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Azerbaijan: Exile Criticizes Peace Plans For Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Washington, 9 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An exiled opposition leader from Azerbaijan has drawn attention to what he says are flaws in the international mediating effort to make a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Rasul Gouliev, a former deputy prime minister and speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament (Milli Mejlis) says the governments of the two Caucasus countries do not play a leading role in the negotiations.

As he put it: "they are behaving as observers in the peace process and taking their lead from the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)."

Gouliev, who was forced into exile last year and now lives in New York, made the statement Friday at a Washington press conference organized by RFE/RL.

He criticized the OSCE peace plan for being too general and directed at a general strategy for peace, instead of concrete, step-by-step proposals to resolve the dispute between the two countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh province, an enclave of largely ethnic Armenians located inside Azerbaijan .

Gouliev, speaking though a translator, said the OSCE plan's main weakness is that it is unsatisfactory to both sides and gives them no room to compromise.

Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1988, sparking a six-year war in which the rebels pushed Azerbaijani forces back from their province and seized a big chunk of Azerbaijani territory. An uneasy truce has existed since 1994.

The latest peace plan, backed by the U.S., Russia and France, the chief mediators of the so-called OSCE Minsk group, calls for the land to be returned and for the province to receive a high degree of autonomy but remain part of Azerbaijan.

Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments have agreed to the plan, but in Armenia, the idea was so unpopular, it led to the resignation last week of President Levon Ter-Petrossian.

Ter-Petrossian's likely successor , at least temporarily, will be Robert Kocharian, a native and former leader of Karabakh, who opposes unconditional return of any territory taken from Azerbaijan during the war.

Gouliev said Kocharian is more hardline and more hostile towards Azerbaijan and his participation in the negotiations would make it even harder to make progress.

The U.S. State Department said last week that the peace plan remains on the table and the U.S. is optimistic it can continue to work with the parties to find common ground.

But Gouliev expressed doubts that a solid political settlement can be reached by what he said are dictatorial governments now in power in Armenia, as well as Azerbaijan.

"Our two countries need to restore trust between each other, and our government needs popular support to reach an acceptable compromise" on Nagorno Karabakh, he said, adding that "without democratic governments in power, it will be very difficult to resolve the issue."

Gouliev said his country is now in the grip of a dictatorship that is even harsher than the oppression suffered in Soviet times. He said the security forces of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev make arrests daily and are holding hundreds of people in prison. Aliyev tolerates no criticism and maintains strict control over the media, Gouliev said.

Gouliev has said he hopes to return to Azerbaijan to campaign in presidential elections set for October. He said the more candidates there will be to run against Aliev, the better the chances will be of unseating him.

Gouliev said all opposition forces should focus on the goal of defeating Aliyev in the elections and later can discuss how to form a governing coalition.