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U.S. Envoy: Armenia, Azerbaijan 'Closer Than They Think' On Nagorno-Karabakh

U.S. Ambassador Robert Bradtke, U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group
On March 24, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will mark 20 years of intensive, often frustrating diplomacy aimed at resolving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The breakaway Azerbaijani territory, populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians, was the site of a bitter 1988-94 war in which tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared independence in 1991 and has maintained de facto autonomy since an uneasy cease-fire.

Ambassador Robert Bradtke is the U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group, the OSCE body that works on resolving the conflict. In an interview with RFE/RL Washington correspondent Richard Solash, he reflects on the progress made, and the obstacles that abound, in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Minsk Group Urges Armenia, Azerbaijan To Settle Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

RFE/RL: Looking back on 20 years of work by the Minsk Group, what would you say are its main achievements?

Robert Bradtke: I think the Minsk Group has done three important things. First of all, it has helped be a factor for stability. It has helped defuse tensions. It has helped prevent the outbreak of another war, and when cease-fire violations occur -- and they have occurred throughout this period, since 1994 -- it has helped ensure that those cease-fire violations do not escalate into something more serious.

The second thing the Minsk Group has done is be a channel for communication between and among the parties. The parties don't have the capability, necessarily, to talk directly to one another. So when we travel to the region or when we meet the leaders outside the region, we hear their views and we can convey those views to the other party in a way that helps them, perhaps, to understand each other better.

And the third thing that was part of our mandate that we have done in this period is to develop a common basis for negotiation. In the past five years in particular, that has been the focus of the work of the co-chairs -- to develop this framework document, called the Basic Principles [which 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; a corridor linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh; and an agreement to determine the territory’s final legal status at some point in the future].

We've worked very hard with the parties to try to develop this framework document. We haven't succeeded yet. But I point to the statement that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan made when they were in Sochi in January of this year with [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev, when they expressed readiness to accelerate work on this document.
There's no question we're closer today than we were 20 years ago.

RFE/RL: Do those achievements mean that Armenia and Azerbaijan are closer to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute today than they were on March 24, 1992?

Bradtke: I think there's no question we're closer today than we were 20 years ago. I think the sides understand the basic elements of what a settlement should look like. They've articulated, and we've articulated with them, elements that are captured by the presidents in the joint statements they made at the summits in L'Aquila, in Muskoka, and last year in Deauville. Those elements, I think, are more clear now than they've ever been and do represent real progress over where we were in 1992 or in 1994, when the cease-fire came into effect.

RFE/RL: What lessons have been learned over the course of the Minsk Group's 20 years?

Bradtke: I think one of the important lessons of the Minsk Group is the importance of the international community assisting the parties. I think what we've seen, particularly in the last several years, is even more close cooperation among the co-chairs, which enables us to speak with one voice to the parties. I think that's a very important lesson. We have right now very close cooperation among the United States, France, and Russia in working with the parties.

The second lesson: We've seen -- as we've had both high hopes and periods of disappointment in this time, Key West in 2001, where the United States took the lead; we had Rambouillet in 2006, where France had the lead; we had Kazan in 2011, where Russia had the lead -- different periods of time when different members of the co-chair team took the lead. But ultimately, at the end of the day, one of the lessons is that it's up to the parties.

The parties aren't making peace with the co-chairs. The co-chairs can provide ideas, we can offer suggestions, [and] we can provide encouragement. But fundamentally, it is the parties themselves that have to make what are very difficult decisions.

RFE/RL: Some observers suggest that with no end in sight to the impasse over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group needs to take a new approach or risk losing legitimacy. What is your response?

Bradtke: I don't think that the problem of our inability to reach a peace agreement has been the format of the Minsk Group or the format of the co-chairs. The problem is that these are very difficult questions. The differences between the sides are very great, and frankly, there's a lack of trust. Changing the format is not going to address any of those things. Those things will continue.

I feel that we've made a lot of substantive progress in the last years. Again, I think the outlines of an agreement are there. There are complications about the sequencing of steps toward a final settlement, about fleshing out some of the details, and as I say, there's this lack of trust which makes it much more difficult to reach agreement.

So I think rather than starting over again from some new perspective with some new format, the sides have told us that they want to work in this format [and] that they accept this format.

RFE/RL: Will the U.S. role in this process change in the near future? Will there be another U.S.-hosted summit on the conflict, as there was in Key West in 2001?

Bradtke: The United States is certainly very strongly committed to doing whatever it can to help the parties reach a peaceful settlement, and we will continue to so do in 2012. I don't want to predict exactly what kind of meetings will take place, because partly it will be a function of how much progress we're making and what we think we can achieve.

RFE/RL: There was cautious optimism ahead of the summit in Kazan last year that agreement would be reached by Armenia and Azerbaijan on the Basic Principles for solving the conflict. How much of a blow to the process was the lack of a breakthrough?

Bradtke: Obviously, we had hoped to see more progress at Kazan and we regret the fact that there was not more progress. But that doesn't mean that everything is lost. It doesn't mean we don't have areas where the sides agree or that we can't still move forward from the work that has been done. It means we take a deep breath and look for ways to move forward.

One of the challenges at this stage is the interrelationship among the steps [described in the Basic Principles document]. I really don't want to get into too much detail, because this is a sensitive negotiation, but that's really one of the challenges now. It's the sequencing and interrelationship of the steps that take place.

RFE/RL: According to the statement issued from the January meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Sochi, the two sides express willingness for the OSCE to investigate cease-fire violations along the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact. Is there is a mechanism for doing this now taking shape?

Bradtke: You're correct. At Sochi, the presidents asked us to continue work on the development of a mechanism to investigate cease-fire violations. This was something that they originally discussed last year. We have presented the sides with some of our ideas on how to do this. It's not a simple matter, again. What kind of resources would you need? What kind of cooperation would you have to have from the parties in order to be able to implement this?

We have given ideas to the sides and we discussed them when we were in the region just a couple of weeks ago. We've got some views back from them, but we continue to feel that there's more than needs to be done to elaborate this mechanism in a way that it might actually be able to contribute to increasing stability along the line of contact and along the front lines.

We will be meeting as co-chairs in Vienna later this week before we meet with the OSCE Permanent Council. This will also give us a chance to discuss with the high-level planning group at the OSCE -- their military experts -- [and we will] get some input from them on this mechanism. So we will continue to work on this and try to develop ideas that the sides can agree upon.

RFE/RL: The Sochi statement also pointed to the value of people-to-people dialogue. How much potential does this have and why hasn't there been more of it until this point?

Bradtke: I think the idea of people-to-people dialogue is important. If you look back from the 20-year perspective, what we now see is a generation in Armenia and Azerbaijan growing up that has really not lived side by side. They have not had the personal relationships that might help them understand better the perspectives of the other sides and that might help them overcome stereotypes that one sees all too often in the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

So people-to-people contacts can help play a role there, but one of the challenges is to do this in a way that is constructive [and] to do it in a way that is genuine. People-to-people contacts don't work if they are used by the sides for political purposes or are politicized. If they are used to continue arguments about who was at fault or who did wrong to whom 20 years ago, that's not going to help move things forward. It may need to be bringing people together to discuss common problems.

One of the ideas we discussed on our last trip was something that came out of the crossing of the front line along the old Armenia-Azerbaijan border -- again, I want to draw a distinction between the line of contact, which is the cease-fire line, where the forces are, and the old border, which is not a disputed area, necessarily, but is still part of the frontline. We crossed at the end of 2011 along that area, and before crossing, we met with the local authorities on both sides, and we discussed with them the possibility of meeting the local authorities on the other side to discuss their common problems -- water, agriculture, electric power. That might be a more fruitful area for these people-to-people contacts. That's an area we hope to be discussing more with the sides.
The sides are probably closer to an agreement than they think they are. Because of the lack of trust, it makes it harder for them to see this.

RFE/RL: Finally, where do you see things 20 years from today? Will the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict be resolved by then?

Bradtke: What our leaders have said at Deauville and [what] we repeat to the sides frequently is that in our view, the status quo is unacceptable. And for that reason, I think that in 20 years we must resolve this conflict. We must make progress in resolving this conflict. We cannot in 20 years look back and see the same situation we have today.

One of the things I feel is important here as well is [that] the sides are probably closer to an agreement than they think they are. Because of the lack of trust, it makes it harder for them to see this. One of the crucial things in any peace process, I've learned, is that the sides come to see themselves as partners -- that they recognize they will not make progress unless they see the other as someone whose problems they have to help solve. It's not a question of, "How do I get everything I want and he gets nothing he wants?" If that's the approach, there will be no progress.

They need to see this process as, "There won't be peace unless he gets something and I get something, and how can I get him something that he needs and how can he give me something that I need?" That's not easy to do. That's not the way of thinking that we've seen so far.

So as I say, if you step back from this process and you look at it objectively, the sides are actually closer than they think they are. If we can move in this period ahead -- in this year, particularly -- to create this sense of common partnership in finding a peaceful solution [and] recognizing how to address the concerns of the other side, then I think we can make some progress.