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Armenia: Analysis -- U.S. Diplomat Tries To Close Karabakh Deal

By Mark Baker and Emil Danielyan

Prior to today's shooting incident in the Armenian parliament, the country's main news event involved the visit of a senior U.S. official to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh. Reports have indicated growing momentum for a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave. Our correspondents say U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was in Yerevan to try to push for a deal ahead of next month's OSCE summit in Istanbul.

Yerevan/Prague; 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met Armenian President Robert Kocharian today to discuss terms of an agreement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Talbott, the second-ranking member of the U.S. State Department, held similar discussions yesterday in Baku with Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev.

Details on both meetings were scarce. Our correspondent in Yerevan says reporters were barred from speaking directly with the U.S. diplomat.

The stakes riding on Talbott's visit are high. The U.S. has intensified diplomatic efforts in recent months and encouraged four face-to-face meetings between Aliyev and Kocharian to catalyze peace efforts.

Washington is said to be pushing hard for some type of agreement on Karabakh before next month's summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Istanbul. The OSCE's Minsk Group, co-chaired by the U.S., Russia and France, is leading peace efforts.

The independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan reported that last week U.S. President Bill Clinton sent a personal letter to Aliyev urging him to step up efforts to resolve the dispute by the OSCE summit.

At issue is the status of the enclave, controlled by ethnic Armenians but situated within Azerbaijan. It is the main obstacle to improving relations between the two South Caucasus states, and is a major brake to political and economic development in the region. The enclave separated from Azerbaijan about 10 years ago and erupted into violence. A 1994 cease-fire succeeded in ending hostilities, but not before more than 30,000 people died.

Ahead of yesterday's meeting with Aliev, Talbott was complimentary to the Azerbaijani leader, praising what he called his "statesmanship" on Nagorno-Karabakh. Talbott said, "But even before I've had a chance to hear your latest assessment, I can tell you that President [Bill] Clinton and Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright already esteem you very highly, for your leadership and for your statesmanship, in grasping the mettle of this problem that has been such a curse to all the people of this region. And I can tell you that the United States of America stands ready to help you in the great cause of peace in any way we possibly can."

The intense diplomacy appears to be bearing fruit.

While there have been no details on the substance of the face-to-face talks between Aliyev and Kocharian, reports say the two are said to be making progress on an accord.

Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov acknowledged last night in Washington that the upcoming OSCE summit will be very important for the settlement of the conflict. The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS quotes him as saying Azerbaijan would not rule out signing an accord with Armenia at the summit.

Correspondents say though that many potential obstacles still remain, including a possible division within the Azerbaijani leadership on whether to grant any concessions on Karabakh.

Talbott's visit yesterday coincided with the resignation, or dismissal, of two officials in Aliev's administration, including Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfigarov. Zulfigarov was later replaced by Vilayat Guliyev, a member of a small party who has very little foreign policy expertise.

It was not clear what was behind the moves. One independent newspaper ("525") argued that the resignations were genuine and show discord within the government on Karabakh. A leading opposition paper said it was a ploy by Aliyev to give the illusion of instability in the government. The paper reasoned that the U.S., for one, would never risk instability in Baku by forcing an unpopular solution on Karabakh.

The European Union has also recently been critical of Azerbaijan and says the country has not been meeting its obligations to cooperate with Armenia in EU-sponsored projects in the South Caucasus. This doesn't bode well for prospects of a settlement.

An official with the European Commission's external relations department, Cornelius Wittebrood, told RFE/RL last week that the present position of the government of Azerbaijan is "not totally consistent with the joint declaration that Azerbaijan adopted together with Armenia and Georgia at the occasion of the presidential summit in Luxembourg."

Wittebrood said Azerbaijan is balking on a pledge made at the summit in June to reopen the Azerbaijani-Armenian railway and had not yet signed a charter to open a joint environmental center in Tbilisi, along with Georgia and Armenia.

There was no official response from authorities in Baku.

The OSCE said today it is "concerned at the appearance of any new problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan at a time when major efforts are underway to make progress on the Nagorno-Karabkh situation."

After leaving Yerevan, Talbott headed to Turkey for talks with top officials there. He is next due in Moscow for more talks on Karabakh. As a co-sponsor of peace efforts, Russia's agreement on any peace deal is crucial.

A spokeswoman for Kocharian told RFE/RL that the Armenian leader and Russian President Boris Yeltsin discussed Karabakh on the telephone today. Azerbaijani officials have said Russia favors Armenia in the talks.

After Russia, Talbott flies to Paris in a bid to bring the third co-sponsor on board for a peace agreement, provided one is in the offing.