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Azerbaijan: U.S. Seeks Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement

The U.S. assistant secretary of state for the newly independent states is on a tour of the Caucasus and was expected in Baku yesterday. In Yerevan (Oct. 20), the official, Steven Sestanovich, said the recent signs of rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Armenia bode well for Armenia's relations with Turkey. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan.

Yerevan, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has proposed that Armenia and Turkey should open unofficial "information centers" in each other's capitals, as a first step toward normalizing relations between the two traditional foes.

A spokesman for the Armenian government told RFE/RL that the issue was raised (Oct. 20) by Steven Sestanovich, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the newly independent states, during his talks with Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.

Turkey has so far refused to establish diplomatic relations with neighboring Armenia until Yerevan recognizes Azerbaijani sovereignty over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

After meeting with Sarkisian (Oct. 20), Sestanovich said the U.S. regards Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as vital for stability in the Caucasus.

"Our view is that there should be a full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. As a practical matter, we recognize that partial steps may be taken first and we have discussed that with our Turkish ally."

Sestanovich visited Turkey before arriving in Armenia. He said he received positive signals from Ankara about the proposed exchange of "information centers." An Armenian government spokesman said Yerevan fully backs the idea.

Sestanovich's visit follows Prime Minister Sarkisian's recent calls for the to mediate in an attempt to improve relations U.S. between Armenia and Turkey. Sarkisian discussed the issue with Vice President Al Gore in Washington earlier this month.

The U.S. assistant secretary argued that the recent direct meetings between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, who have met several times to discuss ways of settling the Karabakh conflict, bodes well for improving Turkish-Armenian relations.

"We have been discussing this because our Turkish colleagues are telling us that they are eager to understand the process of discussions between Armenia and Azerbaijan and to see how they would be able to support it."

Presidents Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliyev have met four times in as many months, raising hopes for a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh. Kocharian said late last week that a settlement is almost within reach. The decade-long territorial dispute is a major hindrance to American efforts to integrate the Caucasus economically with the West.

Sestanovich hailed the Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue as "encouraging."

"That creates a basis for agreement that can be then taken further by the mediators."

Washington has urged the conflicting parties to reach a framework agreement on Karabakh before next month's summit in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE's Minsk Group, co-chaired by the U.S., Russia and France, leads international efforts to mediate in the Karabakh dispute.

Sestanovich said the Minsk Group's most recent peace plan, accepted by the Armenian side, remains "on the table." That plan proposes a "common state" between Azerbaijan and Karabakh, an Armenian-populated territory that broke away from Baku's rule in the late 1980s. Baku has rejected the plan, which would reportedly uphold Karabakh's de facto independence while nominally making it part of Azerbaijan.

Sestanovich also reiterated Washington's position that representatives of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should also participate in peace talks -- something to which the Azerbaijani government has also been opposed.