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By Ruzanna Kyureghian in Paris
French President Jacques Chirac pressed Wednesday for the resumption as early as this year of the stalled Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks as he received in Paris his visiting Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian.

A spokeswoman for Chirac told RFE/RL that the Karabakh issue topped the meeting’s agenda, with the French leader saying that France and the two other international mediators, Russia and the United States, are ready to help the conflicting parties “restart dialogue.”

“President Chirac insisted strongly that that dialogue begin before the end of 2003,” the official said. “We want to maintain good relations with both parties in order to help them.”

“The [Karabakh] negotiations are now in a somewhat dormant state, which does not seem satisfactory to us,” she added.

France, Russia and the U.S. jointly co-chair the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which has for years been trying to broker a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh dispute. The difficult peace process ground to a halt late last year in advance of the 2003 presidential races in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The election period made a peace agreement based on serious mutual concessions even more unlikely.

Kocharian told reporters after the meeting with Chirac that he hopes the Karabakh talks will resume after the presidential election in Azerbaijan scheduled for October.

The political uncertainty is exacerbated by the poor health of Azerbaijan’s 80-year-old president, Heydar Aliev. It is still not clear whether Aliev will be able to run for a third term in office. His early departure could set off a bitter power struggle and instability in the country.

Aliev and Kocharian reportedly made substantial progress on Karabakh during a meeting in Paris in March 2001 arranged by Chirac. The two leaders appeared very close to cutting a peace deal after subsequent U.S.-sponsored talks in Florida.

Kocharian arrived in Paris on Tuesday on a working visit during which he will also meet with other French officials and representatives of France’s influential Armenian community. Chirac’s press office said the two presidents also discussed bilateral ties as well as the situation in the South Caucasus, Iran and Iraq. No further details were reported.

Chirac was the only major Western leader to explicitly congratulate Kocharian on his hotly disputed reelection last March in a vote which international observers said fell short of democratic standards. Official Paris showed further preferential treatment of the Kocharian administration last month when its ambassador to Armenia pointedly refused to sign a joint letter by top Yerevan-based Western diplomats which urged the Armenian authorities to decriminalize libel.

(AP-Photolur photo: Chirac, right, greets Kocharian upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris.)
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