Recent comments by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan on the status of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh suggest that the peace process remains at an impasse. That, in turn, could complicate Armenian-Turkish reconciliation efforts.
In a September 21 interview with the Russian state-run RTR television channel, Sargsyan for the first time publicly voiced Yerevan's interpretation of the so-called Madrid Principles, which contain a framework for an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace pact on Karabakh.
The Principles, first proposed in late 2007 by mediators Russia, France and the United States, call for the return of Armenian-occupied regions surrounding Karabakh to Azerbaijan control; the return of Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to Karabakh; and, finally, an agreement on a mechanism, likely a referendum, to decide on the territory's future status.
Sargsyan made clear that Armenia sees these steps happening in the reverse order; namely, that both the handover of regions bordering Karabakh to Azerbaijan and the return of Azerbaijani IDPs can occur only after Karabakh's final status is determined. To support his position, Sargsyan argued that allowing IDPs to return before a determination of the territory's status was made "would cause new clashes."
Sargsyan described the Madrid Principles as "the holding of a referendum to define the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the return to Azerbaijani control those territories which you named [as under Armenian army control] and which Karabakh and we both call the 'security zone,' and the normalization of all our relations."
"My position has been expressed many times, including to [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev and to the co-chairs [of the Minsk Group overseeing the talks], and it amounts to the following. Of course, the Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh have the complete right to return to their native places, their places of residence, but they can do this after the final definition of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh," Sargsyan said. "Why? Because there has not yet been a single similar conflict where the return of refugees ahead of time did not cause new clashes. And we are heading toward a resolution -- for the purpose of what? For the purpose of peace, of stability, so that each person will know where he will live."
Sargsyan expressed thanks to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who, according to Sargsyan, had helped President Aliyev and him "almost agree on the first point," which the Armenian leader earlier listed as "the holding of a referendum to define the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh."
How Sargsyan's comments will impact Armenia's budding reconciliation with Turkey remains unclear. Turkish officials have repeatedly stressed that Turkey will reopen its border with Armenia only if progress acceptable to Baku is made on a Karabakh peace pact. Ankara closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to support Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia over the territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"We will not take steps contradicting Azerbaijan's interests," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a September 28 interview with Azerbaijan's Trend news agency. "We can accelerate the process of the adoption of the agreement [with Armenia], but that will depend on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."
On October 10, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian are scheduled to sign protocols that set the stage for reopening the Turkish-Armenian border and reestablishing diplomatic ties. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turkish officials, to date, have not reacted publicly to Sargsyan's RTR comments.
Azerbaijani leaders, however, have indicated that Sargsyan's position is a non-starter with Baku. In an interview with RTR during the summer, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev asserted that if the issue of Karabakh's final status "is brought up again as a precondition for coordination of positions, we will not achieve anything."
Aliyev named the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the regions bordering Karabakh as "the first step." Discussion of Karabakh's final status can occur only after Azerbaijani IDPs return to the territory, he emphasized.
Armenian officials have long insisted that the two issues -- the Karabakh peace process and Turkish reconciliation efforts -- are separate. The Minsk Group, the triumvirate of Russian, American and French envoys overseeing the Karabakh negotiations, has echoed that assessment.
Armenia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on Sargsyan's comments to RTR. "I can only remind you that Armenia has always stressed that the core of the Karabakh problem is the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh's status," said ministry spokesperson Tigran Balaian. The idea that a withdrawal should take priority over determining Karabakh's status is only the Azerbaijani point of view, and one that is "not necessarily shared" by Armenia, he added.
Many Armenians continue to worry that the agreement on reconciliation with Turkey includes a "hidden" condition that Armenia makes Karabakh concessions. Sargsyan has dismissed that fear as groundless.
One political analyst termed Sargsyan's interpretation of the Madrid Principles "quite natural."
"The Madrid Principles by themselves are a very vague document and allow [for] different interpretations," said Alexander Iskandarian, director of Yerevan's Caucasus Institute. "There is no surprise that the sides interpret it in such a different manner."
"I think that the Karabakh settlement process has its own logic, and it can be accelerated or delayed artificially," he continued.
Other aspects of the Karabakh talks also appear open to differing interpretations. Speaking with members of Armenian Diaspora in Paris on October 2, President Sargsyan stated that finding a resolution to the Karabakh problem "still requires significant work." Reason exists "to believe that signing an agreement about the resolution of this problem is not realistic," Armenian news agencies quoted him as saying.
On the same day, speaking in Nakhichivan City in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani President Aliyev told Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev that talks with Armenia about Nagorno-Karabakh "are in their final stage."
The two leaders will meet on October 8 in Chisinau, Moldova, for additional discussions on the Karabakh issue.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is an editor and freelance writer based in Yerevan.