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Armenia, Azerbaijan Fail To Finalize Karabakh Agreement

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is flanked by his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian (left) and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (right) during their meeting in Kazan on June 24.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is flanked by his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian (left) and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (right) during their meeting in Kazan on June 24.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev have failed to reach a breakthrough in negotiations on the longstanding dispute over the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ahead of the two-day summit hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Kazan, Russia, analysts and officials had expressed cautious optimism that the two leaders would agree on a set of basic principles for resolving the conflict.

But on the summit's first day, after more than three hours of negotiations, a short statement issued by the Kremlin said Sarkisian and Aliyev had reached only "mutual understanding on a number of issues whose resolution would help to create conditions for the approval of the basic principles."

Aliyev, Sarkisian, and Medvedev did not make public statements.

Nagorno-Karabakh was the site of a bitter six-year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1988-94 that saw tens of thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

The mountainous territory, now populated almost exclusively with ethnic Armenians, unilaterally declared independence in 1991 and has enjoyed de facto autonomy since the 1994 cease-fire.

Lincoln Mitchell, an expert on the Caucasus at New York's Columbia University, said the short statement leaves room for hope as well as disappointment.

"It's a statement that really does lend itself to interpretation. If you're a cynic you can pick on this, if you're an optimistic, you can pick on that. I think the good news here is that the door is open for more discussion. And people pound their fists on their table and walk out all the time -- we didn't have that. The bad news is we can't point and say, 'Look, they agreed on point X and that's a huge step forward,' or 'That's a foundation for resolving the conflict.' We're not there, clearly," he said.

The way in which Aliyev and Sarkisian explain the meeting's outcome to their respective publics, Mitchell notes, could provide an indication as to just how much of a setback -- if any -- the lack of a breakthrough represents for the peace process.

International Urging

Ahead of the summit, international efforts had increased to get Aliyev and Sarkisian to agree on the basic principles, which are the product of years of negotiations.

They include the return of Armenian-occupied lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku's control; the right of return for displaced persons; interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh with security and self-governance guarantees; and an agreement to determine the territory's final legal status at some point in the future.

In a May 26 joint statement issued on the sidelines of the G8 summit in France, Medvedev, U.S. President Barack Obama, and French President Nikolas Sarkozy said "the time has arrived" for "decisive steps."

"Further delay," they said, "would only call into question the commitment of [Armenia and Azerbaijan] to reach an agreement."

Each of the three countries contributes a co-chair to the Minsk Group, the OSCE body formed in 1995 to help broker a solution to the conflict.

U.S. co-chair Robert Bradtke has described the Kazan talks as "probably the most important point in the process since 2001, when there were efforts made to get a peace agreement at Key West."

Obama called Aliyev and Sarkisian ahead of the talks today and again encouraged the leaders to endorse the basic principles.

Raised Hopes

Some analysts had also pointed to the increased personal involvement of Medvedev in the negotiation process as raising the summit's stakes for Kazan. The summit is the fifth meeting of Aliyev and Sarkisian that the Russian leader has convened and he has helped to craft the wording of the principles.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, Armenian and Azerbaijani officials also said progress was being made.

Speaking to reporters on June 22 ahead of a speech to European parliamentarians in Strasbourg, Sarkisian said he was heading to Kazan "with optimism" and with hopes of finding a "common denominator."

Aliyev, speaking on the same day in Brussels, identified this as an "encouraging moment" -- so long as new momentum means and end to Armenian "occupation."

Some analysts and officials predicted that Kazan would not be the site of agreement on the basic principles, but rather would set the stage for agreement at a subsequent summit.

Still, the failure to do so now raises the specter of new violence in a conflict that has simmered for more than 16 years.

Rasim Musabeyov, a member of Azerbaijan's parliament, told Reuters on June 23, "The consequences [of not agreeing the basic principles in Kazan] might be of anabsolutely undesirable character, like an increase of military tension and renewal of clashes along the front-line."

Aliyev and Sarkisian are scheduled to meet with the Russian, U.S., and French Minsk Group co-chairs on June 25 to wrap up the summit.

Written by Richard Solash, with contributions from RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani Services.