Wednesday, 14 August 2002

LAND SWAP IN NAGORNO-KARABAKH: MUCH NOISE OVER AN UNREALISTIC OPTION

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By Tigran Martirosyan (8/14/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Azerbaijan\'s President Heydar Aliyev recently mentioned that during peace talks in Paris in March 2001, he and Armenian President Robert Kocharian reached a deal that envisaged an equal exchange of territories between the two countries as part of a broader framework agreement to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Aliyev hence admitted for the first time the existence of so-called \"Paris principles\" of a settlement to the conflict, and accused Armenia of backtracking on the deal during the subsequent talks in Key West, Florida, in April 2001. The Azerbaijani interpretation of the deal entailed that Armenia would surrender a strip over its southern district of Meghri, offering Azerbaijan direct access to Nakhichevan and from there to Turkey, in return for Armenia\'s sovereignty over the Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

BACKGROUND: Azerbaijan\'s President Heydar Aliyev recently mentioned that during peace talks in Paris in March 2001, he and Armenian President Robert Kocharian reached a deal that envisaged an equal exchange of territories between the two countries as part of a broader framework agreement to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Aliyev hence admitted for the first time the existence of so-called \"Paris principles\" of a settlement to the conflict, and accused Armenia of backtracking on the deal during the subsequent talks in Key West, Florida, in April 2001. The Azerbaijani interpretation of the deal entailed that Armenia would surrender a strip over its southern district of Meghri, offering Azerbaijan direct access to Nakhichevan and from there to Turkey, in return for Armenia\'s sovereignty over the Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Official Yerevan fervently denied Aliyev\'s allegations that it had agreed to swap the strategic Meghri strip for the Lachin corridor. According to President Kocharian, he and his Azerbaijani counterpart only discussed an option of a road access for Azerbaijan over Meghri, based on mutual cognizance that any possible territorial arrangements should be asymmetrical. The option thus presupposed that the Lachin corridor would become a sovereign part of Armenia, while Baku would be guaranteed an unfettered communication with its Nakhichevan exclave via Meghri, which would remain a sovereign Armenian territory. After Aliyev returned to Baku from Key West, he retreated from this option and toughened his position by demanding that the arrangements be symmetrical. OSCE Minsk Group co-chair France reproached Aliyev for disclosing details of the agreements achieved during the talks in Paris, which both leaders pledged not to divulge before a peace accord is reached. The French foreign ministry\'s reaction to Aliyev\'s speculations that Armenia reneged on an exchange of territory with Azerbaijan indicates that at and after the Paris stage of the peace talks, both sides considered varieties of land access or corridors. However, given that there was no mention of a land swap or corridors in any of the OSCE-sponsored draft peace agreements bears out that the alleged deal was either an informal exchange of opinions or a non-obligatory verbal forethought.

IMPLICATIONS: Aliyev\'s disclosure of some of the provisions of the Paris agreements prompted discontent in Armenia, with opposition groups (who recently attempted to impeach President Kocharian) criticizing him for agreeing to concede the Meghri strip to Azerbaijan as part of a peace accord on Nagorno-Karabakh. Aliyev\'s controversial remarks were apparently designed to fan opposition anger in Armenia and wind up the tensions further, as Kocharian\'s opponents had already accused him of planning to sell out Meghri during the power struggle in the Armenian leadership, which followed the killings of prime minister and speaker of the parliament in October 1999. In order to maintain his political prestige at home on the eve of presidential elections, Kocharian, in turn, disclosed other details of the peace talks, to the effect that mediators had resurrected the option of a territorial exchange. Although the Armenian side had discussed that possibility at the bilateral meetings, Kocharian asserted that he ultimately rejected the option. Aliyev\'s apparent retreat from his original denial that the \"Paris principles\" exist and his inclination to surrender a part of territory, in turn, infuriated the Azerbaijani opposition, which has demanded that any proposed modification of Azerbaijan\'s borders should be put on a nationwide referendum. The Azerbaijani authorities, therefore, would have considered as a success the reaching of a deal that could grant Azerbaijan a corridor to Nakhichevan via Meghri in exchange for Lachin. They could have used such a deal to try to mitigate the feared outrage by groups who oppose conceding any territory to Armenia. From the perspective of the Armenian public, given the fact that the Lachin corridor is already under Armenian control, exchanging it for an equal corridor or a mere land access for Azerbaijan over Meghri - Armenia\'s sole conduit to Iran amidst hostile Turkic neighbors - would have constituted a disproportional concession on the part of victorious Armenia. Such a concession could destabilize the domestic situation, as any exchange of territories or corridors is highly unpopular in Armenia, with some fragments of the Armenian population fearing a settlement at the expense of Armenia\'s territory.

CONCLUSIONS: Peculiarities of the political situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan make the implementation of an exchange of land corridors impossible. It is also impossible to keep such discussions secret, since domestic political agendas will occasionally force both presidents to make revelations. By disclosing confidential provisions pertinent to territorial exchange, each president apparently seized the opportunity offered by the present pre-electoral period to weaken the negotiating positions of his opponent. Each president might also be tempted to try to get rid of his opponent by means of radical opposition groups and to deal with a newly elected president who would, as each side might expect, be willing to make more concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh. The disclosures proved that the idea of a territorial swap has proven to be unrealistic and is no longer on the negotiating agenda. Speculations on potentially detrimental land swaps are fraught with serious consequences for each president in a fragile domestic situation with upcoming presidential elections. Each president has to deal with an acutely emotional public, opponents predisposed to using the conflict as a political tool, and international mediators seeking to satisfy their ambitions - making any disclosures potential sparks to a major political crisis. The upcoming struggles for presidential power in Armenia and Azerbaijan are likely to hold off the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process for the time being. However, the fact that both sides decided to disclose details of an unfeasible territorial option does not revert prospects of peace negotiations and a search for a workable solution to the conflict.

AUTHOR\'S BIO: Tigran Martirosyan is a former senior Armenian diplomat with extensive experience in the analysis of U.S. foreign and national security policies towards south Caucasus. Mr. Martirosyan holds a Master\'s degree in international policy from Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, and is a PhD applicant in political science at George Washington University.

Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved

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