Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on June 17 on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the ongoing search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict.
It was the sixth in a series of such trilateral meetings since Medvedev's inauguration as president in May 2008. According to a statement issued by Medvedev's office after the three-hour talks, the two sides made progress towards narrowing their differences on unspecified contentious issues.
Following the first such trilateral meeting, which took place near Moscow in early November 2008, the three presidents issued a written declaration formally affirming their commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict on the basis of the so-called Madrid Principles drafted by the OSCE Minsk Group and presented to the two sides in November 2007.
At a subsequent meeting with Medvedev in Sochi in January 2010, the two presidents reportedly reached agreement
on the final wording to the preamble of a revised version of the "principles." That preamble almost certainly reaffirms their shared commitment to resolve the conflict peacefully, within the framework of international law.
Further progress has been hindered, however, by Turkey's insistence (at the behest of Azerbaijan) on linking ratification of the two protocols signed in Geneva last October on normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations to concessions by Armenia in the Karabakh peace process, specifically the liberation of at least some of the seven districts of surrounding the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic that are currently under Armenian control.
The most recent variant of the so-called "Madrid Principles" reportedly envisaged a phased Armenian withdrawal from five of the seven Azerbaijani districts currently controlled by Armenian forces (Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Zangelan and Qubadli), but does not specify over what timeframe and in what order. It advocates "special modalities" for the Lachin corridor that links Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia, and the district of Kelbacar sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia.
The Azerbaijani news agency 1news.az on April 17 quoted the Turkish daily "Hurriyet" as reporting that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Medvedev that the Azerbaijani districts of Agdam and Fizuli should be liberated as a "desirable" first step.
Doing so would, however, render the central section of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the capital, Stepanakert, and the near-by town of Shusha, vulnerable to an Azerbaijani attack.
Since mid-April, Azerbaijani politicians have floated various proposals concerning the timeframe for the anticipated Armenian withdrawal. Azerbaijani parliamentarian Tahir Rzayev was quoted in late May by day.az
as saying that ideally Armenia should withdraw from the five districts simultaneously. He said such a withdrawal is of "strategic importance" for Azerbaijan. At the same time, he intimated that Baku would accept as a compromise the 2+3+2 model (meaning Agdam and Fizuli; then Jabrayil, Zangelan and Qubadli; then Lachin and Kelbacar).
More recently, National Socialist Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Rovshan Guseynov told the same news agency that agreeing on a gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied districts would enable Armenia to drag out the settlement process. He argued that all occupied districts should be returned to Azerbaijani control
It is not clear whether the unspecified progress made in yesterday's meeting in St. Petersburg was related to the timetable for an Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territory. Not has there been any official confirmation or denial of media reports that President Medvedev plans to bring with him when he travels to Yerevan in August a refined version of the Madrid principles
that calls for the initial withdrawal of Armenian forces not just from Agdam and Fizuli, but also from Kelbacar.
Meanwhile, the Russian daily "Versiya," which on occasion floats trial balloons on behalf of various Russian government bodies, on June 14 quoted an unnamed Russian Defense Ministry source as saying that Russian peacekeeping forces could be deployed in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic "within months," possibly in early August. The official said that Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev has visited Moscow twice this year to negotiate the deployment. (Abiyev's most recent trip to Moscow was in late May.)
Turkey has reportedly responded
to the purported Russian plans by warning Azerbaijani parliamentarians that it will retaliate immediately by sending troops to the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan in line with the 1921 Treaty of Kars. "Versiya" further quoted veteran Azerbaijani presidential administration official Ali Hasanov as explaining that Turkish troops are entitled to enter Naxcivan within the framework of existing agreements on military cooperation between the two countries.
Some Azerbaijani experts have cast doubts on the veracity of the "Versiya" article. Azerbaijani parliamentarian Zahid Orudj told the online daily echo-az.com that he considers it disinformation.
At the same time, he noted that Azerbaijan's recently adopted military doctrine makes provision for the deployment of foreign troops on Azerbaijani territory in accordance with international treaties to which Azerbaijan is a signatory.
Independent military expert Uzeir Djafarov similarly dismissed the "Versiya" article as disinformation in the run-up to Medvedev's visit to Armenia.
Any deployment of a peacekeeping force -- whether Russian or international -- in Karabakh and the surrounding districts would presumably be contingent on the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents formally signing the Basic/Madrid Principles, which are intended to serve as the basis for a comprehensive peace agreement. The signing of the "principles" also opens the door for the return to the negotiating table of representatives of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic.