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Nagorno-Karabakh: No Breakthrough Reported In Talks Between Armenians, Azerbaijanis

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian met yesterday in Prague with his Azerbaijani counterpart to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Officially, the discussions achieved no breakthroughs, but both men agreed to meet again in the near future. In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Oskanian said a lot remains to be done before both sides can agree on the basic principles of a peace settlement.

Prague, 12 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met for three hours in Prague in a bid to move the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process forward.

The discussions took place behind closed doors. Both ministers also met separately with representatives of the Minsk Group of nations -- France, Russia, and the United States -- mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to mediate in the conflict. OSCE Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk also attended the talks.

The Karabakh conflict dates back to 1988, when the predominantly Armenian enclave seceded from Soviet Azerbaijan. The move triggered a six-year war that claimed thousands of lives and drove an estimated 800,000 Azerbaijanis from their homes.

Both sides signed a cease-fire agreement in 1994 but remain technically at war.

As a prerequisite to any peace deal, Azerbaijan demands that Armenian troops withdraw from the adjacent territories they have been occupying since 1993, thus paving the way for the return of displaced populations. Only once this is achieved, Baku says, can the status of Karabakh be discussed.

Addressing reporters on the sidelines of yesterday's Prague meeting, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov reiterated that his country will not compromise on the issue: "Our main objective is to achieve a result. Such a result must be that Armenian forces withdraw from the occupied territories and that refugees return home. This is our fundamental approach. What we are discussing here is how to possibly achieve that result."

Yesterday's meeting was the fifth held by Mammadyarov and Oskanian in the Czech capital in the framework of what is known as the "Prague process."

As in previous cases, neither envoy divulged details of the discussions.

Azerbaijan's pro-government "525-ci Qazet" newspaper said today that the main result achieved this week in Prague is that both ministers agreed to meet again in the coming weeks.

More optimistically, Azerbaijan's "Zerkalo" (Mirror), a Russian-language daily, reports both sides agreed on the fundamental principles of a peace settlement and are now ready to examine "concrete issues and details."

But in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service yesterday, Oskanian said the basic principles of a peace agreement remain to be worked out: "I wish I could say that there is a full agreement on the principles. But we are still not there. There is a general framework of issues [to be discussed] but, as this [last] meeting showed, they need to be further consolidated."

Citing recent remarks attributed to Yuri Merzlyakov, Russia's envoy to the Minsk Group, Azerbaijani and Armenian media have been speculating that Armenia might soon drop its demands for a so-called "package" solution to the conflict -- that is, stop insisting that the liberation of Azerbaijani territories and the political status of Karabakh be negotiated simultaneously.

Oskanian flatly denied those claims yesterday. However, he said the peace process has become so intricate that, in his view, there is no longer a clear distinction between Armenia's "package" and Azerbaijan's "step-by-step" approach: "The 'Prague process' is fairly difficult and complex, and it will remain such at further meetings. On the whole, I consider the overall mood and atmosphere [of the talks] as positive. It is still too early to disclose any details. But once we achieve concrete results on specific issues, we will release them gradually."

The Baku-based Turan news agency yesterday quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Metin Mirza as saying the Minsk Group had discussed with both envoys the possibility of sending a fact-finding mission to Karabakh and Azerbaijan's Armenian-held territories.

In the meantime, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will discuss a draft resolution on the Karabakh conflict later this month (25 January).

In it, the Strasbourg-based assembly urges country members Armenia and Azerbaijan to foster political reconciliation. It also calls on Yerevan to comply with past UN resolutions calling for the liberation of all occupied territories of Azerbaijan and reaffirms the right of displaced populations to return to their homes "safely and with dignity."

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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