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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Tensions Rise Over Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian President Robert Kocharian (file photo) (CTK) Earlier this year, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting in the Paris suburb of Rambouillet, hopes were high that they could break the impasse over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh . The optimism, however, was unfounded as international mediators said that no substantial progress was made during the talks. In recent days, hopes of moving forward in the peace talks have been dashed further as a war of words has escalated between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

PRAGUE, March 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In an television interview on March 2, Armenian President Robert Kocharian hinted that he was prepared to recognize the disputed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But he said that would only happen if Azerbaijan opts out of further negotiations or launches a new military offensive: "But if the moment arrives, when Azerbaijan indeed unequivocally says that the time is right for them, that they have to strengthen their army and in the future will solve the Karabakh issue by force, then our steps should be as followed: firstly, de jure recognition of Nagorno-Karabkah by the Republic of Armenia."

In the interview, which was carried by three national television channels, Kocharian added that further steps could be taken in strengthening the Armenian-occupied military zone around Karabakh and deeper integration with the Karabakh republic in the security sphere.

Successive Armenian leaderships have traditionally shied away from recognizing Karabakh and have said that Yerevan will not be the first to do so.

Three-Way Talks?

Kocharian also said that he believes that the Karabakh leadership should be involved in peace negotiations: "We have to try to engage Nagorno-Karabakh more actively in the negotiation process. Of course the best option would have been if the president of Azerbaijan, president of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the president of Armenia sat down around the negotiating table and if Nagorno-Karabakh would be represented by legitimate authorities."

The inclusion of the Karabakh leadership in the peace talks has long been a source of contention.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 18, Arkady Ghukasian, the president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic, said that in the event that no progress is made in the peace talks, the Karabakh leadership might seek to pressure Armenia to recognize the republic as an independent state.

President Kocharian's comments on March 2 come one day after strong words from his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev.

Speaking in the town of Banofshala, a small part of Nagorno-Karabakh still controlled by Azerbaijan, Aliyev said that talks with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh are at a "dead end." He also said that "Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijani land" and "We must free Nagorno-Karabakh, no matter what it takes."

The Azerbaijani president was in the region visiting camps for Azerbaijani displaced persons who fled their homes during the Karabakh war.

According to RFE/RL Caucasus analyst Liz Fuller, both Aliyev and Defense Minister Safar Abiyev have repeatedly hinted in the past that Azerbaijan might resort to a new war to bring Karabakh back under its control.

But Fuller said that Aliyev's recent comments may have been intended as much as a gesture of solidarity with the displaced persons as a statement of intent to go to war.

Armenian forces control most of Karabakh and some of its surrounding areas. The enclave's status remains unresolved since the three sides -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabkah Republic -- ended three years of fighting and signed a Russian-brokered ceasefire in May 1994.

During the fighting, about 600,000 Azeris were displaced and as many as 25,000 people were killed. Others put the number of displaced persons as much higher.

Paris Meeting

In the run-up to the February summit in Rambouillet, diplomats had expressed guarded optimism that progress would be likely during the talks. Kocharian and Aliyev met face-to-face on February 10-11.

But the talks were widely touted as a disappointment. In a statement issued at the end of the summit, the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of nations -- mandated by the OSCE to mediate a solution to the conflict since 1992 -- said the discussions were "intensive," but provided no breakthrough.

The American co-chair of the group, Ambassador Steven Mann, talked to RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani Services after the summit: "The full range of issues were discussed. There were, I think, good personal atmospherics between the two presidents and the discussions did not result in a substantial change of the positions that the parties have held for months."

Some observers are concerned about the military buildup in both countries -- and its potential impact on the peace process. Both sides have increased defense spending in 2006.

The Minsk Group of Russian, French, and U.S. mediators is set to meet in Washington in early March to formulate the framework of future negotiations.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Click on the image to view an enlarged map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone

In February 1988, the local assembly in Stepanakert, the local capital of the Azerbaijani region of NAGORNO-KARABAKH, passed a resolution calling for unification of the predominantly ethnic-Armenian region with Armenia. There were reports of violence against local Azeris, followed by attacks against Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. In 1991-92, Azerbaijani forces launched an offensive against separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Armenians counterattacked and by 1993-94 had seized almost all of the region, as well as vast areas around it. About 600,000 Azeris were displaced and as many as 25,000 people were killed before a Russian-brokered cease-fire was imposed in May 1994.

CHRONOLOGY: For an annotated timeline of the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-94 and the long search for a permanent settlement to the conflict, click here.

Click on the icon to view images of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Flash required)

To view an archive of all of RFE/RL's coverage of Nagorno-Karabakh, click here.