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Nagorno-Karabakh wants a seat at the table

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STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh — For more than a decade, Russia, the United States and various European organizations have been trying to sponsor a framework peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan that would finally settle the dispute over this mountainous enclave. But Nagorno-Karabakh itself doesn’t have a seat at the table, and its president says that must change.

Without the de facto republic’s direct participation, Bako Sahakyan said during an interview at his office here, no settlement is possible.

Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians were in the majority, declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1991 and effectively broke free in 1994, after a cease-fire ended a bloody war that cost thousands of lives on both sides. Since then no country has recognized it, and it has relied on Armenia, which also took part in the war, to represent it at the protracted negotiations.

“Nagorno-Karabakh is ready for compromise,” Sahakyan said, but it has to have the opportunity “to discuss the issue with Azerbaijan directly.”

Some shooting continues across the line separating Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani forces, with several casualties every year, and there is always the danger that an incident could quickly escalate.

The talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, sponsored most recently by the so-called Minsk Group, which consists of Russia, France and the United States, have been focused on a compromise that would involve the return of some land to Azerbaijan in exchange for recognition and self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh. International security guarantees would also play an important role.

But Azerbaijan has so far balked at the idea of Nagorno-Karabakh becoming permanently independent. It argues that it lost 20 percent of its territory in the war, and that hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who were displaced want to return to their homes.

For its part, Nagorno-Karabakh says it won’t give up land if that means it must retreat to indefensible borders.

Officials familiar with the Minsk Group deliberations say it is clear that any settlement will have to be accepted by Nagorno-Karabakh, but that’s a problem for the next phase — which is unlikely to come anytime soon.

The latest round of negotiations was held in the Russian city of Kazan on June 24, and broke up without results. Some Nagorno-Karabakh officials say that failure shows it’s time to try a new approach: giving them a seat at the negotiating table.

Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t pursue that role from the start because, when the talks got underway, its former president, Robert Kocharian, had just been elected president of Armenia — on a promise not to betray his homeland. Nagorno-Karabakhis thought they could trust him to look out for their interests, but, a decade later, some officials suggest that was a mistake in strategy. They say this even though the current president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, is also a former Nagorno-Karabakh chief executive.

Armenia, they argue, has its own interests, which aren’t always congruent with Nagorno-Karabakh’s.

Part of the difference is that Nagorno-Karabakh began agitating for independence in 1988, three years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that it then declared independence in 1991 before either Armenia or Azerbaijan did.

“They didn’t get freedom first, and then independence,” said Nagorno-Karabakh’s foreign minister, Georgy Petrosyan, referring to Armenia proper. “They didn’t get freedom in their heads, a freedom that would allow them to appreciate independence. In that sense, Karabakh has had a more advantageous experience.”

Masis Mayilian, who was deputy foreign minister in the de facto government here, and a onetime candidate for president, said the problem with the Minsk process is that it’s based on what he considers a fundamental flaw: In 1991, the international community decided to recognize the Soviet-era borders of the newly independent states. That is why Nagorno-Karabakh hasn’t been recognized, hasn’t been included in the talks, and is officially still considered part of Azerbaijan, even though it declared independence before the Soviet breakup.

“The Minsk Group could be effective,” Mayilian said, “but as long as they work based on a mistaken premise, they put the brakes on the process.”

At the same time, others here argue that not taking part in the negotiations gives Nagorno-Karabakh the ultimate veto right over any compromise.

Sahakyan, in arguing for inclusion, said he wants nonetheless to be careful not to torpedo the Minsk Group process altogether. Just having the talks going on has helped bring Nagorno-Karabakh a certain measure of peace and stability, he said.

“We value any such meeting, even in a distorted format, and these meetings will bring closer Nagorno-Karabakh’s participation in these talks,” he said.

This article was developed in cooperation with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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