With international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict gaining fresh momentum, Armenia's leadership appears to be preparing ground for a possible breakthrough in its long-running negotiations with Azerbaijan. It has pushed through parliament an amendment paving the way for a nationwide referendum on the issue reportedly promised by President Serzh Sargsyan.The move came amid increasingly vocal domestic opposition to a framework Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord proposed by international mediators. The Sargsyan administration faces an uphill battle in overcoming opposition from nationalist groups in and outside the Armenian government as well, as the ethnic Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Helsinki on December 3 for more talks on the basic principles of a Karabakh settlement proposed by a team of US, Russian and French mediators co-chairing the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group. In a joint statement issued the next day, Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Bernard Kouchner of France and US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried urged the conflicting parties to finalize those principles "in coming months." They also emphasized the "positive momentum" which they said was established by Sargsyan and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev during their most recent meeting -- hosted by Russia's Dmitry Medvedev outside Moscow on November 2. Aliyev and Sargsyan issued a joint declaration there pledging to "intensify further steps in the negotiating process." The mediators hope that they will meet again soon to close remaining gaps. Aides to the two presidents have said that the next Armenian-Azerbaijani summit would likely take place early next year.Bernard Fassier, France's chief Nagorno-Karabakh negotiator, told RFERL on December 9 that Lavrov, Kouchner and Fried presented to Baku and Yerevan a "technical document" that puts a settlement within reach by next summer. The chief stumbling blocks to date have centered on details of a proposed referendum on self-determination in Karabakh, and a timetable for the liberation of at least six of the seven Azerbaijani districts around the disputed enclave that were fully or partly occupied by Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. Meeting with leaders of nearly 50 Armenian political parties behind the closed doors on November 19, Sargsyan reportedly indicated that an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord is still not imminent. According to some participants of that meeting, he also promised to put a possible peace deal to a popular vote. Two weeks later, Armenia's parliament passed a government-drafted amendment to an Armenian law on referendums that enables the government to hold non-binding plebiscites on any policy issue. Prior to passage of the amendment, parliament and the president had responsibility for calling referendums, and authorities were obliged to abide by their results. Opposition politicians and independent observers see a direct link between the adopted amendment and the Karabakh peace process. Government officials and pro-presidential MPs have not ruled out of the conduct of a Karabakh-related referendum in Armenia in the coming months.A senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party), a nationalist party represented in Sargsyan's coalition government, asserted at a December 9 news conference that the signing of a framework agreement on Karabakh in early 2009 is "not unlikely." Giro Manoyan also reaffirmed the ARF's opposition to the mediators' existing peace proposals that seem to allow for continued Armenian control over Karabakh. "What we wanted in 1988 (at the start of a popular movement for Karabakh's unification with Armenia) can not be a basis for today because a lot has changed since then," he said. "Azerbaijan is chiefly responsible for that and it must pay a price." Manoyan and many other nationalists generally would no longer be satisfied with the formalization of Karabakh's separation from Azerbaijan. Now, they also want Armenia to keep much of what is now occupied Azerbaijani territory.
Another ARF leader, deputy parliamentary speaker Hrayr Karapetian, insisted that the Armenian side should be happy with the Karabakh status quo and that Azerbaijan will not attempt to win back its lost territories by force in the foreseeable future. "If this situation continues for 10 or 20 years, we will still be in a winning position," Karapetian told the Yerevan newspaper Pakagits in an interview published on December 18.Hard-line opposition groups, though, are even more vocal in opposing any territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. Like the ARF, they believe that the occupied Azerbaijani districts are so vital for Armenia's security that they must not be traded even for international recognition of Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan. As talk of a Karabakh breakthrough intensified in late October, a group of opposition politicians and intellectuals launched a new movement called Miatsum (Unification) to campaign against the return of what they call "liberated territories.""If we cede any of those lands, we will disrupt the security system that has served us well for the past 15 years and will make another war inevitable," Zaruhi Postanjian, a Miatsum leader and parliament deputy from the opposition Heritage party, told EurasiaNet. "Even if the international community recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh's independence."Significantly, government officials in Karabakh seem to share this view, raising more questions about Yerevan's ability and willingness to implement the peace formula currently on the table. Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian visited the Karabakh capital Stepanakert on December 19 to meet with the self-proclaimed republic's president, Bako Sahakian. An Armenian Foreign Ministry statement said Nalbandian briefed Sahakian on details of the Helsinki talks and discussed with the Karabakh leader other "recent developments" in the negotiating process. Sahakian's office also gave few details of the talks, saying only that the two men discussed "the current phase of the Karabakh conflict resolution." Incidentally, President Sargsyan twice traveled to Karabakh shortly before and after his last encounter with Aliyev. The secretary of Sargsyan's National Security Council, Artur Baghdasarian, has been a rare conciliatory voice in the Armenian public discourse on Karabakh dominated by outspoken nationalist figures. In a December 19 interview with the newspaper Iravunk de facto, Baghdasarian again made a case for mutual compromise with Azerbaijan, saying that it would give Armenia "unique opportunities for political and economic development." He said the Armenian leadership will not accept any agreement that stops short of legitimizing Karabakh's independence or unification with Armenia and giving the Karabakh Armenians "international security guarantees."Baghdasarian, whose Country of Law Party is also a junior partner in Armenia's ruling coalition, further confirmed Sargsyan's reported referendum pledge. "God willing, we will arrive at a mutually acceptable variant of settlement that the authorities will present to the people's judgment," he said.
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.