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Lisbon-Istanbul: from Defensive Policy to Diplomatic Offensive?

Alexander Grigorian
Center Analyst, Caucasian Studies

November 23, 1999

The OSCE Istanbul summit of November 18 and 19, 1999, the last of the 20th century, went down in history.

The summit was supposed to answer a potentially fatal question for the Armenian nation: whether Armenia has succeeded in eliminating the atmosphere of international hostility toward Yerevan's position regarding the settlement of the Karabagh conflict since the previous summit in Lisbon three years ago. In the post-Lisbon period, as a matter of fact, Armenian foreign policy attempted to achieve this goal. The situation was intensified because of an unexpected change of authority in Armenia in early 1998: the former leader of the Mountainous Karabagh Republic, Robert Kocharian, became president of Armenia after Levon Ter-Petrossian's resignation. The latter characterized Robert Kocharian's team as "a party of war." The international community might at first have had a negative perception of the new Armenian leadership as Ter-Petrossian enjoyed in the West a reputation of a convinced democrat and a faithful executor of a policy rapidly to achieve long-term peace and stability in the Caucasus.

To alter the mistrustful attitude of the international community towards the new authorities of Yerevan, the latter had to prove to the world in the shortest possible time that during their rule the pace of Armenia's progress toward real democracy far surpassed that of Ter-Petrossian's presidency. Meanwhile, Robert Kocharian's administration had to obtain the support of the Armenian public for pursuing its foreign and domestic policy aims. Only full national support and legitimacy of all the branches of power, together with domestic stability and permanent improvement of the socio-economic situation in the country, could serve as a basis for shifting Armenia's defensive foreign policy course into an offensive one. It was impossible to achieve the reconsideration of the Karabagh process without assertive diplomacy.

The management of presidential (1998), parliamentary and local (1999) elections, the processes of voting, and the results that were on the whole positively assessed by international organizations appear in line with the norms of liberty and democracy. Lifting of the ban on an influential party in Armenia, ARF (Dashnaktsutiun), which had been imposed by Levon Ter-Petrossian, the expression of a fair attitude towards communists, and a number of other changes in the domestic life of Armenia relaxed the tension previously existing in the interrelations among political parties. Most people wanted to believe in the democratic infusion of the new authorities and their apparent drive to eradicate the shortcomings of the previous period.

These processes in the domestic life of Armenia were accompanied by the declaration and practical embodiment of the principle of complementarity in the foreign policy of the country. Armenia declared its readiness to cooperate with all countries of the region and world powers. With the Karabagh conflict still unresolved, it was indispensable for Armenia to establish even initial economic relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan for creating links of confidence with these nations. That, in turn, would noticeably speed up the process for the final settlement of the Karabagh problem based on mutual compromises.

Thus, the process of complementariness in the foreign policy of Armenia allowed it, on the one hand, to remain a strategic partner of Russia as a member of the CIS Treaty of Collective Security and, on the other, to take an active part in programs proposed by the West, for example, TRACECA, INOGATE, and NATO's Partnership for Peace. Armenia also continued its participation in BSEC, where Turkey plays an important role.

This and other steps by the Armenian authorities shattered the perception of their bellicosity and irreconcilability. The changes in Armenia, however, were accompanied by diametrically opposite processes in Azerbaijan. There, the presidential elections of October 1998, boycotted by the overwhelming majority of influential opposition parties, were assessed by European organizations as incongruous with international standards. Heidar Aliyev's regime, after the OSCE Lisbon summit, had toughened its attacks on dissidents and its political competitors.

Azerbaijan's policy of manipulating oil for the international isolation of Armenia did not succeed. Instead, it served as an important reason for new proposals by the OSCE Minsk Group cochairmen for a resolution of the Karabagh conflict in which the interests of both Yerevan and Stepanakert were taken into account. These proposals imply the settlement of the dispute by reference to a "common state." This concept was explicitly rejected by Azerbaijan. Hence, before the OSCE Istanbul summit, Azerbaijan was driven by the Minsk Group cochairmen to a non-constructive position.

After the OSCE Minsk Group cochairmen's new proposals were adopted in principle by Yerevan and Stepanakert, Armenia took an opportunity to move beyond the policy of diplomatic defense. Armenia not only agreed to participate in the implementation of the TRACECA program but also made concrete proposals for the operation of the transport lines blockaded by Azerbaijan and Turkey: Kars-Giumri-Tbilisi, Yerevan-Julfa-Tehran, and Yerevan-Nakhichevan-Baku. Armenia's suggestions were backed by many Western countries; they started gradually to move toward the position of official Yerevan and came out with a proposal to pursue economic cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan, primarily as an essential condition for the comprehensive settlement of the Mountainous Karabagh conflict.

Armenia's proposals to work out a regional security system in the South Caucasus and to harmonize the system of common European security bespeak official Yerevan's policy initiative, at least on the surface. It is impossible to develop regional stability and cooperation in the Caucasus without the transition of Armenian-Turkish relations to a new phase. These proposals were made in Robert Kocharian's speech at the OSCE Istanbul summit and were supported by the majority of its participants.

Heidar Aliyev's further obstinacy could result in the loss of his power, which he possesses due only to US support. Accordingly, he moved quickly to establish direct contacts with Kocharian as "imposed" by the OSCE Minsk Group. The European community would not allow the repetition of the Lisbon summit's scenario, where Azerbaijan and Armenia took turns vetoing the texts in the final document on the settlement of the Karabagh conflict.

The OSCE Istanbul summit, though limited to approving of the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents' bilateral meetings, still expressed hope that these contacts would hasten an enduring resolution of the conflict under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group. The form and substance of Karabagh's further inclusion in the negotiation process are the subject of critical public debate, and remain to be seen.

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