PRAGUE -- Earlier this week, the Azerbaijani president's foreign-policy adviser said he sees double standards and clear evidence of "Christian solidarity" among the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group.
Novruz Mammadov also said that the co-chairs might also be manipulating the talks for professional reasons. The Minsk Group mediates negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, the group's U.S. co-chair, spoke with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service about the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and responded to Mammadov's comments.
RFE/RL: Basically, Novruz Mammadov told us that the Minsk Group favors Armenia in the Karabakh dispute, as you probably saw this interview, he criticized the activity of the Minsk Group and he said the statement was made by you was an overstatement and there is no real progress. So, was Novruz Mammadov actually part of the discussion?
Matthew Bryza: Look, I want to answer your questions and have people actually understand what happened. No, dear Mr. Mammadov, whom I respect deeply, whom I admire, whom I like, who's a great public servant, in this case was not a part of the negotiations. I mean, there was a one-on-one discussion between the two presidents and then the foreign ministers and the Minsk Group co-chairs entered the discussion and we, the co-chairs, drove, or catalyzed, or stimulated, a very lively round of negotiations.
So yes, I was there, I was driving the process, along with my colleagues, Bernard Fassier [of France] and Yury Merzlyakov [of Russia], but no, Mr. Mammadov was not in the room. And so I can't state, or I have no idea, where he got his information. I know where I got mine, and it was my own ears and my own eyes, and my assessment is honest, my assessment is what I conveyed to my superiors, to the Secretary of State [Hillary Clinton], and that is, a common assessment that both Yury Nikolayevich Merzlyakov and Bernard Ivanovich Fassier shared very much, which is the two parties did make significant progress, but they didn't go as far as we would have liked.
So I understand why maybe Mammadov would be disappointed that we didn't go further. I'm disappointed, too. To say that we as mediators favor one side or the other is, well, is simply ridiculous. We cannot be mediators if we favor one side or the other. Had he been in the room, he would have seen how actively we were encouraging the Armenian side to move forward. And of course we encourage the Azerbaijani side as well.
RFE/RL: In his statement Mammadov said that this demonstrates double standards from the Minsk Group and he said that "maybe we are witnessing Christian solidarity."
Bryza: Again, I must repeat myself and say Novruz Mammadov was not in the negotiations, so he has no way to assess with his own eyes and ears how -- how appropriate our interactions were, we the co-chairs. He has no way to assess how hard we leaned on, or encouraged each party to make concessions. He has no way to judge what the outcome of the discussion was because he wasn't there!
To say that religion plays any role in this in our mediation effort is quite unhelpful. Let me just say that, because it doesn't. I don't even know if Ambassador Merzlyakov and Fassier are religious believers. I have no idea. I'm married to a Muslim, though. And I know people in Armenia sometimes speculate that that makes me pro-Azerbaijani. I happen to be a Roman Catholic.
Religion has nothing to do with our mediation effort and frankly, I think anyone who tries to import religion into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is playing with, is playing a very dangerous game. And I don't believe that dear Mr. Mammadov really means to do that. I think he may have made some, some remarks that he might, either he perhaps was misquoted on, or, he would prefer to withdraw because, you know, that's not a very helpful remark.
RFE/RL: Mammadov also said that after the meeting with the presidents in Prague, President Aliyev left, but President Serzh Sarkisian stayed there and continued consultations with the co-chairs. Did you have any consultation with President Sarkisian after President Aliyev left?
Bryza: Again, how would he know if he wasn't there? He left, in fact, and I was having an interview with you.
RFE/RL: I know, I remember that.
Bryza: I wasn't consulting with anybody, right? I was with you right after the meeting ended so no, of course not! And these are artificial problems that are being added to an already very challenging agenda, to negotiators who are trying to help the sides reach a peace agreement.
What happens, you know, in any negotiation like this, one side has to arrive first and leave first. This time it was Azerbaijan's turn to arrive first, and to leave first. And so that's what happened. You know, President Aliyev came first; he left first. President Sarkisian left right afterward, within minutes, but, you know, because of simple limitations of the driveway at the ambassador's residence, we had one motorcade come in, I expressed my respect for President Aliyev and Foreign Minister [Elmar] Mammadyarov, I walked them out to the car, then I walked back in to the room where the meeting was and escorted President Sarkisian and Foreign Minister [Eduard] Nalbandian and the delegation right out to their cars and they left right away.
RFE/RL: But still, we saw the statement from Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and also Elmar Mammadyarov, they weren't talking about much progress the way the co-chairs did after the negotiations at the joint press briefing. So did why the position of the co-chairs differ from the positions of both sides? Is it because they have domestic issues, or is it just that they see progress differently from the co-chairs?
Bryza: I don't know. I mean, of course the political leaders of each country have domestic, political issues of their own. There are broader diplomatic initiatives under way, we all know about them, there are many of them.
All I know is what our motivation was as co-chairs because we discussed, we stayed together for several hours afterward, Yury, Bernard, and I, and talked things through. And I can just say that our honest assessment was that this was a positive meeting. It achieved significant progress. It did not achieve the breakthrough we hoped, I don't know how to be clearer than that.
We have a series, between 10 and 20 basic principles in our Madrid document, and we have a handful of the 10-12 issues that still need to be worked out conceptually. And what I felt during those negotiations, and what Bernard and Yury felt, was that 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. To have a conceptual agreement, but not to agree on the details, is significant progress.
I don't know that anyone, besides President Aliyev, Foreign Minister Mammadyarov, and Deputy Foreign Minister [Araz] Azimov are even aware of the details that are being negotiated, so I really don't care what anyone else's comments are other than the president and the foreign minister and deputy foreign minister in Azerbaijan and the president and foreign minister in Armenia. No one else's comments matter because no one else is as deeply engaged with the process as the top people and it's ultimately only the presidents who matter because they make the decisions.
RFE/RL: So you believe the peace process is still on track and you are expecting more negotiations in the coming future, especially we're talking about your possible visit to the region and the meeting on the level of foreign ministers and St. Petersburg talks.
Bryza: Yes. Right now Ambassador Fassier is in the region and he's following up....
RFE/RL: He's in Yerevan.
Bryza: Yes. And he's presenting some ideas that we co-chairs drafted together, after that meeting in Prague and he's presenting them to each side -- it's, again, working through the details of the concepts we agreed in Prague. Bernard is there now. I will go to the region sometime soon, I don't know exactly what date, and follow up, and then we hope to get the sides ready for another meeting that will hopefully take place between the presidents in early June, in St. Petersburg. We hope that will happen.
So the outcome, the operational outcome of the meeting in Prague was that we -- at the request of the presidents -- agreed to accelerate our effort within the Minsk Group, not to slow it down, but to accelerate it. That is what the presidents want us to do. And so anyone who argues anything to the contrary is simply either ill-informed or dishonest.
RFE/RL: Are you optimistic about the meeting in St. Petersburg? It will happen?
Bryza: I don't want to say whether or not I'm optimistic or pessimistic, it's up to the presidents to decide themselves. I would just like to add two points, maybe.
One, I don't know if anybody cares, but I really like Novruz Mammadov. I like him, he is of great value to U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, so I look forward to working with him very much in the future and I honestly don't mind at all if he's criticizing me. No problem. I just want to make sure that people understand what really happened, No. 1.
No. 2, I'm grateful for your professionalism and the great care that you pay to the specific words that we use. Individual words are of great importance. And so I want to thank you and I want to draw attention to the fact that I did not retract any statement with regard to my Ekho Moskvy interview. I stand by every single word I said and people should listen to what I actually said on the audio and I would like to underscore that it was Ekho Moskvy who very professionally corrected the mistake it made in the transcript. I didn't make a mistake. Ekho Moskvy made a mistake and corrected it in the transcript and everyone can hear what I actually said on tape.
I have seen some disturbing populist and incendiary statements in media in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, speculating that there's some sort of conspiracy. The people writing and saying those things are not friends of the peace process. They are being motivated by, or paid by, someone else. And the truth of the matter is standing right there before anybody who wishes to listen to the actual recording. Go listen to it, you'll hear what I said, and if something is said by a co-chair that sounds outrageous, it probably wasn't actually said by the co-chair. We are moderate people who have been doing this a long time and are committed to one thing: helping the two sides reach a mutual agreement to regulate and resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
RFE/RL: Mammadov also suggested, that you are interested in using the negotiations to ensure your career, your position.
Bryza: I don't know. You know, sometimes people project their own concerns on others. My job, and what gives me tremendous meaning in my life, is to do everything I can to help Azerbaijan and Armenia settle a war and build a peaceful future. That's what I want to do, that's my main function right now, that is what gives my career tremendous meaning. That's all I'm focused on.