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Azerbaijan: Newfound Wealth Hardens Baku's Bargaining Position On Karabakh

Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov (Turan) To hear Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister tell it, the longstanding conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is fairly "easy" to resolve -- all Armenia has to do is accept that the region is Azerbaijani territory and all other negotiating chips will fall into place.

Araz Azimov's statements, made during an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service this week, reflect Baku's increased standing as a result of rising global oil prices and strengthened position ahead of negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents scheduled for June 7 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Azimov says that after allowing Armenia's newly elected President Serzh Sarkisian and his government time to consider its course of policy on Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku is working from the understanding that "Armenia is ready to continue talks on the settlement issues."

However, the deputy foreign minister adds, "this readiness should be based on something."

"Whatever different elements are under consideration, all of them in the end, logically and unavoidably, come out to one issue: this conflict is to be solved within the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan -- period," Azimov says.

Once Armenia was willing to accept this condition, Azimov predicts, the negotiation process would follow a logical, step-by-step process that "will take us to the next stage."

The elaboration of concrete proposals, he says, will open the way for military-technical measures that lead to the end of Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijani territories.

That, according to Azimov, will free things up for the rehabilitation of those territories and, in turn, provide for the return of the population of these territories, "including the return of Azeris" to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Once the two peoples are "tasting the fruit" of mutual cooperation and coexistence, they will be ready to decide their future, he says.

"Then, within that new environment of peace and security, they will be able to participate within the legal and democratic process that will establish the status of the [Nagorno-Karabakh] region," Azimov says.

Azimov's statements make crystal clear that Baku considers the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in May upholding the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan as the starting point for any negotiations. But the deputy foreign minister's comments also distance Azerbaijan from international calls for the two sides to agree on an interim status for the disputed region until a referendum can be held sometime in the future.

The OSCE Minsk Group, which is mediating the settlement negotiations, has had difficulties getting the two sides to sign off on what it calls the "fundamental principles" of a settlement.

The principles, in general, call for the gradual liberation of Azerbaijani districts occupied by Armenian forces, the deployment of peacekeepers, the repatriation of Armenians, and the return of Azerbaijanis who were internally displaced as a result of the 1988-94 war.

In March, OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs Russia, France, and the United States reiterated their support for the "territorial integrity of Azerbaijan" and stated that they "therefore do not recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, while holding that the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter of negotiations between the parties."

The co-chairs also stated that any settlement will require "unavoidable compromises among the parties," and expressed their hope for a resumption of negotiations for a settlement of the conflict bases on the fundamental principles.

Meanwhile, Armenian President Sarkisian told a meeting of EU ambassadors on May 22 that "the possibilities for solution of the conflict still exist, if the talks based on fundamental principles continue," according to Interfax.

Armenia's foreign minister, who said the same day that he hopes "for a positive meeting between the presidents that will make it possible for us to continue the negotiating process on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts," spent May 26 briefing a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation on the situation.

Meanwhile, in his interview with RFE/RL, Azimov left his Armenian counterparts with something to think about.

Touting Azerbaijan's recent economic success and "participation in international life," he boasts that "Armenia is not where Azerbaijan is today."

"To reach that point, to where Azerbaijan is today, they have to do a lot -- they have to get the ticket to the train -- the train of legality, of peace, of good-neighborhood," Azimov says. "If they want to be good neighbors to Azerbaijan, they have to respect territorial integrity."

This, he says, is what Azerbaijan expects from the new president of Armenia; if not, Yerevan "will get something different than what Azerbaijan seeks."

The implication is that Armenia could find itself trying to match oil-rich Azerbaijan in another area: Baku is spending more than $2 billion on defense this year -- more than Armenia's entire national budget -- and is displaying much of its new military hardware for the country's Armed Forces Day on June 26.

RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent Rovshan Gambarov contributed to this report

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