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Armenia: Foreign Minister Says No Breakthrough On Karabakh

International negotiators are traveling through the Caucasus as part of a continuing effort to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. But Emil Danielyan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports that, according to Yerevan, the long-awaited settlement is not yet on the table.

Yerevan, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian says there has been no breakthrough in negotiations over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh despite improved prospects for ending the decade-long dispute.

U.S., Russian, and French negotiators are meeting with Azerbaijan's leaders in Baku today under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The organization has been mediating in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Azerbaijan's breakaway Karabakh region, which is mostly populated by ethnic Armenians.

Oskanian told a news conference in Yerevan today that the "main obstacles" to resuming OSCE-sponsored peace talks have not yet been overcome. He said even though the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are "determined" to find a peace accord based on compromise, they have not yet agreed on the main sticking point --Karabakh's future status.

The Armenian foreign minister also expressed concern that the growing strain in relations between the United States and Russia over the conflict in Chechnya may jeopardize their continued cooperation in the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group. The U.S. and Russia, along with France, co-chair the group, which is the main mediating body for Karabakh.

Negotiators from the three countries have held talks in Yerevan and the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert over the weekend, and are now in Baku on the last leg of their regional tour. Russia's chief negotiator, Nikolay Gribkov, said yesterday that talks with the Karabakh leadership were "quite effective."

Oskanian said the co-chairs brought no new peace proposals this time, and aimed instead to "assess the situation and decide what steps to take next after consulting with the parties."

"Given Azerbaijan's continuing opposition to their most recent peace plan," Oskanian said, "they seem to be thinking that it is time to come up with something new."

Azerbaijan maintains that the Minsk Group's current plan for Karabakh fails to guarantee Baku's sovereignty over the territory. It proposes that Azerbaijan and Karabakh form a loose "common state," an idea supported by the Armenian side.

The mediators have signaled readiness to address Azerbaijani concerns, but the Armenians say they will not make any more major concessions beyond those envisaged by the current plan.

Face-to-face talks between the parties have not taken place under OSCE aegis in the last three years. The mediators have instead relied on shuttle diplomacy, periodically visiting Yerevan, Baku, and Stepanakert.

Those efforts have been helped by a direct Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue throughout this year. Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev were seen as having inched closer to a peace deal. But the process was considerably slowed down by the October assassinations of Armenia's prime minister, parliament speaker, and other top officials. The Armenian authorities have since been grappling with domestic political uncertainty.

Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian said today: "As of today, there has been no concrete formula agreed on [by the two presidents] as the basis of the settlement. Even so, there is a determination to solve this issue by compromise."

The French representative in the mediating team, Jean-Jacques Gaillard, told RFE/RL on Saturday that the agenda for discussions includes a package of economic incentives for the parties to achieve peace.

But Oskanian warned that the growing differences between Russia and the West over the war in Chechnya may hinder the Karabakh negotiations. The United States has criticized Russia for using excessive force, while Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned that Russia, as a nuclear power, should not be told how to conduct its internal affairs.

If the Russia-West rift deepens, Oskanian says, Armenia may find it difficult to stick to its foreign policy goal of maintaining simultaneously good relations with all international partners. The task is already delicate as two of Armenia's major partners are the United States and its arch-foe, Iran.

The dividing line between the West and Iran passes through Armenia, Oskanian said. He said that puts Armenia in a "difficult situation."