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Caucasus: Armenian, Azerbaijani Leaders To Meet Today

By Liz Fuller and Gnel Nalbandyan

RFE/RL Caucasus analyst Liz Fuller and the Armenian Service's Gnel Nalbandyan report on talks expected in Geneva today between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev on Nagorno-Karabakh. Kocharian stated on Wednesday that "serious progress" had been made toward ending the dispute, which has troubled the Caucasus region for more than a decade.

Prague, 16 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A senior member of the Azerbaijani presidential administration says that tomorrow's planned meeting in Geneva between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev was arranged at the urging of the United States.

The meeting is being held to discuss the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the mainly ethnic Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan. Karabakh was the scene of heavy fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces after the ethnic Armenians there separated from Baku's rule in the late 1980s. A ceasefire was declared in 1994.

Novruz Mamedov is head of the Foreign Relations Department of the Azerbaijani presidential administration. In an interview today with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Mamedov confirmed reports from Yerevan that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has suggested additions to the draft peace plan proposed last November by the Minsk Group. The co-chairmen of the group are diplomats from Russia, France and the U.S., working under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The Minsk Group's November proposal is based on the idea of a common state comprising Azerbaijan and Karabakh. Azerbaijan rejected the plan, saying that it did not respect its full sovereignty.

Mamedov says Albright wrote to both Kocharian and Aliyev following a meeting between the two presidents in Washington in late April. Mamedov said Albright's suggestions were almost identical to the principles set out at a 1996 OSCE summit in Lisbon. Azerbaijan considers those principles as the basis on which a solution to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh must be based.

Mamedov said the only new element in Albright's suggestions relative to the 1996 OSCE summit declaration concerned the repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Asked whether todayUs meeting in Geneva means that Russia has been temporarily excluded from the Karabakh peace process, Mamedov said Russia is not "out of the game." He said Azerbaijan always takes into consideration the opinions of Russia -- which he called "our powerful northern neighbor."

Naira Melkumian is the foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). She told RFE/RL's Armenian Service by telephone from Stepanakert yesterday that she considers Mamedov's statements concerning new proposals by Albright "a product of the Azerbaijani propaganda machine."

Asked why the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are meeting to discuss a solution to the Karabakh conflict without NKR President Arkadii Ghukasian, Melkumian said she believes the Geneva talks will address that question.

She said the NKR needs Kocharian to persuade Aliyev to agree to talks between all three parties to the conflict. She said that as long as the most recent proposal by the Minsk Group remains on the table, Karabakh's negotiating position remains unchanged.