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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Deadlock In Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Talks Continues

Yerevan, 5 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's foreign minister says there is little hope for an imminent breakthrough in the dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Vartan Oskanian, speaking to reporters in Yerevan on Monday, blamed Azerbaijan for the lack of progress.

"Based on today's situation, I should say that there is no serious movement. We cannot say when the co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group will visit the region to present new or old proposals for the resolution of the conflict. Here, the basic impediment is, of course, the very tough position adopted by Azerbaijan."

Oskanian was referring to Russian, U.S. and French mediators, working under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who put forward a proposal last November. It is based on the idea of a common state between Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian-populated Karabakh, which broke away from Baku's rule in the late 1980s.

Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have generally approved of the proposed deal, while Azerbaijan has said it is unacceptable. Baku says the document does not guarantee restoration of its sovereignty over what in Soviet times was its autonomous region.

Russian and American diplomats have said that minor changes in the plan could accommodate Azerbaijan. But Oskanian suggests that hope is misplaced. He also says that if mediators change the plan significantly to accommodate Baku, it may be rejected by Yerevan and by officials in Karabakh.

"Judging from declarations made from Baku, Azerbaijan is not only against the idea of a common state -- not only that, but in general, Azerbaijan is against many of the principles and the spirit of the OSCE document. And this creates serious complications for the co-chairmen [of the OSCE] because they are not ready to make fundamental changes in their proposal because they believe it is the middle way --a compromise solution. And to deviate from it too much would put them at the other extreme and their proposal would be rejected by Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh." Oskanian also says he believes that progress is being hindered by health problems affecting Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev, which he says are hindering the decision-making process in Baku. Aliyev underwent heart surgery earlier this year in the United States.

The Karabakh dispute is seen as the main factor of instability in the South Caucasus. A Russian-mediated ceasefire stopped a bitter Armenian-Azerbaijani war five years ago but no serious progress has yet been made in OSCE-sponsored peace talks. The shakiness of the ceasefire was demonstrated in mid-June during a brief outbreak of fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the northeastern section of Karabakh's border. At least two people were reported killed and several wounded in the skirmish in the worst such incident since 1997.

Armenian observers have downplayed the clashes, citing similar incidents in the past. But some of them have warned that the longer the deadlock in peace talks continues, the higher the likelihood of a renewed war.

Oskanian welcomed the U.S. Congress's refusal to repeal a ban on direct American government assistance to Azerbaijan. The ban, known as Section 907 of Freedom Support Act, is officially attributed to Azerbaijani stance on the Karabakh issue. The Clinton administration has actively lobbied for the lifting of the sanctions.

The U.S. Senate voted down a motion to remove the clause last week. By contrast, the Senate slightly increased the amount of direct American aid to Armenia. It was set at $90 million for 2000.