First published in October 18, 2008 Armenian Reporter.
Armenia takes issue with Bush administration’s rhetoric on Karabakh
Recently modified language prioritizes “territorial integrity”
by Emil Sanamyan
U.S. vice president Dick Cheney with Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian of Armenia with translators in Washington on October 10, 2008. Armenian government photo
Washington - In a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington on October 10, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian raised concerns on behalf of Armenia over the recently modified rhetoric of U.S. officials on Nagorno-Karabakh, the prime minister's office reported.
It is "extremely dangerous" to emphasize the principle of territorial integrity at the expense of self-determination when it comes to Karabakh, Mr. Sarkisian told Mr. Cheney in what amounted to the first publicly reported criticism of the revised U.S. policy language by Armenia.
The prime minister was referring, in particular, to remarks delivered in Baku by Mr. Cheney that a Karabakh settlement "must proceed" from the principle of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and only then "take into account other principles." The remarks were apparently drafted by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, which mediates in the Karabakh negotiations.
"If territorial integrity is prioritized, the peace process - all of the work the mediators have done - becomes meaningless," Prime Minister Sarkisian told the Armenian Reporter on October 14. "And this also provokes [Azerbaijan] toward war."
According to Mr. Sarkisian, Mr. Cheney in response reiterated U.S. support for the peace process.
Evolution of the peace process
According to sources familiar with the details of the peace process, since 1999 its focus has been on ways that would formalize Karabakh's separation from Azerbaijan and reunification with Armenia.
But with Azerbaijan increasingly belligerent, the Karabakh talks in recent years have shifted toward a "postponed status" for Karabakh, with an increasingly vague definition of a mechanism for determination of this status.
Still, while the United States has always voiced support for the principle of territorial integrity with regard to former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, it has also mentioned the need to reconcile that principle with other principles.
For example in an August 6, 2007, interview with Russia's Vremya Novostei newspaper, Mr. Bryza noted, "There are three main principles that influence our talks [on Karabakh]: refusal to apply force, recognition of the territorial integrity of the states, and the right for self-determination.
"A compromise should be found among these principles," he said, and added, "I represent [the United States,] a country founded by separatists."
In the case of Georgia, a close U.S. ally, the United States has spoken openly in support of Tbilisi's claims on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But U.S. officials - up until recently - have been careful not to use language that could be deemed to be prejudging the outcome of the talks on Karabakh's status.
As Azerbaijan continues to lobby for international support for its claim on Karabakh, Azerbaijani officials have become increasingly wary about international developments.
In February, the Azerbaijani government called the U.S. recognition of Kosovo "illegal" and pulled its troops from the NATO peacekeeping mission there.
Azerbaijanis were outraged by the U.S. vote against the UN General Assembly resolution on Karabakh proposed by Azerbaijan last March. Mr. Bryza told Azerbaijani media that the decision to oppose the resolution was one he "agonized and lost sleep over."
Adding to Azerbaijan's worries is the pledge of presidential candidate Barack Obama to work toward a Karabakh settlement "based upon America's founding commitment to the principles of democracy and self determination."
The Russian-Georgian military clash in August has also made the threat of Azerbaijani attack in Karabakh - its biggest leverage in talks - less credible.
The latest upset came with the decision of Turkey's president to visit Armenia last month; a number of current and former Azerbaijani officials portrayed this move as a "betrayal" of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan's "endangerment" and permutations of U.S. rhetoric
President Ilham Aliyev rushed to Moscow to pledge his loyalty soon after the Georgia war and the visit of the president of Turkey to Armenia.
Intimidated by Russia's military operations in Georgia, Azerbaijani officials began to suggest that they may reroute their energy exports, particularly natural gas, via Russia.
It has been a longstanding U.S. goal to challenge Russia's dominance of gas supplies to Europe. Azerbaijan, along with Georgia, provides a key transit corridor for that effort.
"If Azerbaijan tilts to Russia there goes 15 years of U.S. energy diplomacy," a Western diplomat based in Baku told Britain's Daily Telegraph on September 2.
In response, the United States appears to have sought to encourage Azerbaijan, which, in the words of Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried, was "endangered" in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war.
The first signs that U.S. officials were reconsidering their Karabakh policy language came on August 19. In a State Department press conference, Mr. Bryza said, "the principle of territorial integrity occupies the highest priority when we begin the process of conflict resolution, separatist conflict resolution. It simply is the fact of international law."
But, he quickly added, "If the two sides decide that they can reach a compromise that incorporates other elements of international diplomatic practice or international law like self-determination of peoples, terrific.
"That is what we want to do in the case of Karabakh: have a negotiated political settlement that takes into account both of these principles," he said.
New rhetoric unveiled
The new language was annunciated by Vice President Cheney during his visit to Baku on September 3, in which he sought to shore up Azerbaijan's confidence in Western support.
In comments during that reportedly less-than-successful trip, Mr. Cheney went beyond the usual endorsement of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity by saying that the United States is "committed to achieving a negotiated solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - a solution that starts with the principle of territorial integrity, and takes into account other international principles." Mr. Cheney and other U.S. officials since have not spelled what these other principles are.
Mr. Bryza then repeated this new language to Armenia's Mediamax news agency on September 5 and at the congressional Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe on September 10.
In written testimony submitted for that hearing, Mr. Bryza spoke of "a just and lasting settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that proceeds from the principle of our support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and ultimately incorporates other elements of international law and diplomatic practice."
Armenian officials did not react publicly at that time. Nor did Congress. During a subsequent trip to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in mid-September, Mr. Bryza encountered no public rebuke.
Then, on October 9, Mr. Bryza took an additional rhetorical step. In an interview with the BBC's Russian-language service, he went so far as to suggest that Armenia should first recognize Azerbaijan's territorial integrity before a settlement on the Karabakh conflict is finalized.
Prime Minister Sarkisian delivered a public rebuff of U.S. policy the next day.
On October 13, Mr. Bryza's latest remarks were also blasted by Ken Hachikian, chairperson of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), as a "retreat from principle" in U.S. policy and "absolutely wrong."
Ross Vartian, executive director of the U.S.-Armenia Public Affairs Committee (USAPAC), told the Armenian Reporter, "United States emphasis of territorial integrity over self-determination does not serve the cause of a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
"Instead of confronting Azerbaijan's war preparation and threats, the United States appeases," Mr. Vartian charged.
N.B. During his visit to Yerevan on October 17, Mr. Fried was asked about Mr. Cheney's remarks and Armenian reaction by the Armenian Reporter's Armen Hakobyan (transcript follows):
Hakobyan: During his meeting with Vice President Cheney the prime minister referred to the vice president's statement about the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan being the basic principle, and said that statement was dangerous; focusing on this principle, other principles are not taken into consideration. Having in mind that the statement had come from the American co-chair, Matthew Bryza, as a representative of a co-chair country, what are you doing about that danger and about making room for another important principle, self-determination?
Dan Fried in Yerevan on Oct. 17
Fried: Well, I'm happy to tell you that some of the media reports of what my friend and colleague Matt Bryza said were not entirely accurate. We have always believed and we believe now that territorial integrity is an important principle. We even say that we start with this principle. We have not ever said it is the only principle, and indeed it is not. Territorial integrity is a recognized principle of international law. There are other principles, such as self-determination.
Now, we all know what we're talking about here. Bringing these principles together, reconciling these principles is extremely difficult and complicated. The Minsk Group process has been working on these issues for some time. The process has made some real progress. We are going to build on that process – on that progress if we can. We will work with the governments [sic] of Azerbaijan, with the government of Armenia, and the co-chairs are prepared to work together.
It is important to actually find a settlement. Scoring debating points, one side, the other, advantage here, advantage there, well that's fine, but it doesn't take us where we need to go. We need to try to solve these regional problems and not debate them. This is serious business. We cannot continue to live with this situation of tension and occasional incidents of shooting.
The people of Azerbaijan, the people of Armenia, the people of the occupied territories, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh all deserve better. And I look forward to working with the Minsk Group and trying to push forward a solution as soon as we can.
N.B.-2 While Mr. Fried and others at the State Department have implied that Mr. Bryza's comments to BBC Russian were misconstrued, the remarks were made in Russian and their recording is available here http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/russian/international/newsid_7661000/7661150.stm
Mr. Bryza was interviewed by BBC's Mark Grigorian whose own comment on the issue is available here: http://markgrigorian.livejournal.com/249429.html?thread=8577877#t8577877