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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Summit Revives Optimism Over Nagorno-Karabakh

By Harry Tamrazian

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan were due to hold talks on Sunday in Geneva on the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The meeting is the second between the two leaders in just over a month. According to our correspondent in Geneva, Harry Tamrazian, Sunday's talks renewed optimism that a settlement to Nagorno-Karabakh may soon be found.

Geneva, 23 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Sunday's second closed-door summit meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents, Heidar Aliyev and Robert Kocharian, is a significant turnaround in the deadlocked peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Before leaving for Geneva on Saturday, Aliyev told reporters that he hopes the talks will help settle the conflict. He did not disclose details of the talks, saying only that they will be held in confidence. He said the purpose of the talks is so find "such solutions that would satisfy both sides."

An Azerbaijani foreign policy official, Vafa Guluzade, told RFE/RL on Friday that the meeting bodes well for peace in the enclave.

Before the first meeting in Geneva last month, the two leaders had been openly critical of one another and had been unwilling to meet. After Geneva, both men expressed hope that peace in Karabakh is achievable.

Many Armenian and Azerbaijani analysts say the turning point in changing the mood between the two nations came during the 50th anniversary NATO summit in Washington last April. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took the initiative in organizing the first south Caucasus summit on the sidelines of the NATO celebration. The Washington initiative appears to have pushed the peace process forward considerably.

The first summit meeting in Geneva on July 16 surprised many regional observers. The talks were held without the benefit of mediators, and the content of the discussions was kept secret. Both Kocharian and Aliyev claimed that not even mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were aware of all the details discussed.

The tone of the comments and statements made after the first summit by Aliyev and Kocharian was unusually upbeat. For the first time in the history of the conflict, an Azerbaijani president took a conciliatory tone, saying that compromise was the only way to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. The Azerbaijani opposition, however, was quick to blame Aliyev for betraying Azerbaijani interests and selling out Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave inside Azerbaijan largely populated by ethnic Armenians. Fighting erupted in 1988 after the ethnic Armenians declared sovereignty. The OSCE arranged a ceasefire in May 1994, which is still holding, but there has until now been little progress toward a permanent settlement.

There has been speculation in the opposition Azeri daily "Azadlik" -- quoting unnamed diplomats close to the government in Baku -- that Aliyev will sign an agreement that grants Nagorno-Karabakh a special status close to independence. There has been no official comment from either side to the report, however.

Another significant development in the Karabakh peace process occurred when U.S. congressman Frank Palone delivered a speech on July 19 -- three days after the Geneva meeting -- during hearings in the U.S. Congress.

Palone -- who visited the region earlier this month -- heads the Armenian caucus in the U.S. Congress. In his speech, he described the latest Karabakh proposal by the OSCE's Minsk Group -- co-chaired by the U.S., Russia and France -- as a sort of confederation between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, in which the two would be part of a "common state" with equal status.

Palone said there are strong indications that Azerbaijan might be willing to accept such a proposal, despite the fact that Baku doesn't like the term "common state". He said that if another term -- such as "confederation" or "free association" -- is used instead, Baku might be willing to go along with it.

Whatever the details of any future agreement might be, it appears that all sides are moving toward an accord in which the rights of self-government for Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians could be characterized by the formula "less than independence, more than autonomy."