James Warlick: Armenian and Azerbaijani Presidents were very honest with each other

The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs visit Stepanakert today. Before that the mediators held meetings in Baku and Yerevan. In an interview with Mediamax, OSCE Minsk Group U.S. Co-Chair James Warlick revealed some details of the talks on the negotiations on the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict.

– After the Ministers’ latest meeting in Paris, the conflict zone saw unprecedented escalation – helicopter downing by Azerbaijan, constant subversive attacks, shelling of Armenian villages, ceasefire violations on the border and abrupt increase in casualties. What message and proposals do you bring to the region in this tense period?

– We are very concerned about the rise of the violence along the Line of Contact and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. We witnessed last year 60 confirmed casualties. Already in January this year we have 12 [casualties]. That puts us on a pace  to even exceed the 60 of last year in 2015. This is serious, and we are very concerned about this rise of violence because it undermines the peace process, the ability to work towards a negotiated settlement. So one of the most important messages that the Co-chairs are bringing to the region, is what we need to do to reduce the tensions. That is the basis for the talks we are undertaking and for our work towards a negotiated settlement.

– After the Paris meeting, the Armenian side assessed the results of the meeting quite positively, noting that they saw positive tendencies from Baku. What you think went wrong afterwards?

– Let’s go back more than a year. The two presidents met in Vienna in November of the previous year. And that was the first time they had met for a long time. Of course we were worried about what would happen at this meeting since they had not seen each other and because there had been tensions, and a lot of public rhetoric. But the meeting in Vienna went very well. The Presidents met for 90 minutes just one on one. And we know from what they told us afterwards that they had talked about the most important issues for resolution of the conflict. They did not reach agreement but the fact that they could sit down with each other and have a reasonable conversation was very encouraging.

– 90 minutes without the co-chairs?

– Without co-chairs. No one was there and I think that is important, because in a room with a lot of people it is sometimes difficult to be entirely honest with each other. But we know in Vienna that they were very honest with each other. The result of Vienna meeting was that we could bring them together for further talks. And so President Vladimir Putin met with them in Sochi, the US Secretary John Kerry met with the two leaders on the margins of NATO summit in Wales, and then in October President Hollande met with the presidents in Paris for an extended conversation.

I think the good news here is that they actually can talk with each other. When they meet each other they have reasonable, good conversations about issues and the way forward. Not everything is resolved but what we’ve seen in each of these meetings we have seen a better understanding of each other’s position; even if they do not reach agreement, there is a better framework for how this conflict can be resolved and honest conversation between them. Coming out of the Paris meeting, they agreed to continue dialogue. In fact, they said they would intensify the dialogue, but circumstances have intervened. There were tensions on the Line of Contact, increasing causalities, the helicopter tragedy. All of these make it difficult for the presidents to come together. So one of our objectives is to find a way to bring them together.

And I know that the Presidents want this. We spoke with President Aliyev yesterday and he said he would welcome the opportunity to meet with President Sargsyan. I have not seen President Sargsyan yet, but I hope and expect that President Sargsyan will say the same thing, that it is valuable for the two of them to sit and talk.

But even with the best of meetings, sixty, ninety minutes two hours between the Presidents are not enough. You can’t expect a difficult conflict, which has been all consuming for both countries for more than two decades, to be resolved by occasional meetings between the two presidents, even if they go perfectly. What we want to see is a real negotiation process take place, an intensification. And it does not really matter to the Co-Chairs what the format of that is, or where it will start. What we are saying to both sides is – why can’t we have a process? You know what has happened in other conflicts. It’s not just up to the presidents to resolve. Let’s bring the sides together to have a conversation and we can start with easier issues. Maybe we don’t start with status, corridor and all of these difficult questions that have to be resolved at the very highest level. But there are going to be a lot of other issues.  It could be telecommunications, infrastructure and other issues instead, and that’s what we would like to do. Aliyev says that he is willing and my question is whether President Sargsyan is also willing to begin this process.

We are not asking Armenia or Azerbaijan to compromise on its principles or abandon some key elements that will be a part of settlement. What we are saying is that we need a process. And why can’t Armenia agree to that? So we’ll be putting that questions, and I hope you as journalists, will put this question. What is so wrong? We are not even saying they need to agree to certain proposals. All we are saying is we need a process, an addition. I acknowledge and the Co-Chairs agree that there is nothing more important than the presidents actually reaching an agreement. But we need a process and that’s what we’d like to see undertaken.

– Do you think it is possible to have high-level meeting in nearest future? Is President Aliyev ready for that meeting?

– Of course it is. He is ready for that meeting. But we don’t have a meeting for the sake of a meeting and I think that the both presidents would say that. We have to prepare for it. I think it is the job of the Co-Chairs to try to frame the issues in a way they can talk about it. Look, when the Presidents get together they can talk about whatever they want to talk about. But it is hopeful if we can have a framework, it can be an agenda, some points for discussion and we know what those are. We would like to get the Presidents to meet and focus on those. I don’t think either President want to go into a meeting, saying what we are going to talk about this time. So I think we have to prepare for it. That’s the challenge. I think there is no reason why we can’t have a meeting in the near future, but it is up to the Presidents. I can’t predict it is going to be next week, next month or in six months. But both of the Presidents in October in Paris did commit to intensify the dialogue. President Aliyev said he welcomes the meeting with President Sargsyan and asked the Co–Chairs to prepare for that and I think we will put the same issue to President Sargsyan today too.

– At the Munich Security Conference, President Aliyev publicly rejected to mention the famous 3 principles for conflict settlement: territorial integrity, self-determination, and use of non-violence. It’s also known that at the Paris talks, Azerbaijan was against including the principles in the joint statement once again. As a result, there was no joint statement. Don’t you think official Baku’s behavior poses a serious threat to the peace process?

– The fact is that the sides and the Presidents know what it will take to have a negotiated settlement. And I think that people in both countries need to understand this too. There are 3 principles and 6 elements and we refer to them. This will be the basis for the negotiated settlement. Both sides know this. It’s what we talk about when we meet. We use some shorthand when we talk about these issues – we say “comprehensive settlement” or “comprehensive negotiations.” And maybe people ask, what does that mean? Well, that is exactly what it means. And you hear how Baku call for comprehensive negotiations and the Co-Chairs use the same term. But we mean that you cannot single out one principle or one element and expect that that is going to be the basis for the settlement. It is not. A comprehensive settlement means that a negotiated settlement will be based upon the elements and principles that have essentially been agreed and discussed for some time now. And when we meet this is what we talk about. So you can expect if so-called comprehensive negotiations take place, this is what we are dealing with – 6 elements, 3 principles.

– When we are talking about a comprehensive peace agreement, Minister Mamedyarov also talks about that. The Armenian side stressed that the elaboration of this peace agreement will be possible only after the agreement around basic principles. Don’t you see a contradiction here? How is it possible to start working on comprehensive peace agreement when we still lack the complete agreement around basic principles?

– What is remarkable here is that the sides actually are very close. Both sides have recognized that the basis for a settlement is 3 principles and 6 elements. Of course there are details that we need to work through, but that is what we want to do. So there’s really no contradiction. Despite some public rhetoric which single out one element or one principle – and that happens on both sides – despite that, the Presidents and the leadership in both countries understands that the basis for a settlement is this comprehensive approach. You have heard this term “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. And that is the case for negotiations everywhere and here too. You cannot single out one issue, whatever it is, and say “ok, now let’s sign”. No! All has be agreed and discussed and the sides understand that.

– After his meeting with the Azerbaijani FM in Krakow on January 27, the Co-Chairs made rather a harsh statement. They called on Baku to respect the ceasefire for the first time in recent years. Are you going to continue this approach to call things as they are? And there are some rumors that government officials in Baku criticize the Co-Chairs, either publicly or privately, that you don’t put a lot of efforts to resolve the conflict. Does this make obstacles with your work with Baku?

– I do believe that Co-Chairs should be more honest in our statements. And if you read our last three statements that we have prepared you will see – and it is partly because of the rise of tensions and the increasing numbers of causalities in the recent months – that we want to be more honest and frank about both sides. I think if you look at those three statements you will see that we are mediators and of course we need to be measured in what we say but we also need to be more honest. I hope for the future, I can’t predict what the statement will be, we can be more honest. This is not easy for either side, because they have become used to an approach by the Co-Chairs that is less controversial. But if it is possible for us we should be more frank about the problems we see and difficulties we encounter.

You asked about the Minsk Group and the role of the Co-Chairs. The fact is that the format that is accepted by both sides is the OSCE Minsk Group format and the role the Co-Chairs play. I understand that there is frustration and who wouldn’t be. This is a conflict which has been so difficult for both countries for more than 20 years and I understand why there can be frustration in each country with the Co-Chairs. That’s fully understandable. But I think that the role of the Co-Chairs is accepted both by Baku and Yerevan. We are the mediators and we work under the auspices of the OSCE and our mediation is at the request and with consent of parties involved. I am not saying this is forever. If our role is not needed for the future, if peace can be brought about in some other way that is quite fine and we will welcome that. But our goal here is a negotiated peaceful settlement of the conflict. If that can be brought about in some way, we will welcome that but for now, the format that is accepted by the parties is the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs.

– It’s no secret that it is Azerbaijan that continuously turns down confidence-building measures – speaking against withdrawal of snipers, creation of investigation mechanisms for incidents and contacts between the civil societies. What tools do the mediators have in their arsenal to change the situation? And generally do you believe that it’s possible to reach full agreement without mutual confidence?

– There was a time in the history of Armenia and Azerbaijan when the people lived together side by side – Azerbaijanis in Armenia and vise versa. Even today, as I understand, there are some villages where this continues. But basically a generation in both countries has lost that. Most Armenians do not know Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijanis do not know Armenians, and that is very unfortunate. I think if we are to be successful in a lasting settlement we need to have a basis of trust and confidence between people of the two countries. But that does not happen overnight. Under the current circumstances – there is ongoing conflict – it is very difficult, but we need to work on that. This is not one week, or one month, or one year; this is going to happen over a period of many years. I hope that there will be an opportunity for you to meet fellow [Azerbaijani] journalists for example. I met with journalists in Baku yesterday just as I am meeting with you. And you know, they are pretty reasonable and they asked questions as you are. I think that if you sat down with them you could have a pretty good conversation. Ok, you have got to get past a few things but I would say to you that journalists are not an exception. I think if you could bring people together for a reasonable conversation, let’s get past some of the rhetoric, you would find that there is more in common than not, and what the people want in both states are not so different. Can we find a way to do that? We would like to do that, we are interested in any steps that can build trust and confidence, bring people together. Of course, there are some government-to-government things that we would welcome and would like to see happen, but also we have non-governmental [approaches].So when we see there are opportunities for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to meet and interact wherever, we welcome that.

You did not ask about the upcoming so-called Olympics in Baku, but we hope that Armenian athletes will be able to participate in that event, why? Because we believe that such people-to-people events would be helpful in the future. I understand that this is not easy to do and sometimes things go wrong but we can’t let that stand in the way. People-to-people contacts are going to be important for really having a lasting settlement. When the day comes and it will come, that there is a signed agreement that brings a peace in Nagorno Karabakh, it will be a great day not only for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but for the entire region. But it cannot be only a signature on the piece of paper, there has to be more, something that supports it, undergirds the peace, and that’s what we need to be working on. You know, both Baku and Yerevan resist in their own way confidence building measures and people-to-people programs, but this is short sighted, because this is exactly what we need.  Maybe we’ll come up with a program for journalists. Who knows.

– You will soon be off to Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh. How do you see the possibility for Karabakh to be directly involved in negotiation process?

– We are leaving tomorrow. We have regular dialogue with the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh. We expect it to be continued. We visit the territories surrounding Nagorno Karabakh and we will continue to do that. We want to hear their voices and take their views into account. We welcome the opportunity to meet with people there and hear their views. It is important to not only see the de-facto authorities. In my previous visits to Stepanakert I saw a lot of young people, young families. Not everyone is happy with the Co-Chairs and their role, and I am happy to talk to them and hear their views. Unfortunately, in the media of both countries sometimes we hear very extreme positions taken by people. People, especially who will be directly affected in Nagorno Karabakh, need to understand what the basis for the settlement is going to be. We need to talk about those principles and elements, and we’re not going to single out one, just because it’s convenient. We need to have an honest conversation, and I welcome that. Our trips to Nagorno Karabakh are often short. Maybe we need to spend more time there not just with the de-facto authorities, but with others to have the conversation about the settlement.

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