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Azerbaijan/Armenia: Nagorno-Karabakh Emissary Urges Equal Concessions

Washington, 4 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A senior official from the Nagorno-Karabakh province in Azerbaijan is visiting Washington for the first time this week to press the region's position on latest proposals to resolve the ten-year conflict over its status between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The self-styled foreign minister of the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic," Naira Melkoumian, has met with U.S. congressional leaders and State Department officials to urge equal concessions in the peace negotiations.

She said Tuesday at a news conference organized by RFE/RL that she was very satisfied with the talks at the State Department but gave no details.

Melkoumian met Monday with Ambassador Lynn Pascoe, America's chief negotiator on Nagorno-Karabakh and one of the co-chairmen, with France and Russia, of the so-called Minsk group. Sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), it has been mediating talks with the three parties to the conflict to arrange a peace settlement, following a 1994 uneasy cease-fire.

A State Department official who spoke with RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, described the meeting with Melkoumian as "a positive discussion," adding "but there is still a long way to go to a lasting peace in the region."

He said the U.S. hopes to restore momentum to the peace talks as soon as a new government is in place in Armenia.

Armenians are set to go to the polls on March 16 for the first round of presidential elections called after President Lev Ter- Petrossyan's resignation last month.

His resignation came after a split in his government over a U.S.-backed peace proposal supported by Ter-Petrossyan. His opponents said it demanded too many concessions by Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia and too little from Azerbaijan.

The official said the U.S. hopes a new Armenian government will be in office by April. He said Pascoe and other members of the Minsk Group would then plan to visit Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh to continue discussions of the peace proposal.

The official said "whether the trip takes place will depend heavily on the response of the new Armenian government."

At the press conference, Melkoumian said a lasting peace could be arranged quite quickly if Azerbaijan would be prepared to go an equal distance and make concessions, as well as demand them.

Speaking through a translator, Melkoumian said her wish would be for Azerbaijan to acknowledge it is equally responsible for the conflict in the region and to accept that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have the right to self-determination.

She said "if they accept this reality, we will very quickly be able to resolve this issue," adding that the Azerbaijani government must understand it cannot use its oil wealth to substitute for political concessions.

Asked to comment on Melkoumian's complaint of unequal concessions, the U.S. official said "a proposal the U.S. has put forth demands concessions on all sides."

He said more important than concessions are benefits and that "all sides would gain immeasurably from a negotiated lasting peace and stability in the region."

He noted that the U.S. Congress has approved $70 million for post-conflict economic reconstruction in the southern Caucasus and set aside more than $12 million alone for humanitarian aid for Nagorno-Karabakh.

The official said other countries are also prepared to make contributions. "There is a lot of international willingness to help finance development in this long-troubled region," he said.

Melkoumian said Nagorno-Karabakh wants to become a bridge between Azerbaijan and Armenia and develop into an economic and financial center, something like the tiny states of Monaco, Lichtenstein, or Andorra in Europe.

The U.S. does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state and considers the region to be part of Azerbaijan. But U.S. negotiators have supported the region's bid for greater autonomy.