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Nagorno-Karabakh Leader Praises OSCE Mediators

Bako Sahakian, the self-declared "president" of Nagorno-Karabakh
STEPANAKERT -- The leader of the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh has praised international mediators seeking to resolve the conflict over the disputed territory, saying they are working to prevent another Armenian-Azerbaijani war, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

But Bako Sahakian, the self-declared "president" of Nagorno-Karabakh, told RFE/RL in an interview on July 5 that the Karabakh Armenian military is ready for any possible Azerbaijani attempt to forcibly take back Karabakh.

He also reiterated that no peace agreements signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan can be put into practice without being approved by the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

"We are deeply convinced that the mediating countries -- France, the United States, and Russia -- are sincere in their intentions," Sahakian said.

"During all these years we have grown convinced that the international community and especially the Minsk Group co-chairs strive to maintain this relative peace and achieve a final peaceful solution," he continued. "This relative peace is much more preferable than any military hostilities, and I think the co-chairs will continue their efforts and will carry out some additional work to maintain this situation."

The American and French Russian diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group are expected to again visit Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh later this summer to discuss the future of the peace process after the failure of the most recent Armenian-Azerbaijani summit held in Kazan last month.

Contrary to the mediators' expectations, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, failed to bridge their remaining differences on the basic principles of a Karabakh settlement drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairs.

Speaking in his office in Stepanakert, Sahakian would not say whether he thinks an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord can be reached soon. He said only that the peace process will remain deadlocked as long as Azerbaijan demonstrates a "nonconstructive position" and threatens to end the dispute by force.

"We are concerned and the international community should also be concerned," he said, referring to statements regularly made by Aliyev and other Azerbaijani officials.

"Given that [Azerbaijani] policy, we are obliged to take into account and not rule out the possibility that Azerbaijan will one day switch from words to action," continued Sahakian. "Therefore, we are organizing our work on the basis of that reality."

Asked whether Karabakh's Armenian leadership and armed forces are prepared for renewed fighting, he said, "Of course. And there is nothing extraordinary about that. While being deeply convinced that this problem must be solved peacefully, we are obliged, given our neighbor's behavior and statements, to ensure the security of our country, to make sure that our people get on with their lives in these relatively peaceful conditions."

Karabakh Armenian military officials have said that Azerbaijan will only lose land if it attempts a military solution to the dispute. Sarkisian likewise warned last fall of a "final and devastating" blow to Baku as he and Sahakian watched the Karabakh Armenian army's biggest military exercises in several years.

Some analysts in and especially outside the region see a growing likelihood of a military conflict resulting from an ongoing massive military buildup in Azerbaijan. Some Western pundits said ahead of the Kazan summit that the war will be inevitable if the conflicting parties fail to agree on the basic principles this year.

The blueprint for peace favored by the three mediating powers calls for a gradual Armenian withdrawal from formerly Azerbaijani-populated districts around Karabakh.

In return, Karabakh's predominantly Armenian population would be able to determine the disputed region's internationally recognized status in a future referendum.

Many Karabakh Armenians are unhappy with this formula, saying that it requires disproportionate concessions to Azerbaijan. Some officials in Stepanakert have also voiced reservations about it.

Sahakian declined to pass judgment on the mediators' current peace proposals.

"Right now, we are far from the decision-making phase," he told RFE/RL. "Armenia's leadership has repeatedly stated that those basic principles can serve as a basis for negotiations. Therefore, we, too, welcome that. Any proposal that can serve as a basis for negotiations cannot be unacceptable for [Nagorno-Karabakh]."

Sahakian stressed that Nagorno-Karabakh must be directly involved and have a final say in those negotiations.

"While welcoming Azerbaijan's and Armenia's participation in negotiations and expressing our gratitude to Armenia, we always add that within that [existing] framework it's impossible to reach an agreement because [Nagorno-Karabakh] must also be involved in those discussions," he said.

Sahakian claimed that the mediators agree with that.

"At the moment, we have a certain satisfaction with the fact that the Minsk Group co-chairs point out in their statements that a final solution without the participation of [Karabakh's Armenian leadership] is impossible," he said.

Azerbaijan has refused to negotiate with Karabakh Armenian representatives since the late 1990s, saying that the territory is controlled by Armenia.