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'Good Will' at Key West

The lack of any hard news from the Florida peace talks sets the well-oiled rumour mill into motion
By Ara Tadevosian

A senior American diplomat has hailed last week's meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan as a "significant step forward" in the Nagorny Karabakh peace process.


Carey Cavenaugh, US special ambassador to the OSCE Minsk Group, said that Robert Kocharian and his Azeri counterpart, Heidar Aliev, had made "more progress than expected" during the four-day summit in Key West, Florida.


Both leaders were due to meet with President George Bush on Monday. "Bush will express his support to both leaders," said Cavenaugh, "and will discuss the prospects for reaching a peace deal."


The conference marked the 16th meeting between Kocharian and Aliev since a ceasefire was called in Nagorny Karabakh in 1994, suspending a six-year armed conflict which had claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.


America, Russia and France - all co-chairs of the OSCE's Minsk Group -- have played an active role in brokering a peace deal but, despite their efforts, a signed agreement has remained elusive.


However, a communique issued by the Minsk Group last Friday gave some cause for optimism. "During four days of intensive discussions," it read, "both presidents demonstrated good will and a commitment to resolving the conflict on the basis of bilateral compromise."


The communique also stated that the Minsk Group would now prepare a "new, comprehensive proposal" aimed at resolving the conflict.


And France's negotiator, Jean-Jacques Gaillarde, added, "Today we are much closer to peace than we were before the conference."


Cavenaugh told journalists that the next round of talks would be held in Geneva in June of this year.


Beyond this, few details of the Key West summit have emerged, prompting speculation that most of the negotiating was done by the American mediators rather than the two presidents.


In fact, Aliev and Kocharian only once met face to face - during a yachting trip organised by their hosts.


Meanwhile, regular briefings focused on the "excellent atmosphere" during the talks and the lack of serious disagreements between the mediators.


Naturally enough, the dearth of any hard news from the summit resulted in a series of information "leaks" finding their way into the local media.


On April 5, the Yerevan newspaper Aravot claimed that the participants had discussed a network of transport corridors across Armenian territory as a possible solution to the dispute. The theory was given further credence when Reuters published a photograph of Robert Kocharian, pen in hand, hunched over a map of the South Caucasus.


However, in an interview with the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, the American negotiators denied the existence of such a proposal, explaining that the real thrust of the discussion was a territorial exchange between Armenia and Azerbaijan.


The Americans added that the political status of the Nagorny Karabakh republic remained a further subject of dispute.


On the following day, the Russian Internet site GazetaSNG.ru published an article entitled, "The Abkhazian Whip and Cake or American Provocation in Key West".


Quoting "informed sources in the USA", the article claimed the American negotiators had attempted to widen the field by inviting an "official representative of Vladislav Ardzinba, president of Abkhazia" to take part in the talks.


This individual, according to GazetaSNG.ru, was one Yakhya Kazan, an American citizen, introduced into the equation in a bid to put pressure on Armenia.


The "Abkhazian cake" is a reminder that the breakaway Georgian republic is proposing to open up a vital rail link between Russia and Armenia which has been under a transport blockade for the past decade. The "whip" is a warning that, should Armenia decide to reject the American peace plan, it may continue to exist in virtual isolation.


The GazetaSNG.ru article comments, "It is clear that Washington could threaten Yerevan with complete isolation both from transport and energy networks and from the significant funds which will be earmarked for the socio-economic development of the whole South Caucasian region."


However, analyst Rafael Kazarian dismissed this hypothesis. He said that the last 10 years had proved that Armenia could not be intimidated by blockade tactics.


Kazarian also described Kazan as an "adventurer" and said it was inconceivable that the Americans could take him seriously. Finally, he pointed out, the decision to open up the Abkhazian rail link did not lie with Sukhumi alone.


It was far more likely that the information was leaked to GazetaSNG.ru by diplomatic sources in Moscow rather than officials in New York, as the article claimed.


Meanwhile, close attention should be paid to statements made on the eve of the Key West talks by a "senior American diplomat" who asked for his name to be withheld. Analysts generally agree that the diplomat was none other than Carey Cavenaugh himself.


The diplomat was quoted as saying, "We are working on a comprehensive proposal to solve the Karabakh problem" - a statement which is likely to give Armenia grounds for optimism since Yerevan has traditionally backed a comprehensive solution rather than the stage-by-stage approach which prompted President Levon Ter-Petrosian's premature retirement.


The diplomatic source went on to say that the question of "Nagorny Karabakh's political status" was a key issue in the talks. This is the first time that mediators have talked about political status - a sensitive question for Baku which is demanding complete dependence of the breakaway republic, but is prepared to consider giving it "the highest level of autonomy".


Thirdly, the unnamed diplomat stressed the importance of including the Nagorny Karabakh government and its electorate in the peace process - a stance which has been warmly greeted in Stepanakert.


The Karabakhi deputy minister for foreign affairs, Ashot Gulian, commented, "Azerbaijan is still psychologically unable to accept the idea of Nagorny Karabakh taking part in the talks. However it is clear that the international community takes this question very seriously. Without decisive input from the Karabakhi people and their government, the mediators see no prospect of a lasting resolution."


Ara Tadevosian is director of the Armenian news agency, Mediamax


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