By Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert
International mediators and “personal representatives” of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents began three-day negotiations near the Czech capital Prague on Monday, hoping to revive the stalled Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
It is the first gathering held under a new format of peace talks agreed by the French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group during their most recent tour of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh. Deputy Foreign Ministers Tatul Markarian of Armenia and Araz Azimov of Azerbaijan were named to represent their countries shortly afterwards, in March.
“I find it difficult to say what this round will lead to. But the very start of these negotiations is encouraging,” Nikolay Gribkov, Russia’s chief Karabakh negotiator, told RFE/RL at the secluded Stirin castle 15 kilometers southeast of Prague where the strictly confidential meeting is taking place.
“Everybody is in a buoyant mood, and in my view the parties are committed to a constructive discussion of all problems,” Gribkov said.
The mediators have argued previously that the presence of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidential envoys at their meetings will boost the effectiveness of the Minsk Group’s decade-long peace efforts. Until now the negotiating process has mainly involved periodical rounds of shuttle diplomacy by the three co-chairs as well as face-to-face talks between Presidents Robert Kocharian and Heydar Aliev. According to Gribkov, its changed format has resulted in a new “negotiation structure existing on a permanent basis.”
Some officials and observers in Yerevan believe that the outcome of the Prague meeting will determine whether it is possible to achieve a long-awaited breakthrough in the peace process, which seemed on the cards last year, anytime soon. Both Kocharian and Aliev are up for reelection next year and therefore unlikely to make unpopular concessions in the run-up to the polls.
The mediators and Armenian officials say the two leaders made substantial progress during talks in Paris and the Florida island of Key West in March and April 2001. Yerevan has accused Baku of subsequently backtracking on what it says were far-reaching agreements on the future of Karabakh.
However, Aliev and his foreign minister, Vilayat Guliev, have repeatedly denied the existence of any peace deals. They have also claimed over the past several months that the Minsk Group proposals favor the Armenian side.
Meanwhile, government officials in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic said on Monday that they are “closely following” the Prague talks but do not pin big hopes on them.
“We should admit that the Karabakh side has no great expectations from the meeting of the representatives of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents,” the spokesman for the NKR foreign ministry, Leonid Martirosian, told RFE/RL in Stepanakert. He said further progress is hampered by the “very tough” position of Azerbaijan.
Martirosian also reiterated official Stepanakert’s insistence on the Karabakh Armenians’ participation in the talks as a separate party. The Azerbaijani leadership is firmly opposed to that.