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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Presidents' Paris Talks May Signal New Progress

Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev will meet in Paris over the weekend to discuss the two countries' dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Analysts from both countries believe that this new round of talks -- the 15th between the two presidents since 1998 -- will not end with a major breakthrough. But they say the meeting may signal a new phase in the negotiation process. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe reports:

Prague, 2 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The heads of state of Armenia and Azerbaijan will begin a scheduled two days of talks in Paris Sunday (4 March) in a new attempt to hammer out a peaceful solution to the 13-year-old territorial dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan will meet under the aegis of French President Jacques Chirac. France co-chairs with Russia and the United States the so-called "Minsk Group," which has been tasked by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to monitor the peace process.

This new round of talks -- the second in less than two months -- may be an indication the two countries are getting closer to a peaceful settlement of the bloody conflict that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands and turned about 800,000 Azerbaijanis into refugees. The conflict began in 1988, when the mainly ethnic Armenian enclave seceded from Azerbaijan.

Speaking yesterday (1 March) in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, where he was on an official visit, Kocharian said he believed the meeting in Paris with Aliyev would move the parties closer to an accord.

"We will probably have two meetings [in Paris], and there is a great hope that we shall register some progress. The prospect of a settlement is realistic."

But analysts from both countries say that no final agreement will be reached in Paris. But they agree the meeting is still significant.

Hmayak Hovanisian is a member of Armenia's Unity parliamentary group, and also chairs the country's Association of Political Scientists. In an interview with RFE/RL, Hovanisian said both presidents are likely to discuss a general framework that would provide a basis for further negotiations.

"What I'm talking about is the Paris meeting which should, first and foremost, allow the two presidents to lay down those principles that would provide the basis for a renewal of the negotiation process sponsored by the Minsk Group."

Hasan Guliyev is a journalist for Azerbaijan's state-run Turan news agency. A former aide to Abulfaz Elchibey, Aliev's predecessor as president, Guliyev also thinks the Paris meeting may open what he calls a "new phase" in the peace process.

"One can expect that, as the peace negotiations continue, new ideas based on a new approach will come out."

On Tuesday (27 February), Kocharian held talks in the Armenian capital Yerevan with Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, whose country chairs the rotating annual presidency of the OSCE. The same day, Kocharian's office said in a statement that the peace process has entered a "quite responsible period."

Kocharian was also quoted by his press service as saying that he hopes Yerevan and Baku will be able to settle the Karabakh issue during Romania's presidency -- that is, by the end of this year.

On 1 March, the Romanian envoy held talks with Aliev. Speaking to reporters in Baku, Geoana called upon both countries to display "political courage and determination" in settling their dispute.

Since 1997, the OSCE Minsk Group has drafted three peace proposals that have failed to obtain the consent of both negotiating parties.

The most recent of these proposals, which provides for the creation of a so-called "common state" between Azerbaijan and Karabakh, was rejected by Azerbaijan as unacceptable. The other two -- known as the "package plan" and the "step-by-step plan" -- were turned down by Armenia.

Last week, Aliyev ordered that the three drafts be published in the Azerbaijani press and initiated a parliamentary debate on the Karabakh issue.

Speaking before the Azerbaijan's National Assembly (Milli Meclis), Aliyev strongly criticized the Minsk Group, calling all of its three drafts unsatisfactory. He described the common state plan as a "provocation" against Azerbaijan.

Last month, diplomatic sources close to the talks told RFE/RL that the Minsk Group did not expect the two presidents to agree on any of the three drafts. More likely, they said, Aliyev and Kocharian would agree on a new document that would include elements of the existing proposals and unspecified new provisions.

Last week, Aliev's former diplomatic adviser, Vafa Guluzade, told the Turan news agency that a fourth draft -- details of which are still unknown -- might appear in the near future.

Guliyev thinks that the failure of the three previous drafts will help move both sides toward a compromise.

"Obviously, after these unsuccessful experiments, both sides have come to the conclusion that they need to adopt a new approach. They understand that, let's say, a fourth draft is necessary. And I think that ways of formulating the general principles of a fourth draft will perhaps be examined in Paris. When one speaks of a fourth draft, one really means a synthesis of all positive elements in the three previous drafts."

Guliyev thinks that one of the subjects to be discussed in Paris could be the direct inclusion of the Karabakh leadership in the peace process, a possibility that Azerbaijan has always rejected.

While in Yerevan last Tuesday (27 February), Romania's Geoana met with Arkady Gukasian, the president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. After the talks, Gukasyan told Armenian television that no peace deal could be reached without the enclave's participation.

Addressing the Azerbaijani parliament last week, Aliyev raised the prospect of a resumption of fighting. But he warned that such an development would be fraught with consequences for his country.

Some opposition parties have openly called for a renewal of military operations to recapture the territories occupied by Armenian troops since 1993. Earlier this week, Azerbaijani refugees and war veterans called for the return of territories under Armenian occupation through military means.

Still, few in Azerbaijan and in Armenia believe that a resumption of military operations is likely to occur.

Analysts note that, in his address to the parliament last week, Aliyev warned his opponents that in the event of hostilities resuming, he would declare a state of emergency and ban all opposition parties and media.

Armenian deputy Hovanisian says Aliev, who signed a cease-fire with Armenia in 1994, believes he is the only politician in Azerbaijan capable of reaching a peace agreement with Yerevan.

"As the architect of the cease-fire, Aliyev also wants to be the architect of a long-lasting peace. He believes he is strong enough to achieve that."

Both Hovanisian and Guliyev say that, despite difficulties, the peace process is "irreversible."