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Armenian/Azerbaijan: Summit Offers No Quick Fix For Karabakh Conflict

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan ended yesterday yet another bilateral meeting on an optimistic note, pledging more efforts to resolve their long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Presidents Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliyev also vowed to maintain the eight-year cease-fire regime around the disputed Armenian-controlled territory. But they stopped short of announcing a breakthrough on any of the sticking points. As RFE/RL reports from Yerevan, neither leader left any indication that the bitter dispute will be settled before presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan next year.

Yerevan, 15 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian and President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan are no strangers, having met with one another more than with any other foreign leaders in recent years. The two men smiled and appeared in positive moods after four hours of one-on-one talks yesterday at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

It was the 18th Armenian-Azerbaijani summit since 1999, and the first face-to-face contact between Aliyev and Kocharian since last November. It was also their longest single encounter.

Speaking at a joint press briefing, Kocharian said: "Our mood is good, and we are on the whole satisfied with the course of the meeting. At the same time, we cannot tell you anything concrete...because the whole [peace] process is quite complicated. It slowed down recently. Nonetheless, we hope that this meeting will push the stalled process forward."

Aliyev likewise noted that the talks had been "very useful." "The president of Armenia and I looked into many variants of solving this problem [Nagorno-Karabakh]. We analyzed the results of our previous meetings and agreed that the negotiating potential has not yet been exhausted," Aliyev said.

And yet there was nothing in the two presidents' words that would give commentators reason to expect a peace deal on Nagorno-Karabakh before presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan scheduled for February and October 2003, respectively. Both presidents will be seeking re-election and facing challengers opposed to major concessions on the issue, which strikes a chord with large parts of Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Aliyev and Kocharian will thus be vulnerable to attack if they agree on, let alone implement, any compromise peace formula.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev acknowledged this reality yesterday when he told Armenian journalists: "The conflict's resolution requires certain concessions from both sides. But it is difficult to make any concessions before the presidential elections."

While little appears to threaten the 79-year-old Aliev's tight grip on power in Azerbaijan except his ailing health, his Armenian counterpart's re-election is by no means a foregone conclusion. Confronting Kocharian will be a pool of opposition candidates quick to exploit the Karabakh problem for political aims. Only one of his potential challengers, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, favors a softer line on the issue.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mainly Armenian-populated enclave that broke away from what was Soviet Azerbaijan in 1988. The Karabakh Armenians, backed by Armenia proper, waged a secessionist war against Azerbaijani forces that was stopped by a Russian-mediated cease-fire agreement in May 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh is still internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, but the region has become closely integrated with Armenia.

If there was any real chance of ending the 14-year dispute before 2004, it was lost last year when the two sides were as close to signing a peace accord as ever. According to French, Russian, and U.S. negotiators sponsoring the peace process, Aliyev and Kocharian hammered out the key points of a Karabakh peace deal in April 2001, during an intensive round of negotiations in Key West, Florida.

The peace conference was preceded by two separate Aliev-Kocharian meetings in Paris mediated by French President Jacques Chirac. The two presidents reportedly agreed on the main principles of the final agreement in the French capital. The Armenian side reportedly claimed that it would uphold Karabakh's de facto independence by putting it into a loose Bosnia-type confederation with Azerbaijan.

That agreement was widely expected to be signed by the parties in Geneva in June 2001. However, the summit was abruptly canceled for unknown reasons. Officials in Yerevan and Karabakh Armenians later accused Aliyev of reneging on the Paris and Key West agreements. They say Baku demanded additional Armenian concessions shortly after the Florida talks.

The Azerbaijani leadership denied the existence of such agreements and blamed the Armenians for the deadlock. But last June, Aliyev admitted that "a number of agreements" had been reached in Paris. But he claimed that it was Kocharian who subsequently scrapped them, a charge angrily rebutted by Yerevan.

Foreign Minister Guliev, meanwhile, continues to contradict Aliyev by insisting that there are no "Paris principles" of a peace settlement. The Armenians, for their part, say that a return to those principles is the only way of reviving the peace process.

Whether Aliyev and Kocharian discussed this yesterday is not known, as none of some 70 reporters covering their meeting was allowed to ask questions.

The ethnic Armenian leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) had already voiced skepticism about the long-awaited meeting. The NKR president, Arkadii Ghukasian, said he had lost faith in Aliyev while he was being re-elected on 10-11 August in a popular vote denounced as illegitimate by the international community. "I think that Aliyev is no longer capable of adopting a constructive position and fostering the conflict's settlement. I think that Aliyev has exhausted his potential. Unfortunately, the hopes pinned on him, thinking that he is the most constructive Azerbaijani politician, have not been justified," Ghukasian said.

Even assuming that the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents reached a full understanding on the main stumbling blocks, they lack the time, and perhaps the incentives, to start implementing a truce before the end of this year. It is no wonder, then, that they did not set specific dates for more direct negotiations.

One possible way to move forward is to begin normalizing bilateral relations before addressing Karabakh-related problems. AFP quoted a pro-presidential Azerbaijani lawmaker, Anar Mamedkhanov, as saying this week that Baku and Yerevan are now considering reopening rail links between the two countries.

Azerbaijan has until now ruled out any commercial contacts with Armenia before the return of its Armenian-occupied lands surrounding Karabakh.

Meanwhile, Aliev's and Kocharian's opponents claim the two men are primarily concerned with their own political survival. An Armenian pro-opposition daily, "Haykakan Zhamanak," suggested that the main purpose of their latest summit was to secure the West's endorsement of their re-election plans by showing that only they can bring peace and stability to the volatile region.

Kocharian's comments sounded like an indirect confirmation of this speculation. "If we don't solve this problem, then who else will solve it? Taking into consideration Hedar Aliev's background [and] my background related to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, we feel a great burden of responsibility on us," Kocharian said.