. He pointed out that "at the request of the presidents, we agreed to accelerate our efforts," not to slow them down. Bryza also rejected the Mammedov's charge that the co-chairs are biased toward Armenia.
"To say that we as mediators favor one side or the other is simply ridiculous," Bryza said. "We cannot be mediators if we favor one side or the other."Whose Interests?
There are several possible explanations for the apparent U-turn on Baku's part. Mammedov's statement may have been intended primarily to reassure Azerbaijani public opinion that President Aliyev is not about to make unpalatable concessions. The fact that he chose RFE/RL, rather than a state-controlled media outlet, as the medium for conveying that message, appears to substantiate that hypothesis.
Alternatively, the Armenian negotiating position may indeed have hardened in response to pressure from the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership. Bryza indirectly hinted at this, telling RFE/RL that had Mammedov "been in the room, he would have seen how actively we were encouraging the Armenian side to move forward." (He added hastily: "And of course, we encouraged the Azerbaijani side as well.")
Over the past two weeks, two prominent military officials from Karabakh, former armed forces commander Samvel Babayan and Defense Minister General Moses Hakobian, have both warned against concessions to Azerbaijan. In particular, they argue that Armenian forces should not withdraw from seven districts of Azerbaijan they currently occupy before a firm agreement is reached on the region's future status. The Basic Principles envisage a gradual Armenian withdrawal from six of those seven districts, to be followed at some future stage by a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh's future status.
Hakobian told journalists in Stepanakert on May 11 that "all the territories that we had liberated required human victims, and every person here has memories related to them.... It will be difficult to cede those territories to anyone." Hakobian also reaffirmed that President Sarkisian must not sign any formal agreement resolving the Karabakh conflict that is detrimental to the interests of the population of Karabakh. "It is impossible to implement any decision not accepted by the Nagorno-Karabakh people," Hakobian warned.
A third possible explanation is that Azerbaijan is simply playing for time, and that President Aliyev's apparent willingness in recent months to reach a peace agreement was simply a ploy. In light of the huge sums Azerbaijan allocates annually for the military, some observers believe it intends within the next few years to launch a new offensive to bring Karabakh back under the control of the central government by force. Looking Ahead
The two sides have come very close to reaching agreement twice before. Under a draft agreement reached in November 1998, Nagorno-Karabakh would have received de facto independence within a loose confederation with Azerbaijan. The provisions of the second agreement, discussed in Key West, Florida in April 2001, were never made public, but are widely believed to have included granting Azerbaijan use of a land corridor across southern Armenia to link Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan. In both cases, Baku later reneged on the tentative agreement reached.
Former Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian represented Armenia at the Minsk Group-mediated talks for over 10 years, from 1997 to April 2008. He told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the conflict sides have reached three separate agreements -- once on the so-called Common State; the second time during the talks in Key West; and most recently as a result of talks that began in Prague five years ago.
"Since 1998, three major proposals have emerged as a result of the work of the parties themselves. They were the Common State, Key West, and the Prague process," Oskanian said. "The parties worked on these, engaged in give and take, leading eventually to a document. In the first two cases, Azerbaijan clearly backtracked."
He said he hopes "history will not repeat itself" this time, and that "Azerbaijan will not back down from this last set of principles, particularly the issue of self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh."
Oskanian also deplored Mammedov's comments to RFE/RL, which he said could potentially derail the "delicate" negotiation process.
"Anything said by officials affects the [negotiation] process. The process is affected not just by what the parties say, but even more so by what the [Minsk Group] co-chairs say," Oskanian said. "This is an extremely delicate process. Everyone has to be careful what they say, particularly since nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So when you reveal part of the agreement and you say you don't know what's going to happen with the other element, this will naturally raise concerns in one or the other country."
Was it was indeed Mammedov's intention to create a pretext for Azerbaijan to backtrack on all or some of the principles agreed on in Prague? That may only become clear when Aliyev and Sarkisian meet again next month in St. Petersburg.