From 1996 Armenia began to adopt a harder line, insisting on the simultaneous resolution of Nagorny Karabakh’s status and liberation of the occupied territories around Nagorny Karabakh. This position essentially reflects the ‘status for territory’ formula: the return of Azerbaijani territories occupied as a consequence of war in return for determining Nagorny Karabakh’s political status. This stance caused a radical break in the approach taken by mediators since 1992, as well as fundamentally contradicting the letter and spirit of the UN Security Council resolutions. Unfortunately, the mediators failed to show the necessary firmness, going along with this unconstructive suggestion and taking the negotiations process into the impasse in which it still finds itself today.
In March 1996, Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti and his Russian counterpart Yevgeny Primakov discussed the possibility of including points on the status of Nagorny Karabakh in the preliminary agreement. Following their meeting, positions defining Nagorny Karabakh’s status in very broad terms became the subject of negotiations within the Minsk Group. It should be noted that both Russia and the West supported the notion that any model considered should necessarily preserve the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. This united position was firmly backed by Azerbaijan and featured in the statement made by the acting president of the OSCE at the organisation’s Lisbon Summit in December 1996. The endorsement of this position in such an important document aroused Armenian indignation as it clearly demonstrated that the international community was not prepared to stand by and watch Armenia annex Azerbaijani territory.
In early 1997, the Minsk Group came to be chaired by Russia, France and the United States. Azerbaijan had actively lobbied for the inclusion of the United States in the capacity of co-chair as a counterweight to Russia and, in part, France, which is perceived as pro-Armenian by Azerbaijani society. Azerbaijan’s proposal for Germany’s inclusion was unfortunately not backed by Armenia.
In the year following the formation of the Minsk Group’s tripartite co-chairmanship, the co-chairs put forward two proposals for the settlement of the conflict, both considered by Azerbaijan as acceptable starting-points for further negotiations. While accepting the proposals as a basis for renewed talks, Baku pointed out that by introducing attempts to define the issue of status into documents dealing with the conditions for the liberation of the occupied territories around Nagorny Karabakh, the mediators were leading the peace process to stalemate.
The Armenian side declined both proposals, calling on the co-chairs to develop a ‘package solution’ granting Nagorny Karabakh the status of an independent state, after which the liberation of part of the occupied territories around Nagorny Karabakh would be feasible. This led to a hiatus in the peace process until November 1998, when the co-chairs put forward a third proposal based on an entirely new concept. On the whole close to the first two proposals, the third further suggested the possibility of the creation of a ‘common state’. However, far from implying the integration of Karabakh into Azerbaijan by means of some mechanism yet to be defined, this document proposed the integration of two equal sovereign entities. The sometimes-reported view that this proposal was initially greeted with enthusiasm in Azerbaijan is mistaken. The lack of reaction among official sources in Azerbaijan was taken by some of our negotiating partners as a positive sign, but in reality any proposal that sought to predetermine a sovereign status for Karabakh was naturally unacceptable to Azerbaijan.
The Minsk Group co-chairs then proposed direct negotiations between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. These meetings were intended to provide an opportunity for the sides to develop a common model for settlement. Although the meetings are still being held today, this aim has not been met. Azerbaijan feels that this is due to the stance adopted by Armenia, as declared by Robert Kocharian upon coming to power. The basic premises of this standpoint are that: the liberation of part of the territories around Nagorny Karabakh is possible only after Azerbaijan’s agreement to the independence of Nagorny Karabakh; and the territory situated between the administrative of the former Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and Armenia must be given to Armenia.
This strategy is clearly intended to reduce Azerbaijan to capitulation, an outcome seen by the Armenian side as the logical consequence of its own military victory.