By Christian Lowe
YEREVAN, (AFP) - Robert Kocharian, the president of Armenia, has issued Azerbaijan with a stark warning that it faces almost certain defeat if it goes to war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In an interview with AFP, the 46-year-old Armenian leader said his country was fully committed to the search for a permanent settlement over Karabakh and believed the stalled peace process could still produce results.
But asked about recent threats by Azeri officials to use force to end Armenian control in Karabakh, Kocharian said: "Today one thing is clear: whoever starts a war is most likely to lose it. I am convinced of that."
"There has been a cease-fire since March 1994," Kocharian said in written replies to questions submitted by AFP. "For seven years the sides have been working on strengthening their defensive lines, so whoever starts a war will have serious problems in military terms."
Kocharian did not specify who might start a war, but it was clear he had Azerbaijan in mind. Officials there furiously dispute Karabakh's de facto autonomy and have threatened military action is peace talks fail.
Also in his interview, Kocharian rejected suggestions that the talks process was deadlocked, though he would not be drawn on how long it might take before progress is made. He said draft principles on which a settlement could be based had already been drawn up and it was now up to the Azeri side to respond to them.
He said: "In Key West the Paris principles were put into draft document form and could have become the basis for the next stage of negotiations. The Armenian side accepted the results of the Key West meeting and expressed its readiness to continue the negotiating process. The ball is in the court of the Azeri side."
Stressing Armenia's commitment to a peace deal, Kocharian said: "Not one country in the region can benefit from drawing out the conflict. That is true for Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan."
"I believe that with joint efforts we are capable of finding a solution to this problem," Kocharian added.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Armenian leader also said he was committed to shutting down his country's Metsamor nuclear power station, which the European Union (EU) wants closed down by 2004 because of safety concerns. He declined to say if Armenia would meet the EU's deadline, stressing instead that the country needed to develop secure alternative sources of energy to fill the gap that would be left by Metsamor’s closure.
Kocharian indicated that Armenia's close relations with Iran, its neighbor to the south and a major trading partner, would not be affected by US President George W. Bush's designation of Tehran as a sponsor of terrorism.
"Armenia and (Iran) are linked by centuries of good neighborly relations and that is currently reflected in our developing trade and economic co-operation," said Kocharian. He said that plans to build a pipeline to ship natural gas from Iran to Armenia were still going ahead.
Commenting on the Armenian economy, Kocharian said recent strong growth figures showed the country was not succumbing to the trade blockade enforced by Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey.
"Armenia has proved its durability, its ability to achieve positive results in the most difficult conditions," he said.
"(We have) growth in Gross Domestic Product, that means a strengthening of manufacturing and the export of Armenian goods, financial stability, the presence of a good climate for free enterprise and trade."
Kocharian noted that economic growth was being achieved without official trade links with Turkey, but said that if Ankara lifted its blockade, both countries would benefit.