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By Hrach Melkumian, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliev, celebrating his 80th birthday in hospital, received Saturday unlikely words of encouragement from the prime minister of arch-rival Armenia who described him as a guarantor of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Andranik Markarian said Armenia hopes for the ailing Azeri leader's recuperation from a serious heart illness because it believes that regime change in Baku could complicate the protracted search for a Karabakh deal. He described Aliev as an experienced statesman who has a "complete understanding of regional issues" and "contributes to the non-resumption of the [Armenian-Azerbaijani] war."

"Quite naturally, it is much more beneficial for us to deal with leaders who have demonstrated with their policies that they are interested in maintaining peace in the region," Markarian told RFE/RL. "I wish Mr. Aliev good health."

Markarian is the first Armenian leader to explicitly praise Aliev and publicly admit Yerevan's interest in the latter's continued rule. His remarks contrasted sharply with criticism of the Azerbaijani regime regularly voiced by the leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). NKR President Arkady Ghukasian, for example, said last year that Aliev has "exhausted himself" and will never make serious concessions to the Armenian side. Some senior officials in Yerevan likewise accused him of backtracking on far-reaching Armenian-Azerbaijani agreements reportedly reached on the Florida island of Key West in April 2001.

Markarian, however, argued that Aliev has held numerous meetings with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and is now "fully informed about all nuances" of the Karabakh peace process. His departure would further delay a breakthrough in the peace talks, the Armenian premier added.

Most of Aliev's political opponents favor a firmer stand on the Karabakh and increasingly call for a military campaign to win back Karabakh. Some say the Azeri president is prepared to effectively recognize Armenian sovereignty over the disputed region.

Aliev's role in the peace process was downplayed by Vazgen Manukian, an opposition leader who had served as Armenia's defense minister from 1992-93, at the height of the Karabakh war. Manukian claimed that no Azerbaijani leader could attempt to resolve the dispute by force in the near future because both the Azerbaijani people and major foreign powers are opposed to war.

Manukian at the same time stressed that a political "chaos" in Azerbaijan, which could be sparked by Aliev's exit, would also be bad for Armenia. "I think that if their house remains in order, we can sit and talk to them," he told RFE/RL. "Chaos can always lead to unpredictable consequences for us."

Aliev, meanwhile, was receiving birthday congratulations from world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, as he continued his medical treatment in a Turkish hospital. The Gulhane Military Hospital said in a statement on Friday that Aliev is in good condition, the Associated Press news agency reported.

The statement came a day after Turkish television speculated that Aliev, who collapsed twice during a televised speech last month, is in serious condition. No date has been set yet for his return home.

Armenian government sources said this week that international mediators trying to broker a Karabakh peace accord may have to postpone their visit to the zone of conflict, scheduled for May 18, because of Aliev' s health problems.
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