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New Efforts to Revive Karabakh Negotiations

Vienna, May 2 (RFE/RL) - Russia and Finland are launching new efforts to persuade parties to the eight-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to agree to a permanent settlement.

A Russian spokesman (anonymous) today told a RFE/RL correspondent that Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov will visit the region next week (May 7-9) to try to persuade the sides to achieve some progress before a scheduled CIS summit this month (May 17).

Our correspondent reports that at the end of May, high-ranking diplomats from Russia and Finland will make a joint visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh to press for agreement on some areas where compromises seem possible.

Russia and Finland are taking the lead in the negotiations as co-chairmen of a group established by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to reach a permanent settlement of the conflict. OSCE arranged a ceasefire in May, 1994, but has been unable to convert this into a permanent cessation of hostilities, or make progress on a political settlement.

The war erupted in 1988, after the mainly ethnic-Armenian population of Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region declared sovereignty. In the fighting which followed, Azerbaijan lost about 20 percent of its territory. The negotiations led by Russia and Finland have focussed on a "de jure" recognition of Azerbaijan's territorial sovereignty in the region, while granting Nagorno-Karabakh considerable independence. Armenia also insists on a permanent corridor across Azerbaijan's territory linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

The eleven countries in the negotiating group will meet in Helsinki Sunday (May 5) to discuss how they should commemmorate the second anniversary of the ceasefire May 12. Diplomats told RFE/RL today they hope Armenia and Azerbaijan will mark the anniversary by finally releasing all hostages and prisoners-of-war. Each side has frequently agreed to do so, but OSCE and the International Red Cross say both are still holding prisoners.

Russia and Finland will use the anniversary to send a letter to the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Heydar Aliyev, calling on them to make both territorial and political compromises in the interests of a permanent peace.

Normally, Russia and Finland meet with the parties to the conflict at least once a month to try to edge them toward settlement. However, these talks broke down at the end of March, with both Russia and Finland complaining that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan was willing to make compromises or turn promises into action.

The Kremlin's special envoy to the region, Vladimir Kazimirov, visited Azerbaijan this week to try to find a basis for renewing the talks. A spokesman for Finland's government tells RFE/RL today there was still no agreement on when to resume the monthly talks, but it was hoped they could begin in June. Kazimirov told reporters in Baku that Azerbaijan had told him it was ready to discuss a special status for Nagorno-Karabakh provided Azerbaijan's territorial integrity was maintained. Azerbaijan also insists on the return of all captured territory, including the Lachin corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Diplomats at OSCE headquarters in Vienna said this had been Azerbaijan's position all along, and did not appear to represent any progress.

The OSCE diplomats said Russia had informed them unofficially that Moscow had expected more flexibility from Azerbaijan because of recent Russian political gestures. Last month, Russia arrested two of President Aliyev's political opponents who were living in Moscow.

They were a former president and a former defence minister, whose arrest had long been demanded by Aliyev. The spokesman said that Russia still expected Azerbaijan to make a gesture in return, but it was unclear what this would be

OSCE diplomats noted that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are equally uncompromising. Nagorno-Karabakh's foreign minister, Arkady Gukasian, told a press conference in Stepanakert April 3 that Nagorno-karabakh was prepared to accept the transfer of certain powers to international institutions as part of a settlement "but rules out any subordination to Azerbaijan."

The most recent move was a private meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Heydar Aliyev, in Luxembourg April 21. The leaders were in Luxembourg to sign documents on co-operation with the European Union and met the night before.

Apparently, they failed to make any concrete progress. A joint communique issued after their talks said they "reconfirmed their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and to the ceasefire which has held for two years, and which must be maintained until the signing of the political agreement."

The communique went on to say: "the two president further agreed that the resolution of the conflict must be vased on internationally-recognised principles and norms relevant to the conflict; that negotiations within the negotiation group of the OSCE (the Minsk group) must continue in order to ensure the signing of the political agreement; and the direct dialogue between the parties must be intensified to facilitate the comprehensive resolution of the conflict. "Presidents Ter-Petrosyan and Aliyev also agreed that the resolution of the conflict will contribute significantly to the stability and security of the region, and the economic and social development of the people's of the region."

Finally, the communique said - once again - that the two presidents "are in accord with the urgency of the resolution of the humanitarian issues, first and foremost the immediate and unconditional release by all parties of all hostages and prisoners-of-war."

An OSCE spokesman said today that although the communique was issued eleven days ago, there is no sign yet that the remaining hostages and prisoners-of-war have been released.