By Armen Zakarian
The self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic insists on international recognition of its de facto independence and will never agree to return to Azerbaijani control, its president, Arkady Ghukasian, reiterated on Wednesday.
"Karabakh is today independent, and I am confident that we will preserve this status," Ghukasian told reporters in Yerevan. "We achieved a military victory, but the struggle continues and we are obliged to succeed in the political and economic spheres as well."
Ghukasian said Karabakh's independence must be "one of the main elements" of a peaceful settlement with Azerbaijan -- a stance he claimed is largely supported by international mediators searching for a solution to the protracted conflict. But he added that Stepanakert would be ready to forge "serious economic and possibly political links with Azerbaijan" after the signing of a peace deal.
The Karabakh leader discussed the stalled peace process with Armenian President Robert Kocharian later on Wednesday. No details of the meeting were available.
The Armenian and Karabakh authorities have on the whole approved peace proposals put forward since 1998 by senior French, Russian and U.S. negotiators co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group. The mediators are expected to bring new ideas related to the peace process when they visit the region later this month. Their meeting with Kocharian in Vienna last week shed little light on the future of the Karabakh negotiations which nearly produced a breakthrough last year.
Ghukasian said he believes that this year could see further progress in the peace talks provided that Azerbaijan adopts "a more constructive position." The Armenian side has implicitly accused Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev of backtracking on far-reaching agreements reached with Kocharian in Paris and the Florida island of Key West last year. Aliev and other officials in Baku deny the existence of such agreements.
The Karabakh president was speaking after a ceremony in the NKR representation in Yerevan during which he presented awards to a group of Armenian individuals and organizations. One of the awards went to the Armenian National Committee of America, an influential lobbying group.
Ghukasian, turning to domestic political issues, effectively denied Kocharian's statement that Yerevan and Stepanakert are discussing the fate of General Samvel Babayan, the jailed former commander of the Karabakh army. Kocharian hinted last November that Babayan, who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for allegedly plotting to assassinate Ghukasian, may eventually be granted a pardon.
"There have been no negotiations with me because I am not the one who solves such issues," Ghukasian said. "They are solved by the courts."