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(RFE/RL and agency reports) - Russian President Vladimir Putin advocated on Friday a speedy resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would be equally beneficial for both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Putin assured his visiting Azerbaijani counterpart, Heydar Aliev, that Russia is “very much interested” in such a peace deal amid more signs of improved relations between Moscow and Baku.

“Russia, just as Azerbaijan, believes that there is no alternative to the settlement of this issue by peaceful means,” Putin said after talks with Aliev in the Kremlin. “This settlement should be based on the 'no losers or winners' principle.”

He said Russia will continue its efforts to end the Karabakh dispute within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group, which it co-heads together with France and the United States.

Aliev, who has accused Moscow of being pro-Armenian in the past, welcomed Russian involvement in the extremely difficult negotiating process. “I am pleased that Russia and its president are devoting much attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis and are taking active steps to settle it,” he said, adding that Russia could play a “decisive” role in bringing peace to the region.

The 78-year-old Azerbaijani leader began an official trip to Moscow earlier in the day, hoping to deepen a rapprochement between the two countries that started a year ago with Putin’s visit to his country. Speaking in the Kremlin in the presence of journalists, he did not elaborate on the future of the Karabakh peace process which seems to have stalled after signs of major progress last year.

Officials in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have accused Aliev of scrapping agreements reached during last year’s talks with President Robert Kocharian in Paris and the Florida resort of Key West. But Aliev has denied Armenian claims that the two presidents agreed on the main terms of a Karabakh settlement at the Paris meetings mediated by French President Jacques Chirac.

Meanwhile, France’s chief Karabakh negotiator insisted on Friday that major agreements were reached at those talks and that Chirac hopes they will be at the heart of a future peace accord. “The Paris talks allowed to create a basis upon which one can work,” Ambassador Philippe de Suremain told RFE/RL in an interview.

Suremain declined to specify the mediators’ further plans, saying only that they remain in constant touch with the conflicting parties. “We never worked as much as we do right now,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the ongoing improvement of the Russian-Azerbaijani ties will speed up the peace process. Many Azerbaijani analysts believe that Russia is not interested in ending the Karabakh dispute for fear of losing leverage against pro-Western Azerbaijan. Russian leaders strongly disagree with that claim.

The two countries took on Friday more steps contributing to a thaw in their relations. An agreement signed during Aliev visit allowed Russia to lease a major Soviet-built radar station in Azerbaijan for 10 years. Putin said the deal on the Gabala radar station shows a “new quality of relations” that allows the two nations to “work cooperatively on other issues.”

“It is...the first time in many years that we have been cooperating in the military sphere, and this is a very positive development,” Putin said.

The radar facility was built by the Soviet military to track missiles in the southern hemisphere and is considered a key part of Russia's early warning system. Analysts say it has become increasingly important given the US military campaign in Afghanistan and the station's position as a strategic lookout over a region including India, Pakistan and the Gulf.

Remarks by some of the staunchest advocates of Russia’s close military alliance with Armenia also reflected the change of mood in Moscow. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist Russian politician who has called for Azerbaijan’s partition in the past, said having a good rapport with Baku is important for his country.

“The ideal option is to maintain a balance so as to have good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and at last reconcile them,” he told RFE/RL in Moscow.
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