Expectations are building that a May 7 meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev could boost the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. But amid much diplomatic maneuvering between Yerevan and Baku, a new, complicating factor has surfaced -- evidence of discord among Armenian leaders in Armenia proper and in Karabakh.
The precise views of Karabakh leaders on the peace process are hard to discern. But it seems clear that they are not enthusiastic supporters of the so-called Madrid principles, a framework for the talks that was developed after a 2007 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Madrid. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On April 29, during a question-and-answer session at the unrecognized Karabakh Republic's National Assembly, the territory's de facto foreign minister, Georgi Petrosian, announced that "it is not a secret that Karabakh categorically disagrees with some points of the Madrid principles."
The Madrid principles, proposed by the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, which mediates talks on the conflict, outline a step-by-step process for the resolution of the conflict. Those steps include: the deployment of international peacekeepers; the withdrawal of Armenian and Karabakh forces from Azerbaijani territory that borders on Karabakh; the return of displaced residents; and, then, a vote within Karabakh on the territory's political status. The reopening of highways and trade routes leading to the territory is the final step.
The news of strong opposition to the Madrid principles within Karabakh poses an obvious challenge for the peace process, but it has not been extensively covered in the regional press. Only two Yerevan-based newspapers, Haykakan Zhamanak and Aravot, reported the statement on April 30. (A Russian-language version of the Aravot material can be found here)
According to Aravot, Georgi Petrosian affirmed that Karabakh leaders have no intention of backing away from their longstanding position that the self-declared Karabakh Republic should exist as an independent state. "We may even have made our position somewhat stronger," the newspaper quoted Petrosian as saying.
Petrosian declined to comment on the issue during an interview with a EurasiaNet correspondent.
Gegham Baghdasarian, an independent parliamentarian in Karabakh's National Assembly, commented, however, that the April 29 session constituted an expression of growing discontent in Stepanakert. Many politicians there are disgruntled that they have no official role in the peace talks.
Karabakh was removed from the negotiations in 1998, when Robert Kocharian, the erstwhile self-declared republic's leader, became president of Armenia. From that point, Armenia was said to represent the interests of Karabakh at the talks.
Although the negotiations now involve only Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Minsk Group co-chairs (representing Russia, France and the US) regularly visit Stepanakert, and have met with the territory's de facto leadership.
Baghdasarian noted that the Karabakh government's discontent was expressed at a more senior level after its current president, Bako Sahakian, was elected in 2007. (Baghdasarian worked on the campaign of Sahakian's main presidential rival, Masis Mailian, Karabakh's former de facto deputy foreign minister).
In particular, it was stressed that the occupied Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh are, according to the territory's constitution, a security zone. The Madrid principles, though, envisage the withdrawal of troops from this area.
Representatives of Armenia's Foreign Ministry were not immediately available to comment on the apparent policy differences between Yerevan and Stepanakert. Minsk Group representatives could also not be reached for comment.
Vladimir Kazimirov, who served as the Russian envoy for the Karabakh talks from 1992 to 1996, suggested that differences between Yerevan and Stepanakert had the potential to complicate the peace process at a delicate stage. "In the 1990s there were cases when Yerevan and Stepanakert had different positions on the process," Kazimirov told EurasiaNet. "I believe that now, too, Yerevan should not ignore the specific attitude of Stepanakert."
Meanwhile, events in Karabakh took another unexpected turn in early May. A May 4 special parliamentary session that was to outline the region's position on the Armenia-Azerbaijan talks was postponed when just over half of the 20 expected deputies failed to show.
Baghdasarian, the Karabakh representative, attributed the postponement to outside pressure. He did not exclude the possibility that the source of the pressure came from Yerevan. "Evidently, the resources of Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) for an autonomous policy are still limited," Baghdasarian said.
On May 5, however, Haykakan Zhamanak quoted several other Karabakh parliamentarians as saying that the session's delay was a "technical one," and that the special session of the parliament would be held later.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is an editor and freelance writer based in Yerevan.