Thursday, 23 June 2011

‘Last chance’ on Karabakh peace plan in Kazan?

Seasoned Karabakh-watchers could be forgiven for thinking that the wave of speculation and anticipation about a forthcoming trilateral meeting in Kazan between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents is just grist to the mill. 

Before every major summit to resolve the twenty-year old conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, local news agencies are filled with commentaries predicting a 'breakthrough'. Then the meeting is held, a terse handshake is photographed, 'significant progress' is recorded towards agreeing on the Basic Principles for settling the conflict... and then both sides resume their sniping at each other, both literal and metaphorical.

But the Kazan meeting, due tomorrow, will be different - apparently. For one thing, the OSCE Minsk Group, tasked with resolving the conflict, has warned that if the Basic Principles are not fully accepted by both sides in Kazan, "the mediators will have to put forward a new settlement concept." This is hardly much of an admonishment. In fact both Baku and Yerevan may be more inclined to hold out on the Basic Principles if they think they can get a new settlement framework which would be more beneficial for them.

Another supposed difference: both sides are putting out unusually positive statements about the odds of progress. Both Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian have circulated statements indicating that this time there really is a chance for a deal. This is hardly new. An optimistic attitude was seen before Key West in 2001, Paris in 2005, Moscow in 2008, and almost every summit before and since. Moscow in 2008 even saw both presidents putting their signatures to a document for the first time since 1994. Nothing changed.

Apparently Azerbaijan and Armenia have, in the past, come very close to agreeing on the wording of the preamble to the Basic Principles. But 'close' is not enough, and without proof, that encouraging word does not mean a lot. The document has remained unsigned. The process of negotiation is undertaken so secretively and with so much conflicting information from local media that actually parsing the stance of Baku and Yerevan is very difficult. Officials from both sides have repeatedly denied the claims trotted out by their counterparts across the Line of Contact.

Kazan might, just might, be different. In two days time the signatures of Aliyev and Sarkisian could be on the Basic Principles and a photo-shoot may have proclaimed the need to turn the page and make peace in the Caucasus. But as the failed protocols between Turkey and Armenia show, a signature is not enough. And it's not clear whether the Kazan summit will even get that.

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