Optimism on a breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2001 proved premature. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now reluctant to even engage in confidence-building measures.
Early in 2001 many experts believed that a lasting settlement to the Karabakh question could be achieved during the year. These hopes were fueled by the intensive activity of the Minsk Group co-chairs - the United States, Russia and France. Following an April summit in Key West, Florida, it appeared that a peace deal was imminent. But negotiations quickly lost momentum and the Karabakh question faded from the forefront of international attention following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan is continuing, but no progress is being made. During their latest meeting at the November 30 CIS summit in Moscow, Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliyev, did not hold in-depth discussions on Karabakh
During the Karabakh conflict, which raged from 1988-94, Armenian separatists decisively defeated the Azerbaijani forces, securing de facto independence for the enclave, as well as occupying large swathes of Azerbaijan to serve as a buffer zone. Since the end of actual fighting, the two countries have been unable to agree on a political settlement on Karabakh.
Karabakh's status remains a major point of contention. Azerbaijan has offered Karabakh broad autonomy, but maintains that the enclave should fall under Baku's jurisdiction. Armenia regards any confederal relationship between Azerbaijan and Karabakh as untenable - a position based on a 1992 parliamentary resolution.
Under that resolution, Armenia cannot agree to any peace settlement concerning Karabakh without the consent of the unrecognized republic's leaders. The enclave's officials are unlikely to approve of any deal that leaves the territory under Azerbaijani authority. Karabakh leaders assert that the enclave has never been a part of independent Azerbaijan. Their argument follows that Karabakh was joined to Soviet Azerbaijan by an illegal decision made by the Stalin-era Communist Party. They add that Karabakh declared its independence in a December 1991 referendum, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At this point, neither Armenia, nor Azerbaijan seem prepared for what Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, termed as "painful compromises."
From the Armenian standpoint, compromising could create considerable domestic difficulties for Kocharian, himself a former Karabakh leader whose tough stance on the issue helped him defeat Levon Ter-Petrossian in Armenia's 1998 presidential election. At present, Kocharian faces considerable domestic opposition. But Armenian leaders from across the political spectrum are united on the Karabakh issue. Thus, Kocharian would likely suffer politically if the government softened its stance on Karabakh.
Several organizations criticized Kocharian for his readiness to withdraw, in case of settlement, from the occupied Azerbaijan territories outside the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. According to these organizations, these territories are, like Karabakh itself, former Armenian lands. Hence, the occupied territories should be named "liberated." Only a small group of politicians, mainly associated with the Armenian National Movement, the party of Ter-Petrossian, want Kocharian to make concessions.
Given the current deadlock, some observers say a comprehensive settlement now appears unachievable. In a recent newspaper interview, Vladimir Kazimirov, Russia's former special envoy on Karabakh, called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to take unilateral steps that could build trust. Some Armenian observers say Azerbaijan could improve the negotiating climate by establishing contacts with Karabakh leaders. Baku so far has been reluctant to open such contacts out of concern that they would constitute tacit recognition of Karabakh's independence.Armenian experts also suggest that Azerbaijan could build trust by elaborating the framework for broad autonomy that it has pledged to give Karabakh.
Even if Azerbaijan were to take such steps, they might not break the current stalemate. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Armenian-Azerbaijani relations have deteriorated sharply. Each country has accused the other of supporting terrorism. Armenian and Karabakh authorities cite reports that Chechen and Afghan militants fought on the Azerbaijani side during the Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani officials claim that Nagorno Karabakh has developed into a drug trafficking center.
The only positive aspect concerning the search for Karabakh peace is that both sides have repeatedly confirmed a desire to reach a peaceful solution. In recent months, Azerbaijani leaders, including Aliyev, have warned that a resumption of hostilities could not be excluded. However, most Karabakh observers say the chances of renewed warfare are slim to nonexistent.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.