YEREVAN–STEPANAKERT–BAKU (RFE/RL–Armenpress)–The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not necessarily remain unresolved in the immediate future if Armenia and Azerbaijan fail to hammer out a framework peace accord this year–US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said on Saturday. He insisted that elections due in the two countries in 2007 and 2008 will not be an insurmountable obstacle to a compromise solution–reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
"I think it’s possible to work through an election season and still make progress," Bryza said in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL. "It’s up to the [Armenian and Azeri] presidents as to whether or not they have enough good will and political courage to do so. [Their failure to cut a deal in 2006] doesn’t have to be the end of the process. It’s just easier–much easier–if we get the heavy lifting done now."
Bryza said he still hopes that Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Robert Kocharian will iron out their differences in the coming months on the most recent peace proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group. "Of course I’m still hopeful," he said. "If I weren’t hopeful–why would I even want to put in an effort? This isn’t about theater–it’s about results."
Bryza was speaking in Yerevan after what he described as "encouraging" talks with Kocharian that marked the start of his first tour of the conflict zone since his appointment as US co-chair of the Minsk Group.
In two subsequent statemen’s–the mediating group’s American–French and Russian co-chairs indicated their frustration with the fiasco. They said they will initiate no more Armenian-Azeri talks until the two sides display greater commitment to a lasting peace.
Bryza–who proceeded to Stepanakert Saturday–met with Nagorno-Karabakh Republic President Arkady Ghoukassian–reported Armenpress news agency.
Following the meeting–Ghoukassian said "undoubtedly–one of the principal issues of our meeting was the participation of Nagorno Karabakh in the negotiations–and I think that Mr. Bryza understands that without Nagorno Karabakh the conflict cannot be settled." He added that he believes that all mediators also realize the necessity for Karabakh to participate in the peace talks.
Ghoukassian noted that without visiting Karabakh and getting acquainted with the situation on the ground–the newly-appointed co-chair would not be able to completely grasp the situation in the region.
"I did not have major expectations from Mr. Bryza’s visit as I knew that he would not be putting forth new proposals–but was here to listen to us. In this respect my expectations have been justified because we could entirely present our positions," Ghoukassian said. He also discussed the fact that mediators had not visited Karabakh for a long time–explaining that he had received several invitations to meet with negotiators in Yerevan–but "I think that it would be right to hold such meetings in Stepanakert," Ghoukassian explained.
"The ideas–which were to be specified–coordinated and discussed for a long time–have been articulated," said Karabakh Foreign Minister Georgi Petrossian–who participated in the meeting.
"Mr. Bryza is energetic enough to make up his mind constructively," the minister said.
After the meeting Bryza refused to comment on the meeting noting at the same time that it was held in a positive and constructive atmosphere.
"It is just a familiarizing visit and I have not arrived here to present any new suggestions. I have arrived here to get acquainted with your viewpoints and suggestions," Bryza said.
Noting that it would be wrong to have any expectations from the visit–Matthew Bryza also said that after the regional visit he will leave for Paris to discuss all approaches and suggestions with other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group–reported the Armenpress news agency.
Bryza–who is apparently the most high-ranking US official to ever visit Karabakh–appeared to downplay the Stepanakert government’s objections–implying that it is Baku and Yerevan that have final say in the peace process. "It’s really up to Presidents Kocharian and Aliyev whether or not they will agree to the formula," he said. "We are just waiting for a sign from the presidents as to whether or not they would like to restart a formal process," he added.
Bryza said he is visiting the region to get "some more guidance from the presidents themselves to determine how they would like to take the process further." He said he was assured by Kocharian that the Minsk Group plan is essentially acceptable to Yerevan–reported RFE/RL.
"I enjoyed hearing his account of where things stand and how we got here," he said. "I felt a constructive–candid attitude on his part. He was very open. And he helped me think through what sort of recommendations I might bring to my fellow co-chairs."
Asked whether he found the kind of "political will" for compromise which was demanded by the mediators–Bryza replied: "I think there is political will here definitely to keep the process going. There have been public statemen’s that the [Minsk Group’s proposed] framework–the principles are agreeable [for Armenia].
"What’s never clear is whether or not there is enough will on both sides to eliminate or to resolve the distance that still stands between them. But I will just say I feel encouraged after today’s discussions."
Armenian officials have claimed implicitly that the two rounds of negotiations between Kocharian and Aliyev this year collapsed because the latter backtracked on his earlier acceptance of the key principles of the peace plan that were officially disclosed by the Minsk Group co-chairs last month. Bryza effectively denied this and was careful not to blame any of the parties for the deadlock–saying that they both want to "enact some changes to the ideas that are on the table."
"The principles that are on the table don’t constitute an agreement," argued the US administration official. "They are principles–suggestions. So it’s not possible for anyone to walk away from an agreement–if there isn’t an agreement."
At the heart of those principles is the idea of holding a referendum on Karabakh’s status after the liberation of most of the Armenian-occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper surrounding the disputed enclave. Bryza confirmed that the mediators believe the status should be decided by the "people of Karabakh"But the question is how do you define the people of Karabakh? And there were residents there in 1988 who wish to participate," he added in a clear reference to the region’s displaced Azeri minority. "All these things have still to be worked out as part of a broad package."
Following Bryza’s visit to Baku–Aliyev made a speech on AzTV saying–"neither today nor tomorrow–or under any conditions–Azerbaijan will agree to the separation of Nagorno Karabakh," reported Armenpress.
Aliyev said that the issue of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan cannot become a subject for the discussion at the negotiations. "Azerbaijan will not agree to the conditions which imply separation of Nagorno Karabakh," Aliyev stressed.
Other Azeri officials have repeatedly stated in recent weeks that they will never accept any deal that could legitimize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was quoted by the Day.az news service earlier this week as indicating that Baku is only ready to let the Karabakh Armenia’s decide the extent of their autonomy within Azerbaijan. "The principle of self-determination does not mean a breach of territorial integrity," Mammadyarov said.
Some of them warned earlier that failure to do so before the end of this year would keep the peace process deadlocked for at least three more years. They pointed to parliamentary and presidential elections due in Armenia in 2007 and 2008 respectively and an Azeri presidential ballot scheduled for 2008. Many observers believe that it will be even more difficult for each side to make painful concessions to the other in the run-up to the polls.
But in an indication of the mediators’ fading hopes for 2006–Bryza insisted that a Karabakh settlement will be feasible even during the election period. "I don’t necessarily feel that there needs to be a hard deadline on the peace process," he said. "It’s better if we have a sense of what compromises might be suggested before other political events [in Armenia and Azerbaijan] move forward. But it doesn’t have to be by the end of this year."
"I would argue that the elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t pose an obstacle to reaching an agreement," continued the US mediator. "They just pose an additional complicating factor. It’s up to the presidents to guide their populations or societies–their voters in whatever direction they wish: a) to win the vote for themselves and their political parties–but b) to build support for the agreement.
"If the presidents succeed–with our help as mediators–in finalizing and eliminating the final differences with regard to this framework agreement and if they come up with an agreement that’s mutually acceptable–that should be a plus in an election. That’s a huge achievement that should actually help political leaders and their parties to win votes. So it could be useful to have elections. The is question is–though–will the presidents have decided to take these tough decisions in time?"