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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Analysis From Washington--Dealing On Karabakh

Washington, 29 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The international community may now be ready to step up the pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve their long-running dispute over Nagorno Karabakh -- and to do so at a time when some in both Yerevan and Baku are prepared to deal.

But despite these apparently promising new circumstances, neither the outside powers nor the countries immediately involved are likely to find it easy to resolve a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives and embroiled that region for more than a decade.

On Friday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, senior French foreign ministry official Jacques Blot, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov will arrive in the region to discuss the conflict with officials in both capitals.

They represent the three countries now serving as co-chairmen of the Minsk Group, the body set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to facilitate talks about Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave inside Azerbaijan populated largely by ethnic Armenians.

The Minsk group has had little success in moving beyond the ceasefire the two sides have generally observed during the last two years. And representatives of the three co-chairmen countries have visited the region before.

Moreover, the three are all publicly committed to the so-called Lisbon principles that Azerbaijan has accepted but Armenia has rejected.

Adopted at the OSCE summit last year, those principles call for the maintenance of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and the provision of extensive, internationally guaranteed autonomy for ethnic Armenians living within Azerbaijan's borders.

But despite this difficult history, recent changes in each of these countries on the one hand, and in Armenia and Azerbaijan on the other, suggest that this joint, high-level delegation could be more productive than any earlier round of talks.

The changes in the three OSCE co-chairmen countries are the most striking.

Over the past six months and in response to both geopolitical concerns about both Russia and Iran and an interest in securing access to oil resources in the Caucasus, the United States has signalled that it wants an agreement soon and on the basis of Lisbon.

Not only did Washington use its political muscle to become the third co-chairman of the Minsk group, but U.S. President Bill Clinton and his administration has taken a number of steps to show that it is more interested in finding an agreement than in deferring to Armenian concerns.

Clinton has invited Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev to visit later this summer. His spokesmen have said they hope to get the Congress to drop a provision of the foreign aid act that limits Washington's ability to provide assistance to Azerbaijan.

And in the context of the recent discussions leading to the ratification of the Conventional Forces in Europe flank agreements, senior members of Congress have expressed concern about increasing Russian involvement in Armenia and Yerevan's willingness to accept it.

In Russia, the changes have been more subtle but perhaps even more important at least in terms of the chances of achieving an agreement.

For some time, Moscow has had two foreign policies in the Caucasus. One, based in the foreign ministry, seeks to expand Russian influence in the Caucasus and has sought to play off Armenia against Azerbaijan and to block the flow of Caspian oil to the West. The other, centered around Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and his Gazprom interests, appears to be more interested in profitting from the flow of oil even if that means that Moscow has less leverage in the region than earlier.

As long as the former group dominated policy, Moscow was as much an obstacle to a settlement as anyone else. But now the second group appears to be the more influential and hence more interested in an accord that might let the oil flow.

And in France, the recent elections will only increase the likelihood that Paris will seek to expand its international influence by seeking to broker a deal.

Meanwhile, the recent appointment of former Karabakh president Robert Kocharian as prime minister in Armenia means that Yerevan can now deal without anyone being able to say that it has "sold out" Armenian interests.

And the Azerbaijani government, building on its successes at the OSCE summit, has pursued a more active diplomacy, one designed to win support for itself and the Lisbon principles.

All these changes suggest that there is a better chance for a settlement now than at any time since the conflict began.

But precisely because so much blood has been spilled and because the conflict touches the national self-definitions of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, there is no guarantee that even these favorable diplomatic circumstances will produce a peace.