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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Analysis From Washington -- An Opening On Karabakh?

Prague, 8 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The decision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Tuesday to name France rather than the United States as the new co-chairman of talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute could provide an opening for progress on the long-deadlocked talks on the status of that disputed territory.

That cautious conclusion reflects three things: the problems that a joint Russian-American chairmanship would have created, the current state of play of the conflict itself, and the possibility that France may be able to introduce some new elements into the talks.

Had the United States succeeded Finland as co-chairman -- and American diplomats actively campaigned for the position -- Washington would have had to find a modus vivendi with Moscow, the other co-chairman of the OSCE-organized negotiations.

To the extent that Moscow and Washington were prepared to act together, they might have been able to impose a settlement on the long-simmering conflict. But there are several reasons why their joint leadership of the talks would have been more likely to lead to further deadlock than to a resolution.

On the one hand, even though Washington and Moscow are committed to the three OSCE principles on the resolution of the conflict -- territorial integrity, self-determination for Karabakh within Azerbaijan, and international protections for ethnic Armenians living there -- the two powers have very different agendas for the region as a whole.

The United States is primarily interested in the establishment of sufficient security in the area to allow oil to flow from the Caspian basin to the West. The Russian Federation, in contrast, has pursued a policy that can be described as the promotion of frozen instability, backing now one side and now another in all conflicts there, to reduce outside influence and promote its own.

These very different goals would likely have had a negative impact on the prospects for talks on the more limited issue of Karabakh.

And on the other hand, had Washington become the co-chair, that would inevitably have raised the status and thus the stakes of the talks. That in turn would have created expectations that any number of actors both within the region and outside would likely have sought to dash. Moreover, an American co-chairman would have been both more visible and more subject to domestic American politics.

For all these reasons, Washington may be able to do far more behind the scenes than it would have been able to had it been subject to the constraints of an official co-chairmanship.

The second reason for some optimism about the talks arises from the current state of play in the conflict itself. On the ground, the current ceasefire has led some in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to want to find a way out.

Internationally, all the members of the current eleven-member OSCE negotiating group -- except Armenia -- have agreed on the basic principles for a settlement. Armenia's increasing isolation on this point even from Moscow, its traditional supporter, suggests that Yerevan will also be under increasing pressure to make some concession to end the war.

And finally there is the likely French contribution to the talks. In addition to the fact that some in Russia clearly preferred France as co-chairman and France today is actively interested in increasing its international role, something Moscow may not be adverse to promoting, there are three other reasons why France may be able to make a contribution.

First, historically sympathetic to Armenia and Armenians, France nonetheless was one of a very few countries that officially denounced the recent presidential elections in Karabakh.

Second, France is increasingly friendly to Azerbaijan because of French oil interests. On January 13, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev will visit Paris to sign a major contract with a French oil company.

And third, Paris will have a freer hand to make contacts with countries not now in the OSCE talks. One reason that the OSCE negotiations on Karabakh have been less successful than many had hoped is that one major regional actor -- Iran -- has had no voice in them. That reflects a longstanding and understandable American opposition to the regime in Tehran.

The new French co-chairman will certainly not change that formally: Iran is not going to be invited to sit at the table. It is not a member of OSCE. But past French commentary suggests that the French are certainly more willing to play the Iranian card informally than the United States has been.

And by introducing the Iranian element into the talks at least behind the scenes and thus seeking to establish a new balance of forces in the post-Soviet Caucasus, France might be able to move them off dead center, albeit at a price some in Washington and elsewhere might see as too high.

Unfortunately, there is also the all too real possibility that precisely these apparent prospects for peace may reenergize those in the region who benefit from conflict or the current standoff. And these forces could block any progress in the talks or even seek to create conditions leading to a resumption of the fighting.