Emil Sanamyan's articles on Armenian-Americans, Armenia and its neighborhood.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Karabakh talks and fate of Serge's presidency

Madrid principles put Armenia on verge of Lisbon 2
Diplomatic setback could lead to domestic crisis
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Saturday July 18, 2009


WASHINGTON - The long-running Karabakh conflict and the associated peace process have captured unusual levels of attention from global and regional leaders in recent months and weeks.

This increased attention brought about the Moscow declaration on Karabakh made by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia last November, the first declaration of its kind since 1992.

And, last week, the statement by the presidents of France, Russia, and the United States at the G8 Summit became the first such statement since 1997.

The troika statement also provided the outline of the so-called updated Madrid Document outlining the Basic Principles of a settlement that leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan were urged to finalize.

While the fundamental issue at the core of the conflict - Karabakh's status - is no closer to resolution, a certain confluence of circumstances has put the recent negotiations on a track that could precipitate a serious domestic challenge for President Serge Sargsian(pictured this week) and the administration he leads.

Key figures in both Stepanakert and Yerevan have already indicated opposition to the principles outlined in the updated Madrid principles and to the Armenian government's overall approach to talks with Azerbaijan as well as Turkey.

Pyrenean prequel

The Madrid principles are so known because they were initially submitted to the parties by French, Russian, and U.S. negotiators at the ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held in the Spanish capital in November 2007.

Eleven years earlier, it was in Lisbon, the other capital on the Iberian or, as it is also known, Pyrenean peninsula, where Armenia's diplomacy suffered one of its worst defeats.

At the OSCE summit held in December 1996, Armenia had to threaten its right to veto of the summit declaration because it included a reference supporting Azerbaijan's claim on Karabakh. As a result, a statement by an OSCE chairman-in-office that contained that endorsement was issued instead.

Six months later, at the G8 summit in Denver, leaders of France, Russia, and the United States issued a joint statement that essentially endorsed the Lisbon approach.

By the fall of 1997, then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian appeared diplomatically defeated and agreed to a plan that would have Armenian forces pull out from parts of Karabakh in exchange for international security guarantees, but without addressing the final status of Karabakh.

But Azerbaijan's Pyrenean victory proved a Pyrrhic one. In February 1998, Mr. Ter-Petrossian was forced to resign by key members of his government opposed to the proposed pullout.

Mediation pendulum

Since the 1990s there has been a significant shift in how the U.S.-led international community approaches the Karabakh conflict. In large part, that shift was precipitated by President Robert Kocharian, who, unlike his predecessor, publicly insisted on a settlement that would formalize the existing "non-subordination" of Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

If in the past, mediators sought to find mechanisms to place Karabakh inside Azerbaijan as a self-governing state entity, for most of the last decade the focus shifted to finding mechanisms to formalize Karabakh's factual independence from Azerbaijan. That was the focus of talks at the summit in Key West and throughout the subsequent Prague process.

But in a departure from the policies of his father and predecessor Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev took a progressively tougher policy line, demanding unilateral Armenian concessions and ruling out Azerbaijani acquiescence to Karabakh's de facto separation from Azerbaijan.

The diplomatic pendulum began to swing away from Armenian preferences.

A key indication of this shift came after the August war between Russia and Georgia last year. As part of a response to a conflict that threatened to undermine U.S. influence, State Department officials sought to shore up ties with Azerbaijan by putting greater emphasis on Azerbaijan's territorial integrity in U.S. policy language on Karabakh.

According to available reports, since their original submission in 2007, the Madrid principles have gone through significant mutations. Specifically, the mechanism and timing for the determination of Nagorno-Karabakh's final status have been further watered down.

Thus, for the first time in more than a decade, mediators have offered a proposal that is more acceptable to Azerbaijan than to Armenia. From an Armenian perspective, they present only a cosmetic improvement over the 1997 "stage-by-stage" plan that ended Mr. Ter-Petrossian's presidency.

Lisbon redux?

While the proposal itself does not necessarily augur changes for the situation on the ground, it does represent a significant diplomatic setback for Armenia.

In addition to Azerbaijani activism on Karabakh, this setback can be traced to miscalculations by Armenia's leadership that are now proving costly.

Since taking office last year President Sargsian launched a diplomatic initiative with Turkey - where Armenia has few ways to leverage a positive outcome - rather than on Karabakh, where Armenians have advantages on the ground, as well as the recent precedents in Kosovo and Ossetia.

Similarly, rather than seeking to win international recognition of Karabakh immediately after its declaration of independence, the Ter-Petrossian administration focused on trying to establish relations with Turkey "without preconditions," a policy that proved fruitless.

In recent months, Turkish diplomats appear to have successfully translated international interest in seeing Armenian-Turkish issues resolved into interest in the "parallel" track in the Karabakh negotiations, but now on terms that are more favorable to Azerbaijan.

Like the Bush administration eight years ago, the Obama administration is seeking to win an early diplomatic success. And an agreement on "basic principles," independent of their substance and without an actual resolution, could well be sold as such a success.

Whether or not President Sargsian accedes to the "basic principles," Azerbaijan will seek to develop its diplomatic success. With Turkey presiding at the United Nations Security Council, it may well initiate discussions of the Karabakh conflict there for the first time since the 1990s, and try to use that as a leverage that could continue to stall the campaign for recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

What could come next

Judging from President Ter-Petrossian's experience, President Sargsian's next policy steps could have consequences for his ability to govern Armenia. The Armenian leadership is by no means monolithic, and signs of potential troubles for Mr. Sargsian are already becoming apparent.

On July 9 Karabakh army commander General Movses Hakobian(pictured) told visiting Yerevan journalists that Armenia - led by President Sargsian - was pursuing a "defeatist" policy on Karabakh, News.am and Regnum.ru reported.

The last time a top military officer registered public disagreement with political leadership in Yerevan was in 1997, when the Karabakh commander at the time, Gen. Samvel Babayan, warned President Ter-Petrossian against committing to compromises. Mr. Ter-Petrossian resigned weeks after Armenia's defense minister at the time, Vazgen Sargsian, expressed opposition to his line on Karabakh.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation and elements of the political opposition have already called on President Sargsian to sack Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian, whom they want to see blamed for "mishandling" of the negotiations with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh's Foreign Ministry issued a statement registering public disagreement with Mr. Nalbandian's positive assessment of the Madrid principles and, borrowing a term from the Obama administration, urging a "reset" in the mediators' approach to the Karabakh peace process.

It is quite conceivable that should Mr. Sargsian continue to push the "principles," even officials at the most senior levels of government in Yerevan could potentially abandon and even challenge him in the manner that precipitated Mr. Ter-Petrossian's resignation.

While the list of analogies between 1997 and 2009 is quite extensive (including challenging elections that preceded both years), there are also differences.

Unlike Mr. Ter-Petrossian, Mr. Sargsian is known for his flexible political style that leaves open an opportunity for a new policy direction under his leadership.

The geography of the Karabakh peace process

Even for those following the Karabakh negotiations closely, the convoluted jargon developed in the peace process can sound like a geography quiz.

In the last several years alone, the Minsk Group troika went through the Prague process and Rambouillet round to develop the Madrid principles only to see Russia seal a Meiendorf declaration.

The geographic associations help provide some organization to the long process and also add color to otherwise repetitive protocol events.

Below is the geography of the main stages of the Karabakh peace process:

1991 - Zheleznovodsk (Russia) declaration
1992 - Minsk Group launched
1992 - Tehran declaration
1992 - Villa Madama (Rome, Italy) talks commence
1994 - Bishkek protocol signed
1994 - Budapest summit declaration
1996 - Lisbon summit statement
1997 - Denver statement
2001 - Key West summit
2004 - Prague process begins
2006 - Rambouillet round held
2007 - Madrid principles submitted
2008 - Meiendorf (Moscow) declaration
2009 - L'Aquila (Italy) statement

Negotiations on Karabakh could be illustrated as a simple pendulum moving back and forth from the point of rest at 3, equivalent to the status quo. In that case 1 could represent a return to status quo ante before the conflict (Karabakh inside Azerbaijan); 2, a transitional point in such a return, such as the 1997 "stage-by-stage" proposal or the Madrid principles; 5, formalization of Karabakh's separation from Azerbaijan; and 4, a transitional point to such an eventuality that a new referendum on status or unilateral recognition of Karabakh's independence could provide. Emil Sanamyan

Editor's note: For a discussion of the various stages of the negotiations, with a helpful table, see Tatul Hakobyan's "Mediators play down prospects of early Karabakh settlement

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