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Armenia: Yerevan Urges U.S. To Maintain Azerbaijani Sanctions

Washington, 12 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia says the United States should not remove its economic sanctions on Azerbaijan until Baku ends its economic blockade of Armenia.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told reporters in Washington on Thursday that his government believes that Azerbaijan is the main obstacle to improved cooperation among the nations of the Caucasus region.

Oskanian was in the U.S. to attend a United Nations drug summit in New York. He came to Washington to meet with State Department officials and members of Congress.

He says he hopes the U.S. Congress will resist pressure from President Bill Clinton, the U.S. State Department and others who want a congressional ban on U.S. economic aid to Azerbaijan repealed. Congress is scheduled to take up the issue later this month.

Azerbaijan and Armenia are at odds over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. The ethnic Armenians want independence. They seized control of the region, and other parts of Azerbaijan, in a military offensive supported by Armenia in 1993. Azerbaijan has said it will never agree to independence for Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire has been in place since 1994, but the sides have been unable to resolve the dispute.

The conflict has posed a difficult political and diplomatic problem for the United States.

The U.S. Congress imposed the ban on all but humanitarian aid for Azerbaijan after it closed its border with Armenia and set up a blockade on a railroad line into Armenia. Meanwhile, Armenia has received almost $200 million in U.S. economic assistance over the past two years.

However, the U.S. government now wants improved relations with Azerbaijan, saying normal ties with Baku are crucial if the U.S. is to share in the development of Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea energy reserves. Some U.S. officials have said the oil and gas deposits in the region are worth billions of dollars.

President Clinton and the State Department tried to convince the congress to repeal the aid ban last year but failed. The nearly one-million strong Armenian American community is well-organized and it has a sophisticated political lobbying apparatus. Armenians in the U.S. played a major role in keeping the ban in place.

There will be more pressure to repeal the ban in the weeks ahead. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) is sponsoring the "Silk Road Strategy Act," which aims to create an economic corridor in the Caucasus and also calls for ending the ban on aid to Azerbaijan. The Senate's Foreign Relations Committee is set to review the proposal on June 23.

Oskanian said Thursday that Armenia believes that lifting the aid ban would be a mistake. He said Azerbaijan maintains its closed border and rail blockade against Armenia, and he charged that Azerbaijan opposes regional economic cooperation that includes Armenia.

He also said that internationally-mediated talks on resuming negotiations about Nagorno-Karabakh can only succeed if there are no preconditions for a settlement. Azerbaijan demands the return of territory seized by the Karabakh Armenians.

Oskanian added that there are also no obstacles to normalized relations between Armenia and Turkey. Turkey has ethnic and religious ties to Azerbaijan. Turkey does not have diplomatic relations with Armenia and has also closed its border with Armenia.

Oskanian said there are problems between Turkey and Armenia that must be solved, but he said there are no pre-conditions for normal relations.

He said Armenia would like Turkey to drop its linkage of a settlement of the Karabakh dispute to diplomatic recognition. Oskanian also said Armenia wants Turkey to recognize that the Ottoman Empire pursued a policy of genocide against its Armenian subjects during World War I, deliberately killing more than one million.

Turkey has refused to concede this argument. It says hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed, but blames their deaths on the war and not a Turkish plot.