What was the result of the series of meetings between Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharyan in 1999?

The rejection of the OSCE Minsk Group peace proposals by the parties to the conflict in 1997 and 1998 resulted in widespread pessimism about the peace negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and led to the process being raised to president level in 1999. In April that year, the Presidents of the two countries, Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharian, committed themselves to hold meetings in order to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through peaceful channels. At the CIS Summit in Moscow on April 2, the leaders came to an agreement to hold a series of meetings aimed at reaching a settlement on the conflict. Presidents Aliyev and Kocharian accordingly met in Washington on April 24, twice in Geneva, on August 16 and 22, and in Yalta, Ukraine, on September 10. At these meetings, the leaders agreed to enforce the ceasefire regime, build confidence, and prevent any border incidents. The parties also agreed to resume negotiations within the OSCE Minsk Group framework.[1]

The final meeting between Aliyev and Kocharyan was held on October 11 in Sadarak, an Azerbaijani city on the border between the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the Republic of Armenia. It was argued that this meeting, with its secrecy, probably pushed the sides to the mutual compromise on the solution of the conflict. The parties thus drew up the so-called “land swap” proposal. Referring to this, Gerard Libaridian wrote that “Kocharian had demanded that [Nagorno-Karabakh] to be annexed to Armenia and, in principle, accepted Aliyev’s return demand for Azerbaijani control of the Meghri district of southern Armenia that separates the exclave of Nakhichevan from Azerbaijan”.[2] On the other hand, while focusing on the “land swap”, former Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Tofik Zulfuqarov wrote in 2005 that “the parameters surrounding this proposal were kept secret, and even today it is difficult to say precisely what the proposal involved or who authored it”.[3] However, irrespective of whether or not the parameters of the negotiations were clear, it was expected that as a result of the confidential meeting between the leaders of the two countries, an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh would be reached at the OSCE Istanbul Summit in November 1999. Even though there was no precise information, the interview that Heydar Aliyev gave to Turkish TV channel Samanyolu three days into the meeting made it clear that the Istanbul Summit was indispensably important for a peaceful solution of the conflict.[4]

It should be noted that as part of its efforts to secure its position in the South Caucasus by promoting peace and stability in the region, the US unilaterally engaged in an intensive shuttle diplomacy. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright thus corresponded with Aliyev and Kocharyan, and on October 26-27, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott paid a visit to the capital cities of the respective countries in order to push them towards the final stage of the negotiations.[5] However, all the peace efforts by the US government and the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the expectations about the Istanbul Summit, came crashing down because of a political fiasco. During the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to the region, a shocking incident occurred in the Armenian parliament. A small group of gunmen entered the parliament building and killed eight prominent politicians, including the Prime Minister of Armenia, Vazgen Sargsian, and Speaker of Parliament Karen Demirchian, a former Communist Party leader.[6]

Opinions differed on the incident in the Armenian parliament, but it was generally believed that, one way or another, Russia was involved in the terrorist attack. Speaking about this, a former colonel of the Russian Federation’s Security Service, Alexander Litvinenko, who was living in Great Britain as an asylum seeker at the time, said that Russian special services were behind the terrorist incident in the Armenian parliament on October 27, 1999. According to him, “this sabotage enabled Russia’s political elite to prevent signing of the agreement on Karabakh settlement… The peaceful process was developing aloof from Russia’s control and that made Russian special services to carry out the special mission in the Armenian parliament”.[7]

However, Armenian officials rejected Alexander Litvinenko’s allegations. According to Artsvin Baghramian, the spokesman for Armenia’s National Security Service, “not a single fact or even a hint relating to Litvinenko’s theory emerged during the trial”. While calling Litvinenko a “sick man”, Kocharyan’s national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, said “we are not obliged to refute or confirm the products of someone’s morbid imagination… An Armenian court handed down a ruling in connection with the case and the issue was closed”.[8] However, whether Russia was involved in the incident or not, it was the main reason why the leaders halted the negotiation process in its final stage, before the planned signing at the upcoming Istanbul Summit. Consequently, the summit produced a declaration that “We applaud in particular the intensified dialogue between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan…with the hope of resuming negotiations within the OSCE Minsk Group”.[9]

[1] Abilov, Shamkhal, “OSCE Minsk Group: Proposals and Failure, the View from Azerbaijan”, Insight Turkey, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2018, pp. 150-151.

[2] Libaridian, Gerard J., “The Elusive ‘Right Formula’ at the ‘Right Time’: A Historical analysis of the Official Peace Process”, Accord: An International Review of Peace Initiative, Issue 17, 2005, p. 37.

[3] Zulfuqarov, Tofik, “Obstacles to Resolution: An Azerbaijani Perspective”, Accord: An International Review of Peace Initiative, Issue 17, 2005, p. 41.

[4] Aslanlı, Araz, Qarabağ Problemi: Tarixi, Mahiyyəti, Həll Prosesi/Karabakh Problem: Its History, Nature, Resolution Process (Bakı, 2009), p. 53.

[5] Cornell, Svante E., Azerbaijan Since Independence (M.E. Sharpe, 2011) p. 144.

[6] King, Charles, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 223.

[7] “Shooting at the Armenian Parliament was Organized by Russian Special Services”, AZG DAILY #79, May 3, 2005. Retrieved from; http://www.freezepage.com/1270569339JOFECUAZJM?url=http://www.azg.am/EN/2005050307. Accessed on October 3, 2020.

[8] Stepanian, Ruzanna, “Armenian Officials Deny Russian Role In 1999 Parliament Carnage”, Azatutyun, May 4, 2005; http://www.azatutyun.am/content/article/1576814.html. Accessed on October 3, 2020.

[9] “Istanbul Summit”, OSCE document, November 19, 1999. Retrieved from; http://www.virtualkarabakh.az/en/new-item/32/125/dokument-obse-19-noyabrya-1999.html. Accessed on October 3, 2020.