As the anti-terrorism campaign builds in Central Asia, diplomats are pressing to reinvigorate peace talks to settle the long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus. An altered regional geopolitical reality has created "new perspectives," increasing optimism that a breakthrough can be achieved, according to a top US official involved in Karabakh negotiations.
The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is spearheading the search for a Karabakh settlement, are visiting the region to gauge peace possibilities. On November 4, the co-chairs met with Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev, who repeated calls for an equitable peace deal.
The security challenges posed by the September 11 terrorist attacks increase the importance of resolving regional conflicts, said Rudolf Perina, the newly appointed American co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. Prior to embarking on the fact-finding mission, Perina told journalists that "new perspectives have opened for us to commence new work in the region."
Russian Co-chair, Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov said mediators are intent on putting an end to the "'neither peace, nor war' situation, and reach a fair settlement of the conflict," the Interfax news agency reported November 5.
The lack of a Karabakh settlement has been a major source of instability in the Caucasus, diverting attention and resources away from economic development issues in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In addition, the Karabakh question constitutes a major obstacle to the development of Caspian Basin natural resources, especially the construction of the US-supported pipeline, known as Baku-Ceyhan. And, according to Perina, "stability is a major factor for success in the fight against terrorism."
Sources in Armenia and Azerbaijan report that Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Aliyev are willing to reopen talks, even though neither side reportedly seems prepared at this time to make any new proposal that could break the existing deadlock.
The chief stumbling block to a settlement is the political status of Karabakh. Armenia says any settlement must leave Karabakh independent of Azerbaijan. Baku, meanwhile, has offered Karabakh broad autonomy, but has insisted that the region remain under Azerbaijani jurisdiction.
Trubnikov told the ITAR-TASS news agency that the Minsk Group was maintaining the parameters for a Karabakh settlement as discussed during summit meetings earlier in 2001 in Paris and Key West, Florida. He said Kocharian and Aliyev must now demonstrate "civil courage to settle for a compromise." The Minsk group is co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.
Perina said the United States considers Nagorno-Karabakh an integral part of Azerbaijan, adding that other states involved in the Minsk Group peace process felt the same way.
On October 31, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe issued a joint statement that urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to renew efforts to reach a political settlement on Karabakh. The statement cautioned Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to avoid "moves that might lead away from a peaceful resolution" of the Karabakh issue.
In recent weeks, officials in Baku have warned that Azerbaijan may opt to resume hostilities if negotiations continue to show no signs of progress. During the talks with Minsk Group officials, Aliyev reportedly repeated the threat to restart the war.
US lawmakers have sought to mollify Azerbaijan by voting to lift trade restrictions against Baku, known as Section 907. Meanwhile, Perina downplayed the notion that renewed fighting would result in Azerbaijan's reconquest of Karabakh. The US envoy attributed Azerbaijan's bellicose statements to "disappointment over the unsuccessful talks."
According to a public opinion survey of 196 Azerbaijanis conducted by the Ekho newspaper in Baku, almost two-thirds of those questioned said they didn't believe the Aliyev government's threats about resuming the Karabakh war.
Konul Khalilova is a freelance journalist based in Baku.