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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Talks End Without Breakthrough

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have ended two days of talks in Paris aimed at settling the long-standing dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. In recent years, three draft plans for resolving the problem have been submitted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation, or OSCE, but each has been rejected by one side or the other. Last week, the current OSCE chairman, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, visited Armenia and Azerbaijan in the run-up to the Paris talks. RFL/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston made the trip with Geoana and files this report.

Munich, 5 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the OSCE chairman last week urged leaders and foreign ministers not to be disappointed by past failures to resolve the impasse over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliev, finished two days of talks today in Paris hosted by French President Jacques Chirac. Both leaders had earlier said they were actively seeking a peace settlement for the mostly ethnic Armenian enclave situated within Azeri territory, but there were no breakthroughs reported at the Paris talks.

A spokeswoman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry (unnamed) told journalists accompanying Geoana last week (27 February) that the government in Yerevan was no more than cautiously optimistic.

"We call it a 'cautious optimism' because we know from our past that sometimes when we are too optimistic of a solution something happens which pulls the whole process back to its beginning stages. So we are optimistic, cautiously optimistic."

Two days later (1 March), Kocharian himself was a bit less cautious, telling reporters there was "real hope" of making some progress in Paris.

In Azerbaijan the same day, Aliyev told Geoana that many in his country were disappointed at the OSCE's failure to produce a settlement acceptable to Baku. He said some were beginning to believe that a military solution would be more successful. But the week before (23 February), while addressing his own parliament, Aliyev made clear he did not favor a military solution.

Geoana told journalists traveling with him that he thought the Paris talks might be successful in producing new initiatives for a resumption of the peace talks. Geoana said, however, that he did not expect any major breakthrough in the peace negotiations in the near future, even if -- in his view -- both presidents were working for a settlement.

"It is obvious that there is a true dialogue going on. It is obvious that the two presidents are really embarking on this effort with sincerity and commitment. But I would really not go in the direction of saying that we should expect major breakthroughs anytime soon."

Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave inside Azerbaijan now populated by ethnic Armenians. War erupted when the territory broke with Azerbaijan in 1988. Tens of thousands of people were killed before a cease-fire was negotiated in 1994.

The war cost Azerbaijan control of Karabakh and at least six neighboring districts -- altogether some 20 percent of its territory. About 800,000 refugees now live in Azerbaijan, hoping for a peace settlement that will allow them to return home.

An Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman (unnamed) said her country's main objective in the negotiations was to ensure the safety of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. That meant, she said, providing them with a permanent link to Armenia.

"The main objective for a settlement is to guarantee the unimpeded existence of the Nagorno-Karabakh people within their own borders and with a constant link to Armenia. Whatever solution is taken, it should be within the will of the Nagorno-Karabakh people and with their agreement."

Earlier negotiations led by the United States, Russia, and France on behalf of the OSCE produced three draft plans for a settlement. The most recent, in 1998, proposed that Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh should form what was described as a "common state." This would amount to a loose confederation in which Karabakh would enjoy de facto independence with the status of a republic, its own constitution, armed forces, and the power to veto any legislation passed in Baku.

At a meeting with opposition politicians in Baku, chairman Geoana was asked how it was possible for OSCE negotiators to make such a proposal. Several angry Azerbaijani politicians described it as "unjust and unfair."

Aliyev told Geoana at a meeting with local and foreign media that "no greater injustice could have been offered to Azerbaijan than presenting such a proposal." He reiterated that he wanted a peaceful solution to the dispute.

"As we have declared several times but would like to reiterate here, Azerbaijan is in favor of a peaceful settlement of this conflict and we are doing our best to achieve only a peaceful settlement. But after the debate in parliament [last week], there is a feeling among the people in Azerbaijan that they would prefer a more military solution to the problem. And we can understand that. Historically, force has been answered by force and aggression resisted by actions to save the nation."

Geoana told both Aliyev and Azerbaijani opposition politicians that the international community would not tolerate another war like the one in the early 1990s. He said there was a strong desire to see an end to the two nations' stand-off and a return to stability in the area.

Geoana said Azerbaijan and Armenia must realize that both would benefit from real peace. But he emphasized that it could be achieved only if both sides were ready to make compromises.

"We are focusing on finding solutions which would be acceptable to both parties. But I have to say once again that compromise can be reached only through serious compromises on both sides, on all sides, and thus really requires a lot of political courage. But this is the only way out for a political settlement of the crisis."

At the same time, Geoana said he recognized a final settlement had to satisfy not only the governments in both countries but also their peoples. He said convincing public opinion that the settlement is a good one is important for its success. And he said the way to do that was to ensure that the final accord was fair to both parties.