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Karabakh Talks Close To Impasse

By Ronald Eggleston

Vienna; Munich, Apr 2 (RFE/RL) - Diplomats say the long, drawn-out negotiations aimed at achieving a settlement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are approaching a total impasse, with neither side willing to make essential compromises.

A diplomat (anonymous) closely associated with the talks tells an RFE/RL correspondent: "there's no panic and no talk of abandoning the negotiations. But the fact is we are not getting any closer to a settlement, because the parties lack the political will to do so." The diplomat said a "breathing space" was needed to sit back and examine the whole situation to see what could be done to move forward.

His comments followed another meeting last week among Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh under the co-chairmanship of Russia and Finland. Like most other recent meetings the talks produced no concrete progress toward a settlement. Diplomats close to the negotiations described last week's talks as extremely bad. One told RFE/RL: "there was a lot of ill will and a genuine feeling of not knowing what to do next."

Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave within Azerbaijan. It is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. Fighting erupted in 1988, after Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist leaders declared sovereignty. A ceasefire was negotiated in May 1994 by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but negotiators have been unable to convert this into a permanent cessation of hostilities and a political settlement.

A brief communique issued by Russia and Finland after last week's talks in Moscow reflected the frustrations of the negotiators. The statement said "the parties (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh) did not display a readiness for conducting a constructive dialogue or searching for compromises."

The statement said Russia and Finland intend to convene a special meeting with the leadership of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh "to inform them of its concern with the situation." It said they expect the parties "to consider carefully the present state of the negotiations."

Diplomats viewed as unusual the fact that last week's meeting did not fix a date or a place for the next gathering. Normally, there is agreement to meet again within a month in a specific city. This time the communique said the co-chairmen of the negotiations, Russia and Finland, will decide on the convening of the next round "in due time". A diplomat said this could mean a delay before another meeting is held to give all parties time to reflect on how to bring movement into the talks.

The diplomats said that, despite the problems, there was no likelihood that the OSCE negotiations would be suspended. They said that neither Russia, Armenia nor Azerbaijan wanted a suspension, and therefore, OSCE was obliged to keep trying for a settlement, which could be recognised as fair and just by all sides.

Earlier this year, the negotiators had hoped Armenia and Azerbaijan could be persuaded to accept what was called a "declaration of principles," which could be signed during this month's Moscow summit on nuclear issues (Apr 19). Diplomats said these plans have been abandoned, because of lack of interest by the parties.

They said Russia and the chairman of the OSCE, Switzerland's Foreign Minister, Flavio Cotti, had separately offered very similar proposals. However, a package offered by U.S. deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott during a visit to the region last month had gone much further.

"The Americans tried to resolve the territorial dispute by giving Nagorno-Karabakh more than simple autonomy - but less than independence," a diplomat said. "the U.S. suggested that the enclave legally continue to be Azeribaijan's territory, but in practise would not be controlled by Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijanis would have "de jure" (legally recognized) sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh - but not "de facto" (but not in fact, or not in practice). However, this was unacceptable," said the diplomat.

The U.S. also proposed the de-militarisation of the town of Shusha, which is located above the strategic Lachin corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Washington also offered proposals on the return of Azerbaijani territory captured by ethnic Armenian forces in a 1993 offensive..

The diplomats said the U.S. had hoped to obtain support from the presidential advisers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, who have held a number of private meetings in recent weeks. However, it was not forthcoming. Some diplomats say the private talks have also reached an impasse.

OSCE diplomats believe outside events are also influencing the parties to the negotiations. One factor is the Russia's presidential election in June, and Armenia's election in September. Another is the pressure which Russia is apparently applying on Azerbaijan. Diplomats say Azerbaijani negotiators have frequently referred to this pressure from Moscow.

Diplomats, who have participated in the long negotiations, emphasise that they have achieved a lot, including the 1994 ceasefire. "However, what is lacking now is a breakthrough," a high-ranking diplomat told RFE/RL. "The political will to go further is lacking. We have to find a way to get that political will from all sides," he said.