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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Pessimism Over Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Talks Prevails

Early next month (April 3) leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan travel to the southeastern U.S. state of Florida for a new round of talks to try to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But both presidents have recently expressed pessimism over the upcoming meeting. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch looks at the latest developments.

Prague, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev have both recently dismissed hopes that a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is within reach.

Addressing students at the Yerevan State Institute of Economics on Wednesday (March 21), Kocharian admitted that direct talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart were in a deadlock:

"We have exhausted the resources of our face-to-face meetings [with President Aliev]. We have discussed all possible solutions, all possible combinations of plans, and we have no more resources to continue within this format."

Speaking the same day in Baku for the Nowroz New Year celebrations, Aliyev warned that if a peaceful settlement is not attained, "the Azerbaijani people will show all their strength and power and liberate the occupied Azerbaijani lands by military means."

An ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, Karabakh seceded from Azerbaijan in 1988, triggering a six-year war with Baku. The conflict halted with a ceasefire in 1994, but ethnic Armenian forces still occupy the enclave and six neighboring districts in Azerbaijan. An estimated 800,000 Azerbaijanis from Karabakh and occupied territories were turned into refugees during the active phase of the conflict.

Kocharian and Aliyev are due to hold a new round of talks next month in Key West, Florida. The meeting will start April 3 and is expected to last at least four days.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met on Tuesday (March 20) with visiting Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, will open the meeting.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. administration expects the next round of talks to bring the negotiating sides closer after a fruitless meeting earlier this month in Paris:

"The Key West talks are another attempt to move this process forward, to narrow the differences."

Kocharian and Aliyev have already had 16 face-to-face meetings since 1998. They met most recently in Paris on March 4 and 5 under the auspices of French President Jacques Chirac.

France co-chairs with the United States and Russia the so-called "Minsk Group" that has been tasked by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, with monitoring the peace talks. Aliyev returned from Paris in a rather pessimistic mood, saying the meeting had been unable to produce any concrete results.

Last month, media outlets in Baku released for the first time details of three proposed peace plans drafted by the Minsk Group since 1997.

A debate in Azerbaijan's Milli Meclis (National Assembly) immediately followed the publication of these drafts, which legislators and political leaders ultimately described as "unacceptable."

Since then opposition parties, war veterans, and refugees called for the return of occupied territories through military means.

In a passionate speech before the Milli Meclis last month (February 24), Aliyev warned his opponents that should hostilities resume, he would declare a state of emergency and ban all opposition parties and media, thus making clear he would favor a peaceful solution.

Azerbaijani journalist Hasan Guliyev is a former aide to late President Abulfaz Elchibey. He notes that, within only a month, Aliev's stance has significantly changed:

"When you look at his public speeches over the past month, you see that the emphasis is progressively shifting. During the first 10-15 days (following his address to the parliament), he spoke more of the potential of the peace negotiations and seemed to obstruct the militaristic psychosis that was developing [in the media and the opposition]. But now, in his speeches, he sounds more sympathetic to those who favor a military solution."

Shortly after the Paris talks, Aliyev went on a five-day state visit to Turkey for meetings mainly focused on regional security problems.

Turkish media have reported that the Karabakh issue was the main topic of Aliev's talks with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, and Army Chief-of-Staff Huseyin Kivrikoglu.

Details of the talks remain sketchy.

Observers point out that, contrary to Aliev's previous trips to Ankara, this month's visit was unusually confidential. Upon his return to Baku, Aliyev declined to comment on the results of his talks with Turkish leaders.

Guliyev noticed a change in the Azerbaijani president's attitude after his visit to Ankara:

"There have been changes in Aliev's behavior that you can explain to a certain extent. Of course it is not the main explanation but, still, it certainly played a significant role. [I think that] his talks in Turkey gave him a reason to change his tune."

Turkey supports Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia. Since Baku's military defeat, Ankara has introduced economic sanctions against Yerevan and has closed its border with Armenia.

Relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey were particularly close under Elchibey's nationalist regime. In 1993 both countries were considering signing a broad defense cooperation treaty similar to the one that was signed four years later between Armenia and Russia.

But Elchibey was then ousted by a military coup that brought Aliyev to power and the Turkish-Azerbaijani treaty was shelved.

Guliyev believes that Aliyev may have discussed with Turkish officials ways to boost bilateral military cooperation.

In a interview with Turkey's NTV private television channel, Aliyev last week called for increased military cooperation with Turkey, saying he would welcome a Turkish military base on Azerbaijani territory. Russia has a military base in Armenia.

Also last week, a high-ranking Turkish General Staff officer went to Baku to meet with Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiev. Details of the talks between General Nusret Tasdeler and Abiev were not disclosed.

Vahan Hovanisian is one of the top leaders of the Armenian nationalist Dashnaktsutyun Party. He also chairs the defense, interior, and national security committee in the Armenian National Assembly (parliament).

In an interview with RFE/RL, Hovanisian said that despite Aliev's harsh rhetoric, prospects of fighting resuming between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain hypothetical for the time being.

"I think that not only Aliyev but also a significant part of Azerbaijan's society are, deep in their heart, perfectly aware that the reality has changed and that they are ready to compromise. They are ready to make real compromises that would take into account the interests of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples."

Yet both Hovanisian and Guliyev believe that there is little chance that the Key West talks will produce any result.

In his address Wednesday to the Yerevan State Institute of Economics, Kocharian said if the Key West meeting fails to bring the two sides closer to an agreement, a new meeting will take place in Moscow.

(RFE/RL's Armenian Service provided audio for this feature.)