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In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

A meeting on June 4 between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in St. Petersburg resulted in no concrete agreements, nothing like the Moscow Declaration of November 2008. This was not surprising. Neither side had made much of the meeting in advance, with Azerbaijan’s foreign minister stating the day beforehand that he did not expect much progress and official Yerevan making no optimistic claims (RFE/RL, June 3).

For Caucasus-watchers the reaction to the summit was nothing that had not been heard before. Emphasis is placed on “moving forward” (Armenia), “creating a basis for the continuation” of the negotiations (Azerbaijan), and on the “constructive atmosphere” in which the meeting was carried out (the OSCE Minsk Group, tasked with mediating the conflict). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a press conference with her Turkish counterpart in Washington (State Department, June 5), expressed satisfaction with the fact that “a lot of progress has been made in a relatively short period of time” towards resolution of the conflict – but, a cynic would ask, where is this progress? What tangible results can be shown after seventeen years of mediation?

A pessimist would argue that nothing has been achieved. Hostile rhetoric on both sides is still common. Azerbaijan insists that the military option for the liberation of the occupied territories remains on the table; Armenia insists that Nagorno Karabakh must determine its own fate; Russia continues to use Armenia as an outpost of influence in the South Caucasus. Overall, the geopolitical picture looks little different to 1994. A slightly less cynical view would note the obvious fact that there has been no resumption of large-scale hostilities since 1994. This in itself, they would argue, is worth celebrating.

An optimist, like the jovial US co-chair Matthew Bryza, would say that a solution is - if not around the corner - then certainly on the horizon. Progress has been made, the two sides are closer together, and some general outlines of a settlement have been agreed upon.

It is easy, as an outsider, to be very sceptical about this, given the lack of any concrete results (the Moscow Declaration was the first document to which the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders had put their signatures in fifteen years).

But much of the progress towards peace has, by virtue of necessity, been made behind closed doors, making it hard to quantify the results. A diplomat involved in the discussions made this plain at a meeting in London’s Chatham House back in February. He stressed that much of the work of the Minsk Group is not reported publicly, largely because the peace process is deeply politicised at a geopolitical and a domestic level. Public opinion in both countries remains strongly opposed to any form of compromise. Any willingness to give ground would be politically disastrous, particular in Armenia, where a willingness to make concessions on Karabakh cost Levon Ter-Petrosian the presidency in 1998.

The irony is that the peace plan which toppled Mr. Ter-Petrosian is now said to be broadly accepted by his successor’s protégé, Serzh Sargsyan (Armenia Now, October 31 2008) – whilst the diplomat’s point about secrecy is supported by the fact that the so-called Madrid Principles (which constitute the basis for current talks) have never been officially made public. What is known is that they involve a phased withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied zones, the deployment of international peacekeepers, the return of internally displaced Azerbaijanis, and a referendum on Nagorno Karabakh’s status at a later stage. It took nearly ten years for these principles to be accepted as policy by Yerevan, and even today they are only discussed vaguely. It is a further irony - and a sign of how political the Karabakh issue remains - that Mr. Ter-Petrosian, now a major opposition figure, has attacked the government of President Sargsyan for selling out Karabakh by committing to the Principles.

For both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Madrid Principles look like the least-bad option, although how much progress has been made towards agreeing on them (let alone implementing them) is unclear due to the secrecy of the negotiations. There are certainly grounds for believing that Armenia has been dragging its feet, unwilling to upset the status quo which has served it relatively well for years. Increased diplomatic traffic recently may, to an extent, reflect Yerevan’s realisation that the tantalising prospect of an open border with Turkey is not going to happen unless real progress is made on Karabakh. But Azerbaijan may be holding out for a better deal as well, and the attitude of its diplomats towards the Minsk Group has hardly been enthusiastic (RFE/RL, May 13).

To get to a negotiated settlement, the murkiness of the peace process needs to change. Both sides are using the confidential nature of the negotiations to score political points. And pessimists can dismiss meetings such as the one in St. Petersburg as meaningless, an easy position to take given the vague, optimistic statements that the co-chairs put out afterwards.

The Minsk Group needs to publicly outline the Madrid Principles and declare the status of each one. The results of meetings between the presidents and the co-chairs should be announced with reference to the Principles, and the mediators should not shrink from pointing out areas in which the politicians need to make more effort, as well as noting the areas of progress to which they repeatedly refer. For their part, Baku and Yerevan must be bold and controversial: they must publicly accept the Principles and inform their respective publics that this is the only way forward, that sacrifices will have to be made and compromises brokered in order to build lasting peace.

The lack of transparency in the Karabakh peace process is, as discussed, put down to the sensitivity of the discussions. But this sensitivity stems mainly from an unwillingness to engage respective populations about the need to make hard choices. Allowances should – of course - be made for matters of real delicacy and national security, but without admitting what goes wrong as well as what goes right, the peace process will become viewed ever more cynically. The two sides are due to meet again, perhaps as early as July. If the only results of that meeting are more mentions of ‘moving forward’, the response should be: where?

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