Differences between the positions of the governments in Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh further complicated the process. Notwithstanding the fact that many mediators expected Armenia to determine policies in both capitals, and Azerbaijan’s portrayal of such differences as an Armenian ploy, Nagorny Karabakh’s development as a separate political entity produced a permanent tension between the authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert. Having taken Armenia’s economic and military support for granted, Nagorny Karabakh could afford to be a single-issue government in its external relations, whereas Yerevan’s relations with its neighbours and the world were necessarily more multi-dimensional. Just as its position on the conflict determined the scope and character of its relations with the international community, so other dimensions limited its options with regard to resolving the conflict. Where Yerevan was ready for compromises, Stepanakert was able to resist and, more often than not, prevail, since Nagorny Karabakh’s struggle for extraction from Azerbaijani suzerainty held a universal appeal for Armenians everywhere as historical vindication for a victimised nation.
Once the ceasefire was established and held, relations between Yerevan and Stepanakert reflected the problems of the peace process revolving around two sets of issues: first, substantive positions with regard to the three main problems: status, security, and consequences of the conflict (including blockades, refugees and displaced persons); second, the methodology of a solution: should all three key issues be resolved in a ‘package deal’ or should the status problem, being the most difficult, be relegated to a second stage agreement?
Armenia’s President Levon Ter-Petrosian had revised his approach to the Karabakh problem since leading the Karabakh Committee in 1988, when he had been an advocate of reunification with Armenia. Under his presidency the Armenian government’s approach was to define the issue as the security of Nagorny Karabakh and its right to self-determination – not necessarily meaning the internationally unpopular goals of independence or reunification with Armenia. Ter-Petrosian sought a compromise where the Armenian side would concede that Nagorny Karabakh would be legally part of Azerbaijan; in return Azerbaijan would agree to a status above the nominal autonomy that the NKAO had enjoyed until 1988, but a notch below independence. Further, Azerbaijan would lift their blockades and provide strong security guarantees including Armenian control of the Lachin corridor and Armenia’s right to defend the status and people of the territory. It was also understood that as a result of any agreement on Karabakh, Turkey would agree to a normalisation of relations with Armenia. Thus, Ter-Petrosian refused to recognise the NKAO’s unilateral declaration of independence and hoped that Azerbaijan would revise its goal of attaining complete control of Karabakh through military victory and ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan’s obstinacy on settling the status issue on its own terms was mirrored by a similar insistence by the Karabakh authorities. With agreement on status still distant, the failure to make progress on a ‘package deal’ was unacceptable for the Ter-Petrosian administration, which by 1993 pragmatically opted for the ‘step-by-step’ approach. The rationale for this was that while Armenia could survive the blockades, economic development would be difficult if not impossible for as long as relations with its neighbours were not normalised and renewed fighting remained on the agenda. The ‘no war, no peace’ situation required substantial state resources to be devoted to war preparedness, diverting them from other needs, such as economic or social reforms, or attracting much needed investment. The administration did not believe support from the diaspora sufficient to counterbalance Azerbaijan’s advantages: the support of the international community (including Armenia’s presumed friends Russia and Iran) for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and oil as a financial resource and weapon of diplomacy.
Shying away from a policy that might imply territorial ambitions, Ter-Petrosian’s focus was the continued secure and free existence of the Karabakh Armenian population in their historic land. The basic formula for a negotiating strategy would be the return of territories for peace. Nagorny Karabakh, on the other hand, by and large opted for a ‘territories for status’ formula, arguing that the occupied territories were the strongest card it held to obtain its goal of a full “divorce” from Azerbaijan, if not in favour of a union with Armenia, at least independence from Azerbaijan. Baku, on the other hand, believed that time and the combination of oil diplomacy and outside support for the principle of territorial integrity would ultimately deliver Karabakh. Thus the step-by-step approach was in essence rejected by both Nagorny Karabakh and Azerbaijan, and the negotiations became exercises in futility.