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The Ghost of Progress
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are to meet in Paris this weekend amid growing hopes of a long-awaited breakthrough in the Nagorny Karabakh dispute.
It is thought that Robert Kocharian and his Azeri counterpart, Heidar Aliev, will focus on the so-called "common state" option -- a solution which will grant the de facto republic its own army, police force and constitution.
However, both presidents face growing pressure at home to defend their sovereign interests at all costs and any sign of weakness is likely to seal their political fate.
Over the past few months, observers have noted "the ghost of progress" in the Nagorny Karabakh peace talks which have dragged on for the past seven years.
The six-year war between the two former Soviet republics, which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives, was suspended by a ceasefire in 1994.
But, although the two presidents entered into a dialogue in Moscow two years ago, it was not until January 26 this year that a meeting in Paris, hosted by French president Jacques Chirac, showed signs of a breakthrough.
An Armenian diplomat told IWPR, "The French president has outlined his vision for possible solutions to the conflict and has proposed definite principles to both sides on which a peaceful agreement could be founded."
In the wake of the meeting, the Azeri opposition paper Ieni Musavat claimed that the leaders were seriously considering the "common state" option which had first been mooted by the OSCE Minsk group in 1998.
This proposal, which focuses on bringing Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh under the umbrella of a confederate state, has previously been rejected by President Aliev and enjoys little support in Baku.
Details of this option first became public knowledge in Azerbaijan in January when documents leaked by the Azeri press suggested the "common state" solution was the favourite of three alternatives currently on the negotiating table.
The proposal takes as its premise the fact that "Nagorny Karabakh has the governmental and territorial characteristics of a republic forming a common state with Azerbaijan within the internationally recognised borders of the latter."
Its terms include the creation of Karabakhi and Azeri representations in Stepanakert and Baku as well as bilateral discussions between the two leaderships on "any questions of interest to Stepanakert".
The borders of the new republic would be equivalent to the territorial boundaries of the former Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, with possible variations subject to the agreement of both sides.
Finally, under this proposal, Nagorny Karabakh would adopt its own constitution, defined by a popular referendum, and recruit its own "national guard" and police force.
The publication of these confidential proposals in the Azeri press sparked outrage in Stepanakert. Naira Melkumian, the foreign minister, said, "This is a clear sign that Azerbaijan is unable to hold a constructive dialogue and to observe the fundamental principles of international debate."
However, on February 20, the New York Times suggested there was a "ghost of progress" in the latest round of peace talks and quoted Western diplomats as saying that Chirac had voiced "reserved optimism".
Russia has also thrown its weight behind the initiative and, last month, President Vladimir Putin's press office announced that Moscow fully supported the French leader over the proposed solutions.
The Yerevan newspaper Aikakan Jamanak concludes that Russia and France have taken advantage of America's current preoccupation with the Gulf to take the initiative into their own hands. The USA is the third co-chair of the Minsk Group but has taken a passive role in resolution talks over the past few months.
Certainly, it was no coincidence that Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Russian Security Council, visited both Yerevan and Baku on the eve of the Paris meeting. And the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, has made it clear that Moscow "has no intention of remaining aloof from the process".
However, despite the growing optimism, Chirac's initiatives have unleashed a wave of apprehension in Azerbaijan where opposition politicians suspect President Aliev of "signing a capitulatory peace agreement with Armenia".
Last month, Aliev told the Azeri parliament that none of the Minsk Group's proposals were in Azerbaijan's interests but added that "the process was making some forward progress".
The Azeri foreign minister Guliev promptly called on the Azeri people to "support Heidar Aliev in his efforts to secure a swift and peaceful solution to the problem".
However, on February 24, the day after the debate, the leaders of around 50 political parties and social organisations in Azerbaijan announced that they would stage mass protest meetings "if it emerged that the authorities favoured signing a capitulatory peace agreement with Armenia on the basis of the Minsk Group proposals".
But Aliev remains under enormous pressure from the international community. During a European Union visit to the region, Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister, called on Azerbaijan to restore economic links with Armenia, adding that that this could help the peaceful solution of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.
And, in Yerevan, Robert Kocharian faces the wrath of the Armenian opposition in the event of a climb-down.
Galust Saakian, the leader of the Unity party, said that Armenia should dictate its own terms over Nagorny Karabakh while the final solution to the conflict should be decided by a national referendum. Saakian believes that the Armenian enclave should be granted complete independence as any other alternative would feed political tensions across the region.
Meanwhile Kocharian denies that he has any intention of agreeing to an "unfavourable" solution. "I have given too much to the Karabakh war to agree to that," he told the Armenian parliament. "I call on you to trust me." But in the ongoing political deadlock, trust is in short supply.
Ara Tadevosian is director of the Armenian news agency, Mediamax
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