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Armenia/Azerbaijan: New Efforts To Solve Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute

Yerevan, 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian officials quote a visiting American envoy as saying (Friday) that the United States is ready to step up its efforts to help mediate a settlement of the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

The press office of Armenian President Robert Kocharian said Steven Sestanovich, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Newly Independent States, "expressed readiness to reinvigorate the negotiating process" during talks with Kocharian (May 21) in Yerevan.

Together with Russia and France, the U.S. co-chairs the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which spearheads international efforts to end the decade-long dispute. The Group's most recent peace plan envisages a "common state" between Azerbaijan and Karabakh, which broke away from Baku's rule in the late 1980s. Prospects for a solution remain uncertain, with Azerbaijan refusing to accept the new plan. Armenia and Karabakh's ethnic Armenian authorities have largely approved the document.

Some mediators have suggested amending the proposals to address Baku's concerns. The Armenians say possible amendments are acceptable as long as they do not require more concessions to Azerbaijan.

Sestanovich, who is touring the region, also met with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. The foreign ministry said the two men agreed that a peace deal on Karabakh must be "acceptable to all conflicting parties." Official sources also said Sestanovich discussed prospects for furthering regional cooperation, hampered by numerous ethnic disputes. They said Yerevan is committed to greater economic interaction with neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The U.S. takes the view that economic integration would be conducive to stability and prosperity of the impoverished region. Washington believes that the Transcaucasus is a potential economic crossroads between Europe and Central Asia.

Last March, the U.S. State Department held a two-day conference in Yerevan on "regional synergy" attended by the U.S. ambassadors to the three Transcaucasian countries, other diplomats and aid officials. American diplomats have said that as part of those efforts, the U.S. is helping Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia put in place an adequate transport infrastructure and harmonized customs systems.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia and Georgia have been major recipients of American economic aid. Efforts by Armenian-American lobbying groups led the U.S. Congress to impose serious restrictions on direct assistance to Azerbaijan. Despite those sanctions, the U.S. has shown a strong interest in developing Azerbaijan's substantial oil reserves and many American oil multinationals have had a presence there since 1994.

The unresolved Karabakh conflict hangs heavily over the fate of multi-thousand-million-dollar oil contracts signed between the Azerbaijani government and Western companies.

Strained relations between Armenia and Turkey are seen as another impediment to the implementation of regional programs. The two neighboring countries with troubled past have no diplomatic relations. Ankara refuses to open its land border with Armenia until Yerevan recognizes Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. A possibility of the Armenian-Turkish "dialogue" was discussed by the U.S. official and Oskanian, according to the foreign ministry.