By Hrach Melkumian in Istanbul
The fate of land corridors linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave is now the main stumbling block in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, a senior source close to the negotiating process claimed on Wednesday.
“The negotiating process has reached a point where the Karabakh conflict can be considered resolved once a solution is found to the problem of corridors,” the source, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL in Istanbul.
The source said Azerbaijan, backed by its ally Turkey, insists that Armenia’s southeastern Meghri district be placed under Azerbaijani control in return for the Lachin district’s formal transfer under Armenian sovereignty. The Armenian side is strongly opposed to that option, saying that it is only ready to ensure unfettered communication between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan through Meghri.
Armenian leaders have strongly denied Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev’s claims that they agreed to swap Meghri for Lachin during peace talks last year. They insist that the agreed territorial arrangements were “asymmetrical” ones, allowing the Azerbaijanis only to “use the Meghri road” for communicating with Nakhichevan.
The diplomatic source claimed that Baku is demanding the land corridor to Nakhichevan as the price of recognizing Armenian control of Karabakh. He said Turkey is showing strong interest in the implementation of the so-called Meghri variant, which is highly unpopular in Armenia. The corridor would provide Turkey with a direct conduit to Azerbaijan proper and other Turkic-speaking republics of the former Soviet Union.
The resolution of the Karabakh dispute was high on the agenda of Tuesday’s meeting in Istanbul between the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia. It was the third such encounter this year. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL on Wednesday that Turkey, which takes a pro-Azerbaijani stance on the issue, is now able to receive “first-hand information” about the peace process from Armenian officials.
“I think that the situation is now changing considerably,” he said. “They have a better idea of our position.”
Oskanian reiterated that despite the ongoing high-level “dialogue” between Ankara and Yerevan, a full normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations is still a long way off. He was understood to imply that the Turkish government has no immediate plans to lift its blockade of Armenia.
In a speech delivered at a private Istanbul think tank earlier in the day, Oskanian again urged Ankara to establish diplomatic relations with his country without preconditions. "Relations between Turkey and Armenia are being held hostage to Armenia's own conflicts and tensions with Azerbaijan, not the existence of our shared historic problems," he said.
But according to the Turkish daily “Hurriyet,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem told Oskanian that Ankara will not agree to normalize the relations before a Karabakh settlement.