The leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey have been meeting in Ankara where they are expected to discuss, among other things, Baku's long-running dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. The assassination of top Armenian leaders last week comes at a moment when the Karabakh peace process appeared to be on track. Can that process survive the tragic events in Yerevan?
Prague, 2 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Fears are growing that the search for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could be disrupted by last week's bloodbath in the Armenian parliament. Armenian terrorists, whose motives have not been clearly established, killed the prime minister and other top officials (last Wednesday, October 27), just when the peace process with Azerbaijan was gaining new momentum.
With the active encouragement of the United States, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliev, have met four times in as many months to discuss the future of Karabakh, the mountain enclave inside Azerbaijan but populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. Thousands died in a war over the territory that lasted from 1988 to 1994, and the dispute has never been formally settled.
Washington has been coaxing the two Caucasus republics to reach a framework agreement setting out the main lines of a peace deal in time for this month's summit in Istanbul (November 18/19) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE, which is sponsoring the peace process, is worried that this target date could now be more difficult to meet. OSCE spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told RFE/RL that the organization's experts have been actively assessing prospects:
"We are still hopeful that we can push forward, that there could be some framework for political settlement by the Istanbul summit, but we are also very cautious, let's say, when it comes to Nagorno-Karabakh."
Even before the gunmen burst into the Armenian parliament on their shooting spree, Armenia and Azerbaijan were in disagreement over the latest OSCE-sponsored peace formula. Reports say that formula is based on the idea of a "common state," to be formed by Azerbaijan and the breakaway Karabakh. Azerbaijan says this plan does not guarantee Baku's sovereignty over the enclave. On the other hand, that same formula broadly suits the Armenians.
Now, however, President Kocharian is deeply distracted from the peace process by the need to rebuild Armenia's government and keep the country stable. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian is quoted as saying in a Turkish newspaper interview today (in "Turkiye") that the peace process may indeed be slowed by Kocharian's urgent need to focus on internal issues. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has expressed similar concerns.
Despite such prospects, the OSCE's spokeswoman Fleming is encouraged by progress achieved so far:
"We have never come further on this issue than over the last couple of months, and it is due to the willingness (of the two presidents) to meet to discuss this issue together and to look for a way forward." Officials in Turkey, the host country for the OSCE summit this month, told RFE/RL that they hope Kocharian and Azerbaijan's Aliyev will still meet on the sidelines of the summit, and reach agreement. Murat Karagoz, of the office of the chief adviser to Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, said:
"Of course we hope, but it depends on the negotiations, how things will be shaped from now on. From this time until the summit meeting we have 15 to 18 days. It depends on this period."
Azerbaijan's President Aliev, who has been visiting Ankara this week, also says he hopes an accord can be reached during the summit.
In Ankara he has held private talks with President Demirel, and has also received an award, the Ataturk peace prize. Turkish officials have given few clues as to what the two leaders discussed, but they are sure to have reviewed the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, as well as plans to build an oil pipeline from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
For his part, Demirel has already signaled readiness to send aid to Armenia if it reaches a settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh. And Turkish foreign policy adviser Ertugrul Cilagan told RFE/RL that the opening of diplomatic relations between Yerevan and Ankara will be possible on condition that there are no Armenian military forces on Azerbaijani territory.
Their comments coincide with a call (in "Turkiye") from Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian for Turkey, which he referred to as the leading country of the region, to do more to build better relations with Armenia. Turks and Armenians have long been estranged.