By Emil Danielyan
France's newly appointed chief Nagorno-Karabakh negotiator, Hugues Pernet, met with President Robert Kocharian and other top Armenian officials in Yerevan on Wednesday to discuss the future of the Karabakh peace process.
Pernet, who heads the Central Europe department at the French foreign ministry, replaced Ambassador Philippe de Suremain as one of the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe earlier this month. The two other co-chairs represent Russia and the United States.
A spokeswoman for the French embassy in Yerevan, Lusine Ayvazian, told RFE/RL that Pernet's first visit to the zone of conflict in the new capacity has an "introductory" purpose. She said he is due to meet with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and Deputy Foreign Minister Tatul Markarian on Thursday.
Kocharian and Pernet, according to the Armenian president's office, "exchanged thoughts about the current stage of the Karabakh peace process" and discussed "further activities of the OSCE Minsk Group." No further details were reported.
Kocharian said late last month that he and Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev are likely to hold another face-to-face meeting soon to try to break the deadlock in the protracted peace talks. But no date has been set for the meeting yet.
The latest round of Karabakh negotiations, attended by personal representatives of the two presidents and mediated by the three Minsk Group co-chairs, ended near the Czech capital Prague on May without an apparent breakthrough. The participants said only that their discussions were "useful."
The French, Russian and U.S. mediators are scheduled to meet in Lisbon later this month to decide on their next steps. Many observers believe that the negotiating process is now in a make-or-break state, with both Aliev and Kocharian facing reelection next year and therefore unlikely to make unpopular mutual concessions in the run-up to their respective ballots. Failure to reach a breakthrough before the end of this year could therefore mean that the Karabakh dispute will remain unresolved at least until 2004.
Suremain was relieved of his duties after being appointed France's new ambassador to Ukraine. He had co-headed the Minsk Group for just over one year.
The French embassy official said Suremain's successor will retain his high-ranking post in the French foreign ministry. Pernet is a career diplomat who had worked for many years in the French missions in Moscow and Kiev, she said.