By Emil Danielyan
Armenia and Azerbaijan reaffirmed Friday their diametrically opposite approaches to improving their virtually non-existent relations at a high-level meeting in Yerevan of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), a loose and largely moribund grouping of 13 nations.
A top Azerbaijani official attending the gathering said Baku remains strongly opposed to any form of cooperation with its arch-rival until a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “We believe that no cooperation with Armenian on a bilateral basis or within the framework of international organizations is possible before the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Mahmud Mamedkuliev told a news conference that followed the meeting.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, sitting next to Mamedkuliev, disagreed, saying that the two countries can engage in joint economic projects through the BSEC and other international organizations in the absence of diplomatic relations. “Of course we would like to see a much deeper and broader cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan within the framework of this organization,” he said “This multilateral structure provides a political cover under which we can take our first steps of cooperation.”
Azerbaijan has long argued that bilateral cooperation would legitimize Armenian control of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani lands and serve as a disincentive for the Armenians to change the status quo. The Armenian side, on the other hand, denies this and says confidence-building measures would only facilitate the difficult search for a peace formula. Yerevan’s opinion appears to be shared by the European Union.
The Karabakh conflict is also the main obstacle to the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest ally. Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alev Kilic, who also arrived in Yerevan for the BSEC meeting, would not be drawn on whether Ankara continues to link their improvement to a Karabakh settlement.
“The Karabakh issue is an important issue that needs to be resolved not only for the sake of Turkish-Armenian relations, but also for the region as a whole,” Kilic told RFE/RL.
Mamedkuliev said progress in the decade-long peace talks depends on Armenia’s willingness to agree to the disputed region’s return under Azerbaijani control. He made it clear that his country remains opposed to the most recent of peace proposals by the French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group that envisage a loose “common state” between Azerbaijan and Karabakh. The plan, put forward in 1998, is thought to have formed the basis of subsequent peace talks, including those held on the Florida island of Key West in 2001.