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Caucasus: More Time Needed To Finalize Karabakh Peace Deal Draft

A summit meeting to settle the territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, scheduled for mid-June in Geneva, has been put off indefinitely. The decision should give international mediators additional time for final work on drafting a peace proposal that could put an end to the 13-year-old conflict. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch spoke to the newly appointed French envoy to the so-called Minsk Group of nations that has been tasked with monitoring the peace talks.

Prague, 29 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- International mediators monitoring peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute have decided to postpone a planned meeting between the leaders of the two countries next month.

Last Saturday (26 May), Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Dzyunik Agadzhanian said the meeting, tentatively scheduled for mid-June in Geneva, had been postponed indefinitely.

The Geneva meeting was due to follow four days of intensive talks earlier this year (3-6 April) in the Florida resort of Key West, where both sides reportedly made substantial progress toward a peaceful settlement of the 13-year-old conflict.

The Key West meeting took place under the aegis of the Minsk Group of nations, which has been mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to monitor the peace negotiations.

The mid-June meeting between President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and President Robert Kocharian of Armenia had been expected to produce a possible draft of a final peace agreement. This would have been the fourth such draft accord since the OSCE started mediating the Karabakh settlement negotiations in the mid-1990s.

Armenia and Azerbaijan 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 a substantial portion of Azerbaijan's territory.

Last week, representatives of the Minsk Group co-chairmen -- Russia, France, and the United States -- went on a fact-finding tour of the conflict zone.

The newly appointed French envoy to the Minsk Group, Philippe de Suremain, told our correspondent that the decision to postpone the Geneva summit was made at the request of Kocharian and Aliyev after the Minsk Group delegation returned from the region. He said the delay should enable the Minsk Group mediators to finalize a draft peace plan that later will be submitted to Aliyev and Kocharian for approval:

"At one point, we had considered June as a possible date [for the summit]. But we did not set a precise date. After we completed our tour of the region, we came to the conclusion that perhaps it would be better if we do not rush the process too much, if we take some time to think everything over and go deeper into details."

Last week, Suremain, U.S. envoy Carey Cavanaugh, and Russian representative Vyacheslav Trubnikov traveled successively to Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan, where they held talks with Aliev, Kocharian, and officials of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh republic. A few days before they had met with Kocharian in New York.

Suremain said both presidents have assured the international mediators that they are committed to reaching a peaceful solution:

"[Kocharian and Aliev] found it would be more appropriate and productive if they do not meet in the immediate future. They thought it would be better to achieve a substantial result rather than attaining a result that would have certainly represented a step forward [after the Key West conference], but that would perhaps not have justified a meeting of such importance."

An official familiar with the talks -- who asked not to be identified -- told RFE/RL that Kocharian and Aliyev have already agreed on the basic principles of a draft peace plan. He said that both leaders have expressly asked the Minsk Group mediators to keep details of the plan secret.

The official said: "Both presidents want to inform their public opinions only at the appropriate time. They also want to avoid any partial leakage that would not reflect the exact content of the peace agreement."

Both Western and regional media have suggested that, under the accord, Karabakh would enjoy a high degree of self-government, while formally remaining under Azerbaijan's jurisdiction.

Armenian troops would withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territory under the supervision of an international monitoring force. In addition, an Armenian-controlled corridor linking Karabakh to Armenia would be created, while Azerbaijan would be linked in return by a similar stretch of land to the ethnic Azerbaijani enclave of Nahicevan, sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran.

Both presidents have hinted in the past that each side will have to make concessions to reach peace.

Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agadzhanian said public opinion on both sides of the conflict was not ready yet for what she described as "compromises" necessary to end the conflict. But she added that "this does not mean that the peace process has stopped."

Three months ago (21 February), state-controlled media outlets in Baku released for the first time details of the three proposed peace plans drafted by the Minsk Group since 1997. Publication of these drafts was followed by a passionate debate in Azerbaijan's National Assembly (Milli Meclis), which found them "unacceptable."

Since then, opposition parties, war veterans, and refugees in Azerbaijan have called for the return of occupied territories by military means.

Kocharian is also under domestic pressure, notably from nationalist parties that are opposed to the return of occupied territories to Azerbaijan. Kocharian also has to reckon with Karabakh leaders who have repeatedly said that they would not agree to a settlement that creates a confederation with Azerbaijan.

Still, French envoy Suremain believes that public opinion in both countries is convinced that there can be no solution to the conflict other than a peaceful one:

"In my view, there is a consensus on this issue. I have not heard any strong disagreement on either side. Obviously, nobody believes that resuming military operations could provide for a reasonable solution."

Speaking to reporters in Baku last week, U.S. envoy Cavanaugh said that the major obstacle to a peace accord was less the substance of the negotiations than convincing public opinion in both Azerbaijan and Armenia to make sacrifices for peace.

Regional experts generally believe that fear of negative reactions at home explain why Aliyev has sent contradictory signals over the past few months.

Navruz Mamedov, who heads the foreign affairs department in Aliev's administration, said last week (25 May) in Baku that Azerbaijan would consider war as an option in case peace negotiations fail. But the next day, Aliyev told a gathering of political leaders that he wanted a peaceful, rather than military, solution. Noting that it would be impossible to achieve peace without compromises, Aliyev warned that these compromises "must be equal on both sides."

Suremain says the decision to postpone the Geneva summit should not be understood as a setback in the peace process. Rather, he says, it reflects the intricacies of the negotiations:

"[I believe that] this is a rather good sign. The more we move forward, the more we understand the complexity of the situation. It is like a construction game: whenever you touch a part, you make the other parts move. Therefore, we must be very tactful. We should not try to reach a peace agreement by force. We should reach an agreement that satisfies both sides."

Aliyev and Kocharian are expected to meet later this week (31 May) on the sidelines of a CIS summit in the Belarus capital Minsk. But diplomats familiar with the progress of their negotiations say that even if it takes place, the meeting is unlikely to provide any breakthrough in the peace process.