Bush and Ozal in Istanbul in July 1992. Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library
Bush and Ozal in Istanbul in July 1992. Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library

In 1992, Turkish President Turgut Ozal urged his American counterpart George H.W.Bush to support a land swap between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a way to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Civilnet journalist Tatul Hakobyan published the excerpts of their conversation on his web site.

According to a transcript published by the Bush Presidential Library, meeting in the White House on April 28 that year Ozal told Bush that Armenia and Azerbaijan “could swap territory, with Nagorno Karabakh going to Armenia and Azerbaijan getting the piece of Armenia that separates the two parts of Azerbaijan.” The two parts of Azerbaijan referred to Nakhichevan autonomy that had a border with Turkey, but no land link to the rest of Azerbaijan.

“Stalin created the borders down here,” Ozal said. “He divided Azerbaijan to give it to the Armenians to buy them off.” The Turkish leader presumably referred to Armenia’s Syunik province that was disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan until it was included into the Soviet Armenia in 1920-21 amid an anti-Soviet rebellion in Armenia.

‘The Goble Plan’

Three months before the Bush-Ozal meeting, the land swap idea was proposed by a former State Department researcher Paul Goble. In early 1992, former U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance was preparing for a trip to Armenia and Azerbaijan as the United Nations envoy, and before leaving asked around for ideas. Vance previously negotiated the UN presence in Yugoslavia, and in the months before Armenia encouraged the U.S. to support a dispatch of UN monitors to Karabakh as well.

At the time the republics had just become independent, the war was slowly escalating and Armenians in Karabakh were still militarily surrounded by Azerbaijan on all sides.

In a briefing paper “done very quickly and without any grand thinking,” as Goble related in a 2008 interview with the Armenian Reporter, he suggested handing most of Nagorno Karabakh and the Lachin area to Armenia in exchange for Azerbaijan getting the Meghri area, thus connecting directly to Nakhichevan and, from there, Turkey. According to Goble, even though the idea was not vetted with any government and was purely his own brainstorming, it became widely-known as the ‘Goble Plan.’ (Three years earlier Russian academic Andrey Sakharov proposed a more expansive land swap idea to the Soviet leadership and wrote about it in his memoirs published in 1989, but it was turned down as well.)

A month before the Bush-Ozal meeting, Turkish leaders publicly welcomed Vance’s diplomatic mission and he may have floated the land swap idea with Turkish officials. In their meeting, Bush asked Ozal what would happen to the Armenians in Meghri area. “All together, not more than 50,000 people would have to be moved. Otherwise this war will continue forever…” was Ozal’s response, who also touted the idea as facilitating a trade route from Central Asia via Azerbaijan and Turkey, making the new republics more independent of Russia. Bush wondered if Azerbaijan might be interested in such a land swap and said that U.S. would consider a “follow-up.”

The proposal was rejected by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, though according to former foreign minister Vartan Oskanian it was discussed by the Armenian leadership in 1994. At the time, president Levon Ter-Petrosyan suggested  “if the northern section of the Azerbaijani exclave Nakhichevan were given to Armenia to ensure a border with Iran, the Goble plan would be beneficial for Armenia.” That became the outline for another Goble article also known as ‘Goble Plan 2.0.’

In 1999-2001, Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev revived the idea of the land swap in his talks with Robert Kocharyan. While Kocharyan refused to hand over Meghri, the two came close to an agreement over a ‘sovereign corridor’ that would connect Nakhichevan with Azerbaijan via a highway built through tunnels and bridges in southern Armenia; in exchange Azerbaijan would recognize Nagorno Karabakh – within its Soviet borders plus Lachin corridor – as part of the Republic of Armenia. Aliyev backed away from that plan during the April 2001 summit in Key West, Florida.