Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has described the talks -- the first between himself and Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev since January 2012 -- as "positive" and as heralding "in all likelihood, the start of a new phase of negotiations."
There has been no comparable statement from President Aliyev. But just days before the Vienna meeting, Azerbaijan's delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told a session of that body's Permanent Council that Azerbaijan was ready to endorse the current blueprint for resolving the conflict.
The peace process has to all intents and purposes been deadlocked since June 2011, when hopes that Aliyev and Sarkisian would sign a formal peace agreement during a summit in Kazan proved misplaced. In an apparent bid to break that deadlock, in October 2012 the co-chairmen of the OSCE's Minsk Group presented to the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers unspecified "ideas of a working proposal to advance the peace process."
While some observers in Azerbaijan remain skeptical about the prospects for reviving the negotiating process, Armenian political scientists are more upbeat. The U.S. government, the Ukrainian chairman-in-office of the OSCE, and the European Union also hailed the resumption of face-to-face talks between the two presidents.
The Minsk Group has sought since 1992 to mediate a political solution to the conflict. In June 2006 it unveiled so-called Basic Principles for doing so, which were revised at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Madrid the following year. A revamped version was incorporated in a statement issued by the French, Russian, and U.S. presidents on the sidelines of the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, in July 2009.
Those most important of those principles are:
-- "interim status" for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic providing guarantees for security and self-governance, pending
-- full determination of the region's future status through a "legally binding expression of will" (whether or not this entails a referendum, and if yes, who would be eligible to cast ballots, is not specified);
-- a land corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh with the Republic of Armenia;
-- the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and
-- international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.
According to the L'Aquila statement, "The Basic Principles reflect a reasonable compromise based on the Helsinki Final Act principles of Non-Use of Force, Territorial Integrity, and the Equal Rights and Self-Determination of Peoples.... The endorsement of these Basic Principles by Armenia and Azerbaijan will allow the drafting of a comprehensive settlement to ensure a future of peace, stability, and prosperity for Armenia and Azerbaijan and the broader region."
At every subsequent meeting of the G8, the three presidents have reaffirmed their support for the Basic Principles and urged the conflict parties to formally endorse them as the basis for a full-fledged peace agreement. In May 2011, just weeks before the ill-fated Kazan summit, they noted unspecified "significant progress" and urged the two presidents to "finalize the Basic Principles" as "a way for all sides to move beyond the unacceptable status quo."
The peace process appears nonetheless to have lost momentum as of 2010. Aliyev and Sarkisian met three times in 2008 and six times in 2009, but only twice in 2010 and twice in 2011. The precise reasons for that trend remain unclear. In their joint statements released at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, in 2012 and the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in 2013, the presidents of France, Russia, and the United States noted that "rather than trying to find a solution based on mutual interests, the parties have continued to seek one-sided advantage in the negotiation process."
Shortly before the Kazan summit, President Aliyev publicly argued that the way to change the "unacceptable status quo" was for Armenia to withdraw its forces from the Azerbaijani territory they occupy.
Writing in "The Wall Street Journal" in December 2012, veteran Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov similarly argued that "the Armenian military withdrawal must be comprehensive, and it needs to take place now." Neither Aliyev nor Mammadyarov explained what the Armenian side would gain in return for surrendering its sole bargaining chip and withdrawing its forces before all the minutiae of a formal peace settlement had been hammered out.
Armenia's ambassador to the OSCE, Arman Kirakossian, may have been referring to Baku's insistence on an immediate withdrawal from the occupied districts when he recalled last week that the Enniskillen G8 statement stressed that "these elements [meaning the Basic Principles] should be seen as an integrated whole, as any attempt to select some elements over others would make it impossible to achieve a balanced solution."