A senior U.S. official has said the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave could be resolved within the next two months.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service correspondent Ruzanna Stepanian, said that "there are hard decisions that have to be made on both sides. If this conflict were easy to resolve, it would have been resolved already."
Armenian forces seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan, in the early 1990s. The armed conflict claimed an estimated 25,000 lives and forced about 1 million people from their homes.
Fried noted that Yerevan and Baku were once close to reaching a peace deal in 2001 when the presidents of both countries held U.S.-mediated talks in Key West. The deal fell through in the following weeks.
The United States, France, and Russia have been attempting to negotiate a settlement of the conflict in the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group.
The U.S. diplomat said that despite occasional cross-border skirmishes, the likelihood of a full-blown armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has decreased since Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in August over another disputed territory, Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.
"I think that danger, which always exists, has somewhat receded because the war in Georgia reminded everyone in this region how terrible war is. There are some who are always tempted to talk in fiery language. But war is no joke. It's a bad option," Fried said.
Fried spoke to RFE/RL after holding talks in Yerevan with President Serzh Sarkisian, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, and Armenia opposition leaders. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue was high on the agenda.
He also urged Armenia's leaders to release opposition members who were arrested following the February presidential election on what Washington considers politically motivated charges.
"My message was: It's important to get past this and resolve it. The longer people remain detained, the longer there will be a cloud. There is no way to roll back the tape and make this not happen. But it is important to put an end to the consequences as fairly and as rapidly as possible," Fried said.
As Fried pointed out, the democratization of Armenia's political system will be a "slow, incremental process."
He said the Sarkisian administration should nonetheless "deal with the consequences" of Armenia's postelection unrest with the kind of "great leadership and courage" that it showed in reaching out to Turkey.
He was referring to Turkish President Abdullah Gul's visit to Armenia in September at Sarkisian's invitation -- the first visit by a Turkish head of state since Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The two countries' differing views over the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, have been barriers to normal diplomatic relations.