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Armenia/Azerbaijan: International Mediators Report Progress On Karabakh Dispute

International mediators say that President Robert Kocharian of Armenia and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev made substantial progress toward resolving their countries' long-time dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region during four days of talks last week in Key West, Florida. But the two leaders themselves have refrained from any detailed comment on the meeting and opposition parties in both countries remain skeptical about the outcome of the peace talks.

Prague, 10 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met yesterday (Monday) with U.S. President George W. Bush after four days of talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh region. International mediators describe their talks as a step forward in the peace process.

Bush and his closest foreign-policy advisers held brief separate meetings with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev at the White House.

Few details of the meetings were released. But the fact that the Caucasian leaders met with Bush separately suggests that no breakthrough was achieved last week in the Florida resort of Key West.

Bush reportedly urged his interlocutors to keep up the momentum toward a peaceful solution of the 13-year-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The two former Soviet republics have been in conflict over Karabakh since the enclave seceded from Azerbaijan in 1988. That move ignited a six-year war that killed about 35,000 people and drove some 800,000 Azerbaijanis from their homes.

Despite a truce signed in 1994, scores of people are killed each year along the demarcation line and ethnic Armenian troops still occupy some 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory.

Yesterday, Bush reportedly reiterated that he considers peace in the South Caucasus as a top priority of his administration's foreign policy.

U.S. oil companies are currently developing some of Azerbaijan's most promising offshore oilfields in the Caspian Sea, and Washington is eager to secure safe transportation of Azerbaijani crude to world markets through Georgia and Turkey.

Like most previous such meetings, the Key West talks took place under the aegis of the Minsk Group of nations that has been mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to monitor the peace negotiations. But it was the first time that the chief representatives of the three Minsk Group co-chairs -- the United States, France, and Russia -- met with both presidents in the same place.

Speaking to reporters after last week's meetings, U.S. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh called them a "bold and significant step forward." In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Cavanaugh spoke of Key West's "achievement" but was vague about the results attained. "The biggest achievement here was moving from abstract concepts on how peace may be achieved to concrete details."

French Ambassador Jean-Jacques Gaillarde said he thinks the two sides are "much closer to peace" than they were before the Key West talks. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov -- the third diplomat in the Minsk Group troika -- described the meetings as "very satisfactory."

However, Armenian and Azerbaijani officials were restrained in their comments on the talks.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian was asked by RFE/RL's Armenian Service whether he shares the international mediators' belief that progress was made in Florida. He said:

"To some extent you are right. I've already said that there was some progress. There are still many unsolved issues and we do not know what kind of developments will take place regarding these issues. But compared with previous meetings, the Key West talks were a step forward."

In Washington yesterday, when asked about the results of his talks with Kocharian, Aliyev answered tersely that he had "not had enough time" to gauge the progress made in Key West.

Novruz Mamedov heads the foreign affairs department in Aliev's administration. In an interview last week, Mamedov seemed to downplay the importance of the meeting:

"All I can say is that the talks were useful and important in helping the sides better understand each other. Here some progress was made. As for [U.S. Ambassador] Cavanaugh's statement that there was important progress, you'd better ask him directly to explain what he had in mind."

The international mediators' comments also contrasted sharply with the atmosphere that prevailed at the start of the talks, when Kocharian and Aliyev exchanged acid remarks and accused each other of obstructing the peace process.

While in Key West, the two leaders had two 15-minute private meetings, which reportedly produced no concrete result.

Cavanaugh said last week the Minsk Group will prepare what he called a "new comprehensive proposal for peace" that will be discussed by the two presidents in Geneva in June. The U.S. diplomat provided no details of the new plan, but analysts believe that it could include elements of three previous proposals drafted by the Minsk Group since 1997. None of these plans has been accepted by the two conflicting parties.

Tension has been on the rise in Azerbaijan since Aliyev ordered details of the OSCE peace proposals published in the state-controlled media. The publication of the drafts six weeks ago (February 21) prompted a debate in Azerbaijan's parliament, where most legislators and political leaders called them unacceptable.

Since then, opposition parties, war veterans, and refugees have called for the return of occupied territories by force.

Aliyev has sounded increasingly sympathetic to those in his country who favor a military solution. But analysts note that during the Key West meetings the Azerbaijani president refrained from mentioning a possible resumption of war.

Fear of negative reactions at home may explain why Aliyev and Kocharian remained largely non-communicative about the outcome of their Florida talks.

Both presidents have repeatedly suggested that they are eager to strike a peace agreement before their mandates expire in 2003. But Armenian and Azerbaijani opposition parties have expressed concern about any accord that might hurt the national interests of their respective countries.

Avaz Temirkhan is the deputy head of Azerbaijan's opposition Liberal Party. Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, he was critical of the Key West talks:

"I am sure that if any result was achieved in Key West, it was not in Azerbaijan's interests. The domestic and foreign policies which have been pursued by Azerbaijan in the last eight years cannot help find a solution to the Karabakh issue that would be in Azerbaijan's interests. To solve this issue, we need new leadership."

Another opposition leader, the National Independence Party's Etibar Mamedov, told RFE/RL that he is convinced that the Florida talks did not provide any substantial result.

In Armenia, public opinion was divided over the outcome of the Key West meeting. Pro-government newspapers were cautiously optimistic and opposition dailies accused Kocharian of trying to sell out Karabakh.

Analysts note that President Levon Ter-Petrosian was forced to resign in 1998 soon after he signaled that he could accept peace proposals that the opposition -- then led by Prime Minister Kocharian -- described as detrimental to Armenia's interests.

Now, Kocharian also has to reckon with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Azerbaijan has never recognized the legitimacy of the ethnic-Armenian Karabakh leadership and has always refused to include it in the peace process.

In an interview with "The Los Angeles Times" published a week ago (April 3), Karabakh President Arkady Gukasian said that he will not agree to a settlement that creates a confederation with Azerbaijan, an idea that was at the core of the most recent OSCE-backed draft accord. Gukasian also said that all options other than independence or unification with Armenia will be rejected by the Karabakh leadership and could lead to a resumption of war.

(The Armenian and Azerbaijani services, and Russian Service correspondent Sergei Danilochkin, contributed to this report.)