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Nagorno-Karabakh: Minsk Group Co-Chair Hopes For 2006 Progress

Steven Mann (official site) On 10-11 February, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, are due to meet on the outskirts of Paris for talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement. Some observers have speculated the two sides may be approaching a breakthrough in the 15-year conflict. Ahead of the Rambouillet talks, Hrair Tamrazian, director of RFE/RL's Armenian Service, and Kenan Aliyev of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service conducted a joint interview with Steven Mann, the American co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is mediating the peace process.

RFE/RL: Ambassador, what are you planning at the Paris talks? What can we expect from this meeting of the presidents? Many expect a breakthrough. What's your opinion?

Steven Mann: First of all, the co-chairs are going to be going to Baku and Yerevan this week for further meetings with the foreign ministers [Azerbaijan's Elmar Mammadyarov and Armenia's Vartan Oskanian] and with the presidents as part of our preparation for France. And then, next week, at the invitation of President [Jacques] Chirac, the presidents will be coming to France, and there will participate in discussions under the umbrella of the OSCE co-chairs. So that's what we have looking forward.

What I would say is this: We have been working in the context of the Prague process [promoting direct contact between the two foreign ministers] for almost two years now, where we have had serious and detailed discussions and negotiations between the two sides. And the presidents themselves have met a number of times for talks on Karabakh.

I think all of us recognize that we are at the stage where we have to turn the corner from negotiation to decision. And speaking from the American perspective, we believe that the possibility for a deal exists in the months ahead. So I think the meetings that are coming up in the next two weeks are a very important opportunity. And again, speaking from the American side, we do not want the sides to fail to take advantage of this important opportunity.

RFE/RL: What exactly will you be discussing there in Paris, and what exactly will the presidents be discussing under your supervision?

Mann: What exactly, of course I can't say, because we don't want to violate the confidentiality of the negotiations. But I expect that the full range of issues related to a Nagorno- Karabakh agreement will be under discussion.

RFE/RL: Almost every institution that is directly or indirectly involved with these peace talks says there is an option on the table of the return of the occupied territories and a possible referendum -- an expression of the will of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. What can you tell us about this?

Mann: In a word, nothing. Because I don't want to go into any of the substance of the negotiations. But I will say that the process has been moving in the right direction, it has been moving in the right direction for some time, and there are extremely substantial benefits that we could look forward to for each side in this. Any agreement has to have a win-win outcome. There has to be something in it for each side. And I believe that the discussions have been moving in that direction.

Now, the issues are very difficult issues. If the subject were less difficult, it would have been solved years ago. Even with the best of will on each side -- and we do have good will, on the part of each foreign minister and each president -- but even with the best of will, these are very, very difficult issues. So I do not minimize the task. But that said, I believe that with dedication, some flexibility, and political will, 2006 can be the year for a Karabakh agreement.

RFE/RL: Are any promises being made to the sides that if they come to an agreement, there will be full international support, for example on the issue of reconstruction, rebuilding the occupied territories. Will there will be any financial support?

Mann: Oh, I think absolutely. Without going into the details, I think major international support and reconstruction for all sides that have been affected in this must be a part of a deal.

RFE/RL: What will be the format of the Paris meeting? Will the two presidents meet with Chirac and then stay with him in his residency? Or will all of you get together there?

Mann: I must refer any questions about the substance, the framework, of the visit itself to my French colleague [Bernard Fassier].

RFE/RL: One thing that is known already, Mr. Ambassador, is that Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian has said himself there is a paper on the table -- it's not an agreement or a formal document -- but there is a paper on which both sides outline the basic principles of an agreement, and they might sign that. What can you tell us about this paper?

Mann: I don't want to get into any of the issues of the substance of the talks, so I'm going to have to leave that to the side.

RFE/RL: What is your message to both sides at this important moment?

Mann: I don't think I have a sound bite to give you. But what I've said reflects accurately the way the American government is looking at this.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul

On January 25, RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent Mayis Alizade spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister ABDULLAH GUL about prospects for a breakthrough in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

RFE/RL: The general understanding is that 2006 might be the year for a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict....

GUL: We hope an acceptable resolution will be reached in 2006. Our concern is that other factors might hinder [this process] if it is delayed and no solution can be found. The solution of this conflict would greatly ease the situation in the Caucasus.

RFE/RL: After a long controversy and discussion at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Azerbaijani delegation's credentials were approved. But, pointing to the shortcomings in democratization and reforms, PACE Raporteur Andreas Gross said PACE has been monitoring the situation in Azerbaijan for the last five years and there is no major improvement.

GUL: This is an important process. Every country goes through it. To boost democracy and reforms is something to benefit the countries themselves, and one should not leave it only to the European Council and the European Parliament. I am sure that, if there are problems [with regard to these reforms], the Azerbaijani government will deal with them, and these problems will be resolved. I believe the Council of Europe is very important for Azerbaijan. It wasn't easy to get to there. I know that myself because I worked for it quite hard.

RFE/RL: You are saying Azerbaijan should appreciate the Council of Europe's value?

GUL: No, both sides should appreciate [this relationship]. The Council of Europe is very important for Azerbaijan, as is Azerbaijan for the Council of Europe as an important country of the Caucasus. One should work to solve any problems.

For a complete archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, click here.