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By Hrach Melkumian

A senior French government official sought Friday to put an optimistic spin on the stalled Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, pointing to renewed “dialogue” between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Renaud Muselier, the French secretary of state for foreign affairs, indicated that the two leaders remain committed to major agreements they reached during intensive negotiations last year.

“We have relaunched the dialogue between the two presidents and the process is under way,” Muselier told a news conference in Yerevan at the end of his five-day tour of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. “As a result of this trip, I am very optimistic and confident about the future.”

Muselier said the French, Russian and U.S. mediators have now the “capacity” to push the peace process forward “within the framework of discussions held in Paris” in early 2001 by Presidents Heydar Aliev and Robert Kocharian. Aliev and Kocharian reportedly agreed on the main principles of a Karabakh settlement during the talks sponsored by French President Jacques Chirac.

However, Azerbaijan denies that any far-reaching deals were made at Paris.

The French official, who described himself as Chirac’s “peace messenger,” did not specify reasons for his optimism. Nor would he say whether there is any possibility of a breakthrough before the February presidential election in Armenia. A presidential vote is also scheduled to take place in Azerbaijan in October 2003, making further progress in the talks before 2004 highly problematic.

Muselier was understood to imply that France would welcome Aliev’s and Kocharian’s reelection when he said that Azerbaijan and Armenia are ruled by “strong governments” committed to Karabakh peace. He specifically noted that the unfolding electoral process in Armenia will have “domestic and international respectability.” “This country has made a lot of progress on the path of democratization over the last ten years,” he said.

Also high on the agenda of his talks with Kocharian and other Armenian leaders were bilateral French-Armenian relations, with Muselier mentioning “long friendship” between the two nations. Kocharian said that France is a “very important country” for Armenia and that Yerevan wants to deepen its ties with Paris “in all directions.” Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, for his part, praised France for “supporting Armenia in the international arena.”
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