Talks Spell Hope For Karabakh Accord

Meetings this month between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are raising expectations of a peace agreement over the disputed territory.

Talks Spell Hope For Karabakh Accord

Meetings this month between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are raising expectations of a peace agreement over the disputed territory.

When the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met earlier this month, they did so without foreign mediation, a move which has raised hopes for a Nagorno-Karabakh peace accord by November 18, the date of a summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Istanbul.

Armenia's Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijan's Heydar Aliev met on October 11 near the village of Sadarak on the border between their two countries. Meanwhile, at the same time, their foreign ministers, Vartan Oskanian and Tofiq Zulfugarov, held talks in Luxembourg.

Although both Kocharian and Aliev remained tight-lipped after their two-hour negotiations, local political analysts interpret the location of the meeting - that is, in the region instead of in Western Europe or the United States - as a positive sign which may herald a political breakthrough.

The Sadarak meeting was the fourth occasion on which the two presidents had met without OSCE mediators present. As Kocharian explained to journalists: "The time comes when opposing parties in negotiations aim simply to demonstrate to mediators that they are right and the opposite side is wrong. This only hampers the process."

Both the United Nations and, since 1992, the OSCE have attempted in vain to mediate a political resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has dragged on for 11 years and killed an estimated 30,000 people.

In the wake of the meeting, the two presidents refused to give details of the substance of their talks, saying only that they had discussed the many elements of a peaceful settlement, but that there were no easy solutions. "These are delicate matters and we need more time, talks, and mutual compromises to find a solution," Aliev said. "So, we will continue our meetings."

The foreign ministers described their own talks as "encouraging", but were equally vague on details. "We talked about a methodology for ending the conflict and discussed how to define the parameters for its resolution," Azerbaijan's Zulfugarov said. Oskanian, his Armenian counterpart, said that the talks "centred on removing obstacles to the peace process".

The foreign ministers' talks in Luxembourg followed earlier talks in New York on September 28 and 29, where both attended a session of the UN General Assembly and met with US Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

While in the United States, Zulfugarov delivered a lecture at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington in which he said that the occupied Azeri territories must be returned so that refugees can return; that the status of Karabakh should be defined; and that the armed forces of Karabakh and Armenia are occupying almost a fifth of Azerbaijan.

In response, Ara Papian, spokesman of the Armenian foreign ministry, said that peace must be predicated on the principle of equality between Karabakh and Azerbaijan. "Karabakh cannot be subordinate to Azerbaijan," he said.

In advance of the OSCE's forthcoming summit, the United States appears to be increasing the pressure for a negotiated settlement. In a letter, Vice President Al Gore urged both countries' presidents to resolve their differences so that a peace accord could be signed in Istanbul.

As the talks progress, Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership appears optimistic. Foreign Minister Naira Melkumian said: "The leadership of Armenia has guaranteed the security of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and outlined the limit of those concessions, which they can accept. At the same time, they have explained that we should agree certain mutually acceptable compromises to reach a common peace in the region."

Not everybody in Armenia is as prepared for compromise, however. Hrant Khachatrian of the nationalist Right and Accord parliamentary bloc said that he would only accept a peace agreement which either recognised Karabakh's full independence or its incorporation into Armenia. The bloc is the second largest in the parliament and is supported by Karabakh's hard-line former defence minister Samvel Babayan.

Meanwhile, in Baku, opposition to the talks appears to be growing. According to the local news agency Assa-Irada, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Congress alliance, Isa Gambar, wrote an open letter to Turkish President Suleyman Demirel on the eve of his October 18 visit complaining of pressure to agree terms in Karabakh at the expense of the country's national interests. He urged on-going Turkish support for Azerbaijan.

However, the co-chair of Azerbaijan's Social-Democratic Party and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Istiglal, Zardusht Alizadeh, told IWPR that Demirel came to Baku to pressure Azerbaijan into certain compromises in the negotiations with Armenia.

Local analysts believe that Turkey is pressurising Azerbaijan into an agreement in the hope that this may help it become a member of the Council of Europe.

Ara Tatevosian is director of Mediamax, an independent news agency. Mark Grigorian is IWPR regional correspondent in Yerevan.

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