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Speculation, misinformation and irresponsible journalism rife ahead of possible Karabakh deal

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Talk of a possible framework peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan should be cause for good news in most countries facing an uncertain future, but nothing is ever simple or even logical in the South Caucasus. Ethno-nationalism and distorted, usually subjective, versions of history are common and politically expedient forces will exploit any issue in order to come to power. 

Friend and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, Tom de Waal, put it simply when he said the region resembled a "geopolitical suicide-pact." Of course, such a reality shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but there are times when the irresponsible behaviour exhibited by the media and political forces is quite simply astonishing.

Last night was a case in point when one alarmed young Armenian sent me a message via ICQ. "The Turks have taken Kelbajar and the [Armenian] government is covering it up," she wrote. "When did this happen?" I asked. "Last night," was the reply. "Firstly," I continued, "they are Azeris. Secondly, I thought you had a bit more intelligence than that." I mean, how difficult is it to search the international news wires for reliable information? 

RFE's Azeri service did, however, reported on the panic and how it spread. A friend from Baku provides a rough summary in English.

The title reads "What was the panic in Yerevan on 21 July about?" Then it says that it all started from the TV not working that morning. After several hours people began to worry and some took the rumor seriously, especially the opposition newspapers. It mentions tert.am.

Of course, Kelbajar wasn't taken in the start of fresh fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, but it is indicative of how prone people are in the region to take misinformation, propaganda and speculation as fact. Unfortunately, this extends to an irresonsible or politicized media and civil society that has started to resort to nationalist terminology in the hope that they can enact regime change.

Sad, and not least because the framwework peace agreement reportedly under discussion is pretty much the same that extra-parliamentary opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian was ready to accept when he was the country's first president. Back then, he was forced to resign by nationalist elements within his own government and one suspects that his supporters hope "revenge" will be sweet. 

For such people, however, what is at stake here is not the long-term security of Armenia or Karabakh, but rather coming to power at any cost and by any means. As one Ter-Petrossian supporter told me recently, "We will never let Serge [the Armenian president] "sell-out" Karabakh. However, there would be no problem if it was Levon [extra-parliamentary leader]. who was president."

Meanwhile, if those seeking to scupper what might be the one last chance for peace are successful, future generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis will only suffer because of it. 

1 Comment

Onnik Krikorian | July 25, 2009 9:14 AM | Reply

As an example of how possibly the new push for a peace agreement is more to do with domestic politics rather than Karabakh itself, RFE/RL yesterday ran a story on recently released former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian's objection to the Madrid Principles.

Six out of more than a dozen basic principles of settlement submitted to the negotiating parties as part of the Madrid Document in 2007 were unveiled by the United States, Russia and France, the nations brokering a Nagorno-Karabakh solution, at the G8 summit in Italy earlier this month.

At a press conference on Friday, Arzumanian dwelt on several of the principles, including proposed Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan and a delayed status for Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined at some indefinite future date.

Arzumanian, currently a leading member of Armenia’s main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), in particular, said that before the Madrid principles discussion was about the withdrawal of Nagorno-Karabakh forces, which implies other additional agreements, such as the determination of under what regime the vacated territories will operate, etc.

Meanwhile, he said, the formulation “return of the territories to Azerbaijani control” is unacceptable.

“All six principles are unacceptable for both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. They do not meet the national interests of Armenia. In this sense, any document based on these principles cannot be acceptable for the Armenian side,” the ex-foreign minister asserted.

Arzumanian also called “dangerous” the wording in the Madrid principles that “an interim status providing guarantees for security and self-governance” will be given to Nagorno-Karabakh.


Arzumanian also voiced concerns regarding the phrase “future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will.”

He called it a loose concept that could be interpreted at will.

“If a term weaker than [the internationally accepted term] referendum is used, it means there is no agreement on a referendum yet,” said Arzumanian. link

However, when Arzumanian was foreign minister under the presidency of now extra-parliamentary opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian, some questions beg to be asked. For example, how is the new deal under consideration any different from what he was willing to accept in 1998?

The power struggle that toppled Ter-Petrosian was sparked in the summer 1997 by an international peace plan calling for a gradual settlement of the Karabakh dispute. The plan, accepted by Azerbaijan, would indefinitely delay agreement on Karabakh’s status until after the return of Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Karabakh, and the reopening of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. American, French and Russian mediators co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group argued that these confidence-building measures would facilitate a future deal on the territory’s status.

Ter-Petrosian fully accepted this approach, laying out his vision for Karabakh peace during a September 1997 news conference and a subsequent newspaper article. Armenians, he wrote, should settle for the proposed compromise because they "did not win a war, but a battle" and because "the international community will not tolerate the status quo for long." But other key policymakers, led by then-prime minister Kocharian and then-Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, insisted on a single "package" accord that would settle all sticking points at once. Their main argument was that it would be too risky for the Armenian side to pull out of the occupied Azerbaijani lands, which constituted Yerevan’s main bargaining chip, without securing international recognition of Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan.

The crisis reached its peak on January 7-8, 1998 at a confidential meeting of Armenia’s National Security Council attended by two dozen top officials, among them Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leaders allied with the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo. The two sides reportedly stuck to their guns during the two days of heated discussion, with Ter-Petrosian and his top loyalists, including then parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian and Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, finding themselves in minority. About a month later Ter-Petrosian went on state television to announce his resignation and the defeat of his "party of peace."


Ter-Petrosian went on to describe arch-rival Azerbaijan and Turkey as Armenia’s "most natural and beneficial economic partners" and lament the untapped "huge potential" of Turkish-Armenian commercial ties. He also warned of Armenia’s exclusion from regional economic projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. link

What do you think?