YEREVAN (Eurasianet.org)–A heated political debate in Armenia over a joint statement by US President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicholas Sarkozy about the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has overshadowed preparations for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s July 4-5 visit to Yerevan.
Many Armenian politicians appear convinced that Clinton’s upcoming visit is a “formality” that will not have any serious impact on relations between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey – the prime focus for Clinton’s trip. By contrast, the June 26 statement, issued at the G8 summit in Muskoka, Canada, is considered by some to be “crucial.”
In the statement, the three presidents, whose countries mediate talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh, urged Yerevan and Baku to “take the next step and complete the work” on the main principles of the proposed settlement for the 22-year-long Karabakh conflict.
At first glance, such a statement may appear routine. The controversy hinges on the proposed principles for settling the conflict as described in the statement.
It all comes down to a single word – “occupied.” The word, which appears only in the signed English version of the statement, is used to describe the liberated territories of Karabakh that are currently used by the Karabakh defense forces as a buffer zone with Azerbaijan. The word did not appear in previous statements.
Its appearance this year indicates to some Armenian politicians that pressure has been put on Yerevan to agree to Baku’s preferred order of events for resolving the conflict – a troop pullout from the “occupied” regions, followed by an interim period for Karabakh before a referendum is held on its independence from Azerbaijan. Armenia prefers for the pullout and the interim period to occur simultaneously.
Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian has hailed the G8 statement, however, for “the desire and consistent efforts of international mediators” to support a resolution to the Karabakh conflict.
But the ruling Republican Party of Armenia does not appear to share the foreign minister’s enthusiasm. Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov commented that the Republicans did not “welcome the statement with open arms,” although he added that it is “a constructive statement with positive elements.”
“There are disturbing points; mainly the sequence of the fundamental principles in the document. It first states the return of occupied territories, then only the interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh guaranteeing security and self-governance, whereas, to us, they either have to happen at the same time, or the issue of Karabakh’s status has to be settled first,” Sharmazanov said.
The other discrepancy relates to the phrase “expression of will.” While the statement’s English text says that the “final status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined in the future by a legally-binding expression of will,” the Russian version reads “expression of will of its population.”
Vahan Hovhannisian, head of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s parliamentary faction, called the discrepancies “unacceptable translation tricks and deception.”
“The statement does not specify by whose will the final status of Nagorno Karabakh is to be determined — the people of Nagorno Karabakh or who?” said Hovhannisian. “Meaning that the document is worded so that the parties can interpret it as they wish, and Azerbaijan has already interpreted it to their advantage by claiming that the referendum would be held on all of Azerbaijan’s territory and by all of its population.”
Armenia has called for the referendum to be held only within the borders of Nagorno Karabakh, a territory that is populated completely by ethnic Armenians.
The omission of any mention of the ceasefire violations that left four Armenian and two Azerbaijani soldiers dead sparks further opposition criticism. Giro Manoian, chief of the International Secretariat of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, argued that the omission “motivates” Azerbaijan to attack Armenian positions again.
The exchanges of gunfire on June 18-19 and June 21 took place after a trilateral summit between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Medvedev in St. Petersburg.
Aliyev’s decision not to attend a separate economic summit in the city, but to return to Baku has been interpreted in Yerevan as a sign of sharp Azerbaijani displeasure with the negotiations. The June 18-19 incident is widely seen as ordered by Aliyev. Baku has issued no statement to support such a supposition.
Whether Clinton’s presence will do much to patch over those suspicions and hostilities looks doubtful.
“The visit by such a high-ranking official as Hilary Clinton is of great significance and indicates tendencies toward accelerating the [peace] processes,” commented Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Samvel Nikoian, a member of the Republican Party.
Independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian argues that after relations between Washington and Baku soured over Armenia’s “football diplomacy” with Turkey, Clinton is now eager “to make Azerbaijan stay in the peace process and to keep it under control.”
Her trip to Armenia, he added, is just to keep “balance” in the region.