By Ruzanna Stepanian
The upcoming meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan could prove decisive for the success of the latest international push to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said on Monday.
“I look forward to that meeting just as you do, because a lot depends on it,” Sarkisian told reporters. “We can probably say after that meeting whether the peace process is continuing or has entered a deadlock.”
President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit in Warsaw next week. The two leaders will try to build on progress reportedly made by their foreign ministers during a series of internationally mediated talks over the past year.
French, Russian and U.S. diplomats spearheading the peace process announced last month that the conflicting parties are close to making a “first step towards an agreement.”
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said last week that further progress in the long and painful peace talks depends on the results of the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit.
“The foreign ministers have done all they could possibly do and that the next step has to be taken by the presidents,” Oskanian said. He again insisted that no formal peace agreements will be signed at Warsaw.
Aliev and Kocharian could have come face to face in Moscow at the weekend on the fringes of a summit of former Soviet republics. However, Aliev chose to boycott the summit on the grounds that it coincided with the 13th anniversary of the capture by Karabakh Armenian forces of the strategically important town of Shusha.
The fall of Shusha was one of Azerbaijan’s most serious military setbacks and proved vital for Armenian victory in the 1991-94 war. The anniversary was marked as a day of mourning in Baku.
In Armenia, by contrast, it was an occasion for two-day official celebrations. “I think that if the Shusha operations had failed the Azerbaijanis would have easily occupied Karabakh,” Sarkisian said after visiting Yerevan’s Yerablur military cemetery with other senior government officials and the top brass of Armenia’s Armed Forces.
Paradoxically, the fresh hopes for Karabakh peace emerged earlier this spring amid an upsurge in deadly skirmishes along the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact around the disputed region. Each side has blamed the other for the fighting.
The chief of the Armenian army staff, Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, denied on Monday Azerbaijani claims that dozens of Armenian soldiers have been killed there in recent weeks. “They wish we had lost many soldiers,” Harutiunian told RFE/RL. “There have indeed been a few cases of our soldiers dying or getting wounded. “But the figures cited by them are mere propaganda and blackmail.”
Harutiunian also reiterated Armenian claims that Azerbaijani troops have been moving closer to Karabakh Armenian positions. “We see no point in moving our positions because we already control the main heights which we took ten years ago,” he said. “They probably need to do that because they had left their weapons behind and run away [during the war]. They probably felt that they need to improve their positions. In any case, we are taking adequate measures in response.”
Meanwhile, three Azerbaijani soldiers that were captured the Armenians in northeastern Karabakh last February were handed back to the Azerbaijani military on Saturday. Azerbaijani media quoted officials in Baku as saying that they were not harmed during their detention.
The three servicemen were taken prisoner after crossing the frontline under uncertain circumstances.