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Can The 'Medvedev Moment' Be Saved For Karabakh?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) greets his counterparts Serzh Serzh Sarkisian (center) and Ilham Aliyev during their meeting in Kazan on June 24.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) greets his counterparts Serzh Serzh Sarkisian (center) and Ilham Aliyev during their meeting in Kazan on June 24.
Always tortuous, the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh is entering an unusually difficult phase. High hopes were raised ahead of the June 24 meeting in Kazan between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, and chaired by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that an accord would finally be struck on the framework agreement, the long-discussed Document on Basic Principles.

But nothing came of it.

What exactly happened at Kazan, and what happens now?

Many sources, including ones in Baku, confirm that it was the Azerbaijani side that blocked agreement in Kazan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had worked intensively on the latest draft of the agreement with both sides, evidently believed a deal would be done; one witness described him as looking "crushed" after the meeting.

Washington officials were encouraged by the tone of telephone calls U.S. President Barack Obama had with both the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders on the eve of the summit.

It seems that Aliyev came to the meeting with a list of nine or 10 amendments to the latest draft document, the Armenian side raised objections to them, and the meeting, although it lasted almost four hours, was pretty much over as soon as it began.

The Armenian side signaled that it accepted the latest draft to be discussed at Kazan -- a turnaround from the situation in late 2009 and early 2010, when it was Baku that was telling the outside world that it accepted the latest draft agreed in Athens, while the Armenians played the role of blockers. This time, Yerevan signed up to the latest draft. The only (not insignificant) caveat was that Sarkisian said that he would have to secure the consent afterward of the Karabakh Armenian leadership.

Azerbaijan's objections could be described as forming three radiating circles.

The first circle of objections consists of specific concerns about the latest draft of the Basic Principles document prepared by Foreign Minister Lavrov. The chief one, according to Baku, is that the status of "non-corridor Lachin" was not made clear.

The issue here is the linkage between two of the six main Basic Principles. One is the return of the seven regions, which were ordinary Azerbaijan territories in Soviet times and not part of the autonomous Armenian-majority of Nagorno-Karabakh, but which were captured by the Armenians during the 1991-94 war. The document stipulates that five of these regions will be returned to Azerbaijani control immediately -- or as soon as de-mining and reconstruction allows, which is in fact a matter of several years -- while the two western regions of Kelbajar and Lachin situated in between Armenia and Karabakh will be returned five years later. At the same time, it is proposed that a corridor connecting Armenia and Karabakh through the town of Lachin will be established in an as-yet-unclear arrangement that recognizes both Armenian security concerns and Azerbaijani sovereignty (perhaps a long-time lease under international supervision).

Official Baku's objection to the draft under discussion at Kazan was that, as it did not set the limits of the "Lachin Corridor," it was too vague on the status of "non-corridor Lachin" and did not promise the right of return to the inhabitants of 39 villages from that district. It therefore only explicitly ensured the return of six of the seven Azerbaijani regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, not all seven, and would be viewed as a defeat in Azerbaijan. To a lesser degree, the Azerbaijani side also objected to the idea that "interim status" for Nagorno-Karabakh would allow it to join international organizations.

The Lachin question in particular is a legitimate point of concern. The question for Aliyev, however, is why he did not seek to settle these issues in the run-up to Kazan but instead raised them only on June 24, thereby blowing up the meeting?

This leads us to the "second circle" of Azerbaijani objections to Kazan, which is that the Baku leadership appears uncomfortable about agreeing to -- or more exactly, being seen to agree to -- a Pax Russica. They appear to esteem Medvedev and speak highly of his initiative. The Russian president has been scrupulous in consulting the other two countries that are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, France and the United States. Both foreign ministries have been fully engaged in his initiative, and the French and U.S. co-chairs have been briefed by Lavrov after each trilateral meeting between the Russian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani presidents.

However, Azerbaijanis still regard Russia as Armenia's main ally and are suspicious of the role of Lavrov, whose Armenian parentage they distrust. Although Medvedev has apparently never brought up the subject, there is a fear that Russia has a secret agenda of wanting to insert its peacekeepers into the Karabakh conflict zone as a way of shaping the peace in a Russian way. For years, there has been a "gentleman's agreement" that "no neighbors and no co-chairs" would be involved in peacekeeping but this has never been codified.

Moreover, the Baku leadership is fully aware that Medvedev's tenancy of the Kremlin may not last much longer and therefore want extra guarantees that his peace plan would be implementable. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov has referred to the example of the Russian-Japanese dispute over the Kurile Islands, where an outline agreement was made in the 1950s but a full peace treaty has never been signed.

The stalling tactics in Kazan could therefore be seen as an attempt by Baku to get Washington and Paris (and, by extension, the European Union) more involved in writing the next draft of the document, underwriting it with their support, and (this part applies most to Brussels) making informal pledges that the eventual peacekeeping force will come from the EU.

If the Azerbaijani side only wanted greater international engagement, however, we would probably be seeing greater urgency on its part to use what might be called the "Medvedev moment" -- not to mention the positive frame of mind on the Armenian side that cannot be assumed to be permanent. In a few months' time, election season will begin in Armenia and in all three co-chair countries. In Russia, it is quite likely that Vladimir Putin will reclaim the presidency. Aliyev and Medvedev have a much better relationship than do Aliyev and Putin, ever since the two clashed over Georgia in 2006. Putin has never displayed any interest in the Karabakh issue. Unlike Medvedev, he appears to believe that it is not worth wasting effort on resolving it and that the status quo is acceptable for Russia. When it comes to Washington, the worry is that the U.S. leadership will simply lose interest and devote much less effort to the process than it has done over the past year.

This leads us to the "third circle" of why the Azerbaijani side did not agree at Kazan, which is that they emanate the impression that they believe time is on their side and that they are not in a hurry.

A recent visit to Baku confirms the impression that there is less talk of war than for some time -- and Aliyev did not strike a strongly belligerent tone at a military parade in Baku two days after the Kazan meeting. The message is implacable in a different way. Azerbaijani officials say that they believe the Caucasus arms race is bankrupting Armenia and that in a few years' time, the Armenian side will be much weaker and more inclined to compromise over the status of Karabakh.

On July 13, for example, Aliyev told a cabinet meeting: "The financial capabilities and political weight of Azerbaijan is growing, its regional position is growing, its army is getting stronger, and its demographic indicators are rising. Our population is growing and [the Armenians'] is shrinking. In five or 10 years, our population will be 11 million and theirs will be 1 million. Everyone understands full well what this means. In this way, we can resolve the issue in our favor."

To any seasoned observer of the Karabakh conflict, this is a misreading of the Armenian position. As far as the Armenians are concerned, possession of the ancient land of Karabakh is a far greater prize than the offer of Azerbaijani riches, which may run out within a couple of decades. Besides, Armenians would argue, Armenia is a far stronger state than it was 20 years ago, is as wealthy as Georgia in GDP-per capita terms, and can still rely on strong diaspora support to bail it out in a crisis. A small de facto Armenian statelet now exists in Nagorno-Karabakh itself that gets more entrenched as the years pass, and in which most people under 30 have never met an Azerbaijani. This being case, it would surely make sense for the Azerbaijani government to spend its massive oil and gas revenues on a peace settlement, rather than waiting several more years for a better deal.

Can this knot be untied? On the Azerbaijani side, that means trying to disentangle legitimate concerns from delaying tactics stemming from completely other factors, some related to the opaque domestic politics of the Azerbaijani elite.

If the Azerbaijani leadership is worried about specific issues, these could probably be sorted out in the next few months. A new formula could be worked out on the Lachin Corridor. More explicit commitments could be made on the "no neighbors, no co-chairs" formula for peacekeeping.

More work could be done on setting out a timetable to move toward a full peace treaty, and each side could begin that process with a concrete step on the ground that signals its new willingness to work with the other: perhaps the withdrawal of Armenian forces from one section of occupied territory in return for an agreement by Baku to a tangible sign of Nagorno Karabakh's new "interim status" (for example, an explicit change of policy by Baku on the issue of foreigners visiting Karabakh or the opening up of a UN agency there).

If this was the heart of the matter, it would justify a stronger concerted diplomatic effort by Washington and Paris to help Moscow bridge the gap, while the "Medvedev moment" is still open.

If, however, the issue goes deeper and for whatever reason the Azerbaijani government simply wants to play for more time, then a different approach is needed. There would be a strong case for the three co-chair countries to take a step back. They could say that they will continue to monitor the cease-fire and are ready to guarantee a peace settlement if one is reached but declare that for now their mediation capacity has been exhausted.

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL