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Moscow Presses For Progress On Karabakh Conflict

Vienna, Feb. 15 (RFE/RL) - Diplomats in Vienna say Moscow is planning an intensive campaign of shuttle diplomacy aimed at achieving progress toward settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict before Russia's June presidential election.

A senior diplomat from a neutral country this week told RFE/RL: "The Russians have told us that Boris Yeltsin wants a peace-making success to improve his status before the vote. There is little chance of that in Chechnya, but there is a slim possibility of doing it in Nagorno-Karabakh."

Russia's new Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov outlined Russia's plans last month at a meeting with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Primakov said Russia would not attempt to reach a settlement on its own, but would cooperate with the OSCE at all stages and keep it informed.

The OSCE sponsors the international negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh which have been underway since 1992. Their only success has been the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces, which took effect in May 1994. Since then, neither side has been ready to accept compromises in its basic position.

An OSCE spokesman quotes Primakov as saying Russia will designate a high-ranking official to shuttle between Azerbaijan and the Armenian side with ideas and possible compromises. Russia will also try to persuade each side to intensify current bi-lateral negotiations. Two recent rounds have produced few concrete results.

The OSCE spokesman tells RFE/RL that Russia has not yet begun the diplomacy campaign, but is expected to do so next month. The spokesman said Primakov discussed Russia's plans with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher at their meeting in Helsinki last week.

The spokesman said OSCE's own contacts with the Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenian forces indicated there is little hope Russia will be able to achieve a settlement of the major problems. But Moscow might be able to make progress in some areas.

Primakov has said previously that Russia's main goal is to convert the 20-month-old ceasefire into a permanent cessation of hostilities. Diplomats believe this could be achieved before the election - if Russia applied enough pressure. Russia might also be able to persuade each side to accept confidence-building-measures already proposed by the OSCE. These measures include restrictions on military activity in border areas, and a ban on the concentration of troops and weapons in certain areas.

"None of these measures poses real difficulties for either side," a diplomat in Vienna told RFE/RL. "It is a matter of the political will to implement them. This is an area in which a determined Russian push might succeed."

Russia might also be able to score a success with the release of prisoners-of-war and civilian prisoners. According to the latest figures from the International Red Cross, there are still at least 64 Azeri prisoners in Nagorno-Karabakh. The number of ethnic Armenians being held by Azerbaijan is unclear because Baku has refused to allow the Red Cross to visit all of its prisons. Azerbaijan says it is holding "about the same number" of prisoners as there are in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But diplomats say they doubt if Russia will be able to make much progress before June on the main issues, particularly the question of the Lachin Corridor. This is a mountain pass, which connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. It is Azerbaijan's territory, but was captured by ethnic Armenian forces in 1992. Azerbaijan insists on its return, but the ethnic Armenians are equally forceful in refusing to do so without strict security guarantees.

The OSCE has proposed, that after a permanent settlement is achieved, an international force of about 100 armed troops with anti-tank weapons should be stationed in the pass to keep the peace.

Many diplomats believe the best hope for progress lies in the bilateral talks between high-ranking officials of Azerbaijan and Armenian sides.

"Russia and the OSCE can only push," said a high-ranking diplomat closely associated with the international efforts to reach a settlement. "In the end," he said, "it is the warring sides which have to agree and which have to show the political will."

Another round of the bi-lateral talks will take place next week. Diplomats say these may show how far each side is prepared to go to meet the new Russian pressure. The next round of OSCE's own negotiations will be in Helsinki from Feb. 29 to March 1. Finlandco-chairs the OSCE negotiating group along with Russia. Next month, the new chairman of the OSCE, Switzerland's Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, will visit Azerbaijan and Armenia. He will be accompanied by Russian and Finnish diplomats.