Azerbaijan and Armenia have exchanged prisoners of war following an agreement signed at the Astrakhan meeting of the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. How do you assess this step in terms of the overall resolution of the Karabakh conflict?
The exchange of bodies and prisoners of war is an act that improves discipline in relations in the conflict zone. This sphere of relations allows a move away from excessive formality in favour of a humane approach to the victims of the conflict. Azerbaijan's tacit agreement to contact (admittedly indirectly) the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh to exchange bodies on the front line can be seen as an example. This may influence the overall atmosphere of the negotiations and the readiness for more serious discussion on the positions of the conflict parties. Consequently, the negotiating process can be expected to become more constructive and stereotypes on some aspects of the conflict situation to be overcome, since it must be clear that a firm refusal to review most positions is just hampering the negotiating process.
During the OSCE Minsk Group field assessment in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, the co-chairs visited all the regions for the first time. What is your view of the mission?
Every conflicting party has its expectations of these missions. Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan hopes for the closer involvement of international instances in the conflict area as well as for international recognition of most of its claims on the problems related to the territory controlled by the NKR [the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh republic - Ed.]. In particular, it is obvious that Azerbaijan wants to raise the political problem of Azerbaijani refugees from the area of military actions. They probably hope to stimulate the involvement of international powers in the conflict area. Meanwhile, the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh hopes that similar missions will be held in other war-hit areas, in particular Shaumyan District [Goranboy District, to the north of Karabakh] which was settled by Armenians before the war and some other Azerbaijani-controlled lands.
Anyway, the transparency of the actions of the conflict parties in all aspects is useful. This may be the driver for the international mediators to carry out these missions. It is hard to say whether this will have a positive effect on the negotiating process.
Will the December OSCE summit change anything in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process or the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations?
Judging by the statements of officials, the Minsk Group co-chairs hope to make a breakthrough in the negotiating process at the summit in Astana. The Azerbaijani leadership also hopes for the signing of a roadmap at the summit. However, it is difficult to see the basis of these hopes. In fact, any agreement is possible only provided that Azerbaijan agrees to Armenia's main provision - recognition of the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination - or, to be more exact, agrees to an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh, as required by the Madrid principles. It doesn't look as though there are major differences on the other issues.
It's not easy to imagine that Azerbaijan is ready to take this step. Azerbaijan’s government is well aware that its agreement to interim status could cause a chain reaction of international recognition of NKR independence. In the modern world no-one's likely to wait for the results of the referendum if Azerbaijan itself has recognized the Karabakh people’s right to self-determination and the conflict zone passes under the control of international peacekeeping troops. This concern stops Azerbaijan from agreeing to the key paragraph of the Madrid principles, since Azerbaijan says the independence of Nagorno Karabakh independence is unacceptable for it.
In turn, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh do not accept the inclusion of the NKR under the control of Azerbaijan and have no intention of changing their position. Theoretically, only concern at a possible preventive war by Armenia and at the threat of Armenia's recognition of NKR independence may force Azerbaijan to agree to this paragraph. But this possibility seems low. Therefore, it is possible to say that the OSCE member-states in Astana will go no further than a declaration on the political readiness of the parties to settle the conflict peacefully or something of this kind.
The possible recognition of the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh is widely discussed in Armenia. The latest bill on this is to be discussed in the Armenian parliament in late December. Do you think Yerevan will actually recognize Karabakh?
It is not the first time that the recognition of the NKR's independence has been put on the Armenian agenda. Periodically, each new delay in the negotiating process raises this problem and now all political forces in Armenia say there is no alternative to the recognition of the independence of the NKR. There are differences only on the terms of recognition. Many say there is no sense in creating obstacles to the peace talks within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group and that we should wait for the results of the negotiations. But some think that the current state of diplomacy on a settlement risks the resumption of war and action should be taken against this. It is believed that Azerbaijan does not intend to settle the issue through negotiations. The recognition of Karabakh’s independence is seen as a step that will move the political process in a different direction. The recent opinions are based on the increasingly frequent statements of Azerbaijan about its readiness to settle the problem through war and about the inadmissibility of creating an independent state in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is clear that Armenia cannot allow the unilateral development of this prospect and is obliged to correct its policy. The way Armenia's parliamentary forces behave depends largely on the actions of Azerbaijan - an escalation of its efforts towards war will certainly leave Armenia no alternative.