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Armenia: Foreign Minister Says Caucasus Needs Regional Forum

London, 17 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian says the Caucasus needs a regional organization bringing all countries of the area together in a common forum where outstanding problems can be discussed.

This grouping would bring together Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Central Asian nations.

Oskanian told the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London (March 15) that the absence of such an all-encompassing regional organization is one of many destabilizing factors in the region.

"Any all-encompassing regional organization that will include all of the countries of the region -- particularly the major ones -- in one grouping, where we can talk out problems, and have some sort of consensus building, would certainly help the stability of the region."

He said there is no single organization bringing together all regional countries, including Iran, Turkey, and Russia. He said Armenia and Georgia have been excluded from an economic cooperation group linking Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran, and the Central Asians. And Iran is excluded from the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Council, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and from Commonwealth of Independent States discussion forums.

"This is very critical. We need these kinds of organizations. I think the region now has been held hostage to the western policy of Iran's isolation. That's why we didn't really get Iran involved in one or other regional organization, where we have all the major players as part of one organization with common interests."

Oskanian was apparently referring to U.S. Congressional-led moves to isolate Iran because of allegations that it supported terrorism, was seeking weapons of mass destruction and was undermining Middle East peace efforts. But Iran's links with the West have lately been improving.

Oskanian said another destabilizing factor in the Caucasus is what he called the unequal distribution of oil wealth -- a reference to the oil reserves of the Caspian Sea area. Armenia's neighbor, Azerbaijan, has some of the richest oil fields.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly ethnic Armenian area within Azerbaijan that broke with Baku's rule in 1991. Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought a war over the enclave that ended with a fragile truce in 1994.

Oskanian said Armenia hopes that Caspian oil will eventually become a stabilizing element in the region. But he said this will depend on whether Azerbaijan "uses oil as a weapon of choice to get their way, or they will use it as a cement contributing to peace and stability."

Regional stability at present, however, is being upset by "bickering over the oil wealth of the Caspian." He said competition involving Russia, the U.S., the West Europeans, Iran and Turkey over Caspian oil is intensifying, particularly as the volume of oil is now thought to be less than predicted. Regional competition over the route of oil export pipelines is also "going to be a major problem."

But Oskanian said the most destabilizing element in the Caucasus is ethnic conflict. He said one of Armenia's priorities is a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian said recently that the Yerevan government must offer more concessions to Azerbaijan.

Oskanian rejected Azerbaijan's claim that Russian weapons deployed in Armenia could be used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He said Russian bases "cannot be used in that conflict. The treaty we have signed with the Russians clearly specifies that."

Azerbaijan stepped up its opposition to the presence of a Russian military base in Armenia after Moscow deployed modern aircraft and S-300 air defense missiles there recently.

Oskanian said Armenia would be concerned if Turkey responds to an invitation from Baku to station troops in Azerbaijan, as this would upset the "balance" of the Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire.

He said Armenia wants to engage Ankara in a more constructive way. But this engagement has not yet happened "because of the Turkish choice to put their ethnic affinity with Azeris ahead of the geo-strategic interests of the region."