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Armenia: President In U.S. For High-Level Talks

Robert Kocharian, the president of Armenia, will be meeting in Washington this week with U.S. President Bill Clinton and other senior government officials. His visit comes four months after Heidar Aliev, the president of neighboring Azerbaijan, made a similar visit. And as it was with Aliev, the focus of Kocharian's visit is likely to be Nagorno-Karabakh.

Washington, 26 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, is in Washington this week for meetings with U.S. President Bill Clinton and other senior officials on security and economic issues.

The most important subject likely will be Armenia's 12-year-old dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

On Monday, Kocharian meets with U.S. Vice President Al Gore at the State Department, and the American will be the host of a dinner for Kocharian immediately after their meeting. On Wednesday, the Armenian president will meet with Clinton at the White House.

Kocharian's discussions with American officials will focus on regional issues in the Caucasus. They include U.S. support for the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and restoring economic relations among the countries in the region.

The White House also said Clinton and Gore will ask Kocharian about Armenia's progress in promoting democracy, reinforcing the rule of law, and building a market economy.

Kocharian also meets Wednesday with Horst Koehler, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Armenian president will meet the following day with James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank.

The dispute between Armenia and its neighbor, Azerbaijan, over Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, has been simmering -- sometimes violently -- since 1988.

The residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have been demanding their independence from Azerbaijan. Heidar Aliev, Azerbaijan's president, has rejected this demand, but has offered to allow a safe-passage corridor linking the enclave to Armenia.

U.S. political leaders themselves are divided over Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1992, the U.S. Congress imposed economic and political sanctions against Azerbaijan. It accused the government in Baku of setting up an economic blockade against Armenia as part of the ongoing dispute.

The Clinton administration has tried without success to have these sanctions repealed so it can improve political and economic ties with Azerbaijan. In particular, the U.S. is interested in helping to develop the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that would bring oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea region to Western nations through Georgia and Turkey.

Aliyev was in Washington four months ago to make a personal appeal against these sanctions -- known as Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. In a speech and a news conference, Aliyev did his best to appeal to American sensibilities. But the sanctions remain in place, and Aliyev made it clear that he was not expecting immediate relief.

"Unfortunately, in a very fair and just country like America, in a fair Congress like you have, sometimes unfair bills are also adopted."

Kocharian's visit to Washington also will focus on ways to improve Armenia's economy. The country was politically and economically adrift after the attack on its parliament on October 27, in which Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and seven other people were killed. Stability appears to have returned when a new government was formed on May 20 under Prime Minister Andranik Markarian.

The new government has drawn up a economic plan to address several problems, and will be discussing that plan this week with both Wolfensohn at the World Bank and Koehler at the IMF.

The IMF's senior official on Armenia, Thomas Wolf, says that in order to reduce poverty and improve Armenia's economy, the government in Yerevan must take several key steps. They include increasing tax collections and fees for government-owned utilities; attracting domestic and foreign investment by eliminating petty regulations and corruption; regaining its lost momentum on privatization; and strengthening its judicial system.

Wolf says the government's economic plan adequately addresses each of those problems, but he stopped short of endorsing the proposal outright.

"I think that the program represents a basis -- and it's a very general document, after all -- but, I mean, it represents a basis for them to move ahead in all these areas. And now the real test will be whether they do."

Wolf says the IMF hopes Markarian's new government moves quickly to enact the necessary reforms.

"I think the determination is there. I think it's mainly a question of how quickly they think they can address these issues."

Wolf says it should not take Yerevan long to enact some of these reforms. For instance, he notes that the country already has strong bankruptcy laws. But Armenia's weakened judiciary is not enforcing them properly. With good enforcement, the IMF official says, Armenia's business climate could be quickly improved.