WASHINGTON, March 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In their statement, the co-chairs called "upon the government of each country to take steps with their publics to prepare them for peace and not for war." The co-chairs' next meeting is scheduled for March 20 in Istanbul.
The Minsk group, which consists of 13 OSCE countries, has provided a forum for negotiations to settle the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh since 1992.
"It's important that an agreement be reached this year because if not the fear is that the window of opportunity will be closed because domestic politics will then take over in both countries in the lead up to election periods in 2007 and 2008."
As part of that effort, the co-chairs of the group -- France, Russia, and the United States -- held two days of meetings in Washington this week to press for a new meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.
In the runup to this week's sessions, the U.S. co-chair expressed optimism that progress could be made.
U.S. Ambassador Steven Mann said this year could bring a breakthrough in the impasse over Nagorno-Karabakh because neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are holding an election in 2006.
A Window Of Opportunity, Closing
But some other observers were less hopeful.
Cory Welt, deputy director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL that Ambassador Mann's emphasis on achieving an agreement this year stems "more from desperation than optimism."
Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in a Paris suburb for talks in February 2006 (AFP)
"He's trying to emphasize that it's important that an agreement be reached this year because if not the fear is that the window of opportunity will be closed because domestic politics will then take over in both countries in the lead up to election periods in 2007 and 2008," Welt said. "So what they're trying to do is, in a sense, put pressure on the parties almost to convince them that now is the time to reach an agreement. If they do not, it is unlikely they will be able to get their houses in order and they will be unlikely to really be able to get full outside support."
Welt suggests that it might be wiser to keep expectations from this week's meeting low.
"It's a troubling road to take when you put that kind of pressure and that [many] expectations on a process within one year. It's going to be a tough battle and if they don't accomplish what they set out to accomplish this year then there is a danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy, making further efforts at reconciliation impossible."
Political Will Needed For Settlement
The Minsk Group talks follow an exchange of heated words between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Aliyev said on March 1 that talks with Armenia were at a "dead end" and called for freeing Nagorno-Karabakh "no matter what it takes." The next day, Kocharian declared that if Azerbaijan drops out of further negotiations then Armenia will formally recognize Nagorno-Karabakh.
Liz Fuller, RFE/RL Caucasus analyst, suggests that Aliyev's words were "nothing new" but said some of the realities on the ground may have changed.
"There is also the question of whether the Azerbaijani Armed Forces have improved over the past decade to the point that they could defeat the Armenian army. Armenia's Defense Minister Serge Sarkisyan said that he considers Azerbaijani statements as being more in the realm of pressure or blackmail than a real threat. And he made the point that if you are going to launch a surprise attack on your adversary then you don't go round beforehand saying that we're going to do it."
Fuller suggests that the failure of the Rambouillet talks to produce an agreement represents a "minor setback," not a "major disaster." She characterizes the Minsk process overall as a positive one, which almost produced a peace agreement in 2001.
"The current progress dates back just about two years to when Elmar Mammadyarov replaced Vilayet Guliev as Azerbaijani foreign minister and the two foreign ministers began meeting regularly first in Prague and then in other European capitals," Fuller explained. "And it's primarily thanks to them with some input from the three co-chairmen that they have gradually reached agreement on the [seven out of nine] basic points that would form the sort of skeleton of a future formal peace agreement."
Given the political will, Fuller suggests, that it might still be possible to reach agreement on the basic points of a peace settlement this year.