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Kocharian and Aliev Tread Political Tightrope
Hopes of a dramatic breakthrough in the Nagorny Karabakh deadlock have been dashed after the latest round of peace talks failed to produce any concrete results.
Last week's meeting in New York between Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliev and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, marks the fifth attempt this year to resolve the conflict which was suspended in 1994 after three years of bloody fighting.
But the negotiations - which have all been held behind closed doors - remain inconclusive, fuelling growing frustration in the war-torn Armenian enclave, which has consistently been excluded from the talks.
In the build-up to the Millennium Summit in New York, Nagorny Karabakh's elected president, Arkady Ghukasian, told the Azat Artsakh newspaper in Stepanakert that trilateral talks were essential if the deadlock was to be broken.
"I understand that such a step would be very difficult for the President of Azerbaijan but logic dictates it," he said.
At the summit itself, President Kocharian announced, "We are ready to maintain direct contacts with Azerbaijan in the search for a compromise, although we believe that face-to-face talks between Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh would be more productive - particularly since Karabakh exists as a de facto state and is open to dialogue."
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is closely involved in the peace process, has so far been unwilling to insist on Karabakh's participation. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the Austrian foreign minister, said, "The acting chairman of the OSCE doesn't have the mandate to decide who can take part in the dialogue and who can't."
During a visit to Yerevan in July this year, Ferrero-Waldner noted, "It's up to the various sides in the conflict to find a compromise for which a certain degree of political courage is required."
Certainly, any sign of weakness on the part of either president is bound to provoke a storm of criticism at home. In the wake of the New York talks, Kocharian's rivals in Yerevan claimed the president had caused the republic acute political embarrassment - despite the apparent lack of progress in any direction.
Vagan Papazian, the ex-foreign minister, said, "Armenia's standing has been weakened as never before and, as a result, Armenia could be forced to accept even the most ludicrous options for peacekeeping."
Vigen Khachaturian, the leader of Armenia's Liberal Democratic Party, commented, "These meetings have been going on for over a year and Robert Kocharian repeatedly abandons his position while Heidar Aliev gets the results he needs."
Kocharian, in turn, has been calling for renewed economic ties between Armenia and her eastern neighbour. "If we are joined by mutual economic interests, it will be easier for us to eradicate needless suspicions and this will create a promising atmosphere for resolving the conflict," says the Armenian leader.
However, President Aliev has categorically rejected any talk of economic ties while Nagorny Karabakh's territorial status hangs in the balance.
Both leaders accept that the ongoing deadlock may eventually force them to turn to third-party intermediaries, possibly under the umbrella of the OSCE's Minsk Group. Kocharian has said that this kind of political framework could enable "a cross-border referendum which, in certain circumstances, would be the only realistic option."
Ara Tadevosian is the director of the Mediamax independent news agency
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