STEPANAKERT, YEREVAN, BAKU (RFE/RL)—International mediators voiced misgivings about the planned launch of commercial flights from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday as they visited Stepanakert at the start of a new round of regional shuttle diplomacy.
“We think that the launch of the [Stepanakert] airport in the existing situation can cause tension in relations between the parties,” said Igor Popov, a Russian diplomat co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group along with fellow envoys from the United States and France.
“At the same time we think that the issue should be settled through diplomatic means based on the existing [international] experience,” Popov told journalists after the co-chairs held talks with Bako Sahakian, the president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly condemned the plans by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s leadership to reopen the newly reconstructed Stepanakert airport for flights to Yerevan, saying that they would violate its internationally recognized sovereignty over Karabakh. Earlier this month, Baku renewed its threats to forcibly halt those flights.
The authorities in Stepanakert and Yerevan brushed aside the threats, warning of retaliatory military action.
The U.S. responded by urging both sides on November 2 to seek a “diplomatic solution” to the potentially dangerous row “in keeping with the relevant international agreements.” A State Department spokeswoman also cited statements on the issue that were made by the Minsk Group co-chairs earlier this year.
In one such statement issued in July, the mediators said they “received renewed assurances from the sides that they will reject any threat or use of force against civil aircraft, pursue the matter through diplomatic steps, and refrain from politicizing the issue.”
The mediating troika began its latest tour of the Karabakh conflict zone nearly one month after hosting renewed negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. The ministers met in Paris for the first time since an international scandal sparked by the release from prison of an Azerbaijani army officer who hacked to death an Armenian colleague in Hungary.
The co-chairs said after the Paris talks that they presented the sides with an unspecified “working proposal to advance the peace process.” “The Ministers and the Co-Chairs agreed to a further discussion of these ideas during the Co-Chairs’ visit to the region in November,” they said in a statement.
Popov and his U.S. counterpart, Robert Bradtke, refused to divulge any details of that proposal after the Stepanakert talks. Bradtke said only that Washington remains “strongly committed to doing what it can to assist in the peace process.”
Sahakian was quoted by his press office as telling the mediators that the conflict can be resolved only if they focus on its “causes, rather than consequences.” “Any attempt to return to the past would be doomed to fail,” he said.
The mediators did not shed more light on the uncertain future of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process on Friday after meeting with Armenian leaders in Yerevan on the second leg of their latest tour of the region.
The three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group held separate talks with President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian the day after their visit to Stepanakert.
Bradtke told reporters that they had “a lot to discuss” with Sarkisian and Nalbandian. In particular, he said, they spoke about new “ideas” which the mediators presented to Nalbandian and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov at their most recent meeting held in Paris late last month. Bradtke again declined to elaborate on those proposals that are meant to kick-start the frozen peace process.
“Let’s wait and see how events develop,” Popov said for his part.
Sarkisian’s press office gave no details of the talks. It said only that they focused on “issues relating to the current stage of the negotiating process and further steps.”
The Armenian Foreign Ministry, for its part, said Nalbandian complained to Bradtke, Russia’s Igor Popov and France’s Jacques Faure about continuing “provocative statements” made by Azerbaijani leaders. “As much as they are intended for internal use, they cause serious damage to the negotiating process and escalate the situation in the region,” he was cited as saying.
Nalbandian appeared to refer to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s November 16 speech in which he branded Armenia a “colony” created on “ancient Azerbaijani lands” and run from abroad. “We will continue our efforts to isolate Armenia,” Aliyev said.
According to a Foreign Ministry statement, the co-chairs also discussed the possibility of arranging another meeting between Nalbandian and Mammadyarov on the sidelines of an OSCE ministerial conference which is due to take place in Dublin next month.
Popov indicated that the mediators will not seek to organize fresh meetings between Aliyev and Sarkisian in the months ahead. “Negotiations are currently taking place at the level of the foreign ministers,” he said. “I think that process will continue at the ministerial level at least in the coming months.”
The mediators ended their fresh tour of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone in Baku on Monday with no indication of any progress towards an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord.
The U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov after similar talks held in Stepanakert and Yerevan late last week. Official Azerbaijani sources reported no details of those meetings.
In an ensuing joint statement on their latest round of shuttle diplomacy, Bradtke, Popov and Faure said, “The Co-Chairs reviewed with Presidents Sarkisian and Aliyev the results of the separate meetings they held with Foreign Ministers [Edward] Nalbandian and Mammadyarov in August and September, and discussed the ideas on the continuation of the peace process that they had presented to the Ministers in their joint meeting on October 27.”
“The sides agreed to carry out further work on the level of the Foreign Ministers,” added the statement.
Faure told the Azerbaijani APA news agency that the two foreign ministers could meet on the sidelines of an OSCE ministerial conference in Dublin next week or elsewhere “at the beginning of next year.” “The bottom line is that the ministers are ready to continue working on the conflict’s peaceful resolution,” said the French diplomat.
According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, the co-chairs discussed the possibility of a Mammadyarov-Nalbandian meeting in the Irish capital when they met with the Armenian foreign minister in Yerevan on Friday. Popov indicated after that meeting that they will not seek to organize fresh meetings between Aliyev and Sarkisian in the months ahead.