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Armenia: Squabbles Grow Over Chairmanship Of Karabakh Negotiations

Vienna, 15 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - A problem has developed within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) over the chairmanship of the group trying to negotiate a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Last month, France was nominated to become co-chair of the talks along with Russia, which holds the post permanently. The decision was welcomed by Armenia but disappointed Azerbaijan, which would have preferred the United States as co-chair.

OSCE officials in Vienna tell RFE/RL that, as a result, Azerbaijan is insisting that the whole matter be reconsidered to see if the United States can be brought in as a co-chair after all.

OSCE officials said private talks are going on in Vienna to find a solution but there is no indication how long they might take.

Reports say Azerbaijan's President Haidar Aliyev discussed the issue during his visit to Paris this week but, no details were disclosed.

Top U.S. officials in Washington -- who did not wish to be identified -- have confirmed to an RFE/RL correspondent that the United States had offered itself in December as co-chair of the Karabakh negotiating team. Washington proposed current Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott as the chief U.S. representative. However, the outgoing chairman of OSCE, Switzerland's Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, announced December 31 that France had been chosen.

"The United States is still interested in obtaining the post," a U.S. official told RFE/RL. "We believe the United States has the qualifications to work with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and with Moscow to find a settlement."

He said that, at the moment, there is no consensus on the co-chair post because of Azerbaijan's reservations about France. While that situation continues, he said, the United States will remain a candidate. He said that if a consensus did develop in favor of France, the United States would not reject it. He emphasized several times that the United States is not hostile to France.

France has proposed the director general of political and security affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Jacques Blot, as co-chair of the Karabakh negotiations. The chief French negotiator would be Jean Vaugier, who is currently France's Ambassador to Nicaragua, but who has a reputation as an expert on Russian affairs.

OSCE diplomats in Vienna say it was unlikely that negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh will resume until the chairmanship problem is resolved. The last negotiations took place at the end of November, and failed to make any progress. No date has been set for continuing the talks.

U.S. officials said that one solution, which had been proposed, is to have three co-chairs: Russia, France and the United States. They described this as a face-saving approach, which would prevent embarrassment to any country. However, it might make the already-difficult negotiations even more difficult. Russia is believed to oppose a three-nation co-chairmanship.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave inside Azerbaijan largely populated by ethnic Armenians. Fighting erupted in 1988, after ethnic Armenian authorities declared sovereignty. The OSCE arranged a ceasefire, which halted hostilities in the conflict in May 1994. But, despite intensive negotiations, the OSCE has been unable to convert this into a permanent peace. The negotiations are led by the co-chairs on behalf of an international group (known as the Minsk group) of eleven countries.

Armenia blocked the OSCE summit meeting in Lisbon last month from including a statement on Nagorno-Karabakh in the summit document. Armenia said the proposed statement was unacceptable, because the sttement pre-determined the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The statement proposed that Nagorno-Karabakh should remain within Azerbaijan, but be granted the highest degree of self-rule.

Our correspondent reports this remains the basic OSCE position. OSCE believes the settlement must maintain the territorial integrity of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The correspondent notes that most experts believe the negotiations could drag on for years unless a compromise is found on this point.