By Emil Danielyan
The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan held what they described as productive talks in Strasbourg late Tuesday aimed at kick-starting the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said his first-ever talks with his recently appointed Armenian counterpart, Eduard Nalbandian, focused on the possibility of arranging a meeting of the two countries’ presidents.
“We discussed ways of arranging a meeting of the two presidents, possibly in June,” Mammadyarov told journalists. “The presidents will be informed about details of the negotiations and will then decide what to do.”
“It’s hard to resolve all differences and find solutions in one meeting,” he said in remarks broadcast by Armenian Public Television. “But there is a possibility of continuing discussions to ultimately reach a common denominator.”
“By and large, I am optimistic, and not just because of this meeting,” Nalbandian said, for his part. “We are neighbors and must co-exist in peace. I think that we can find solutions to the existing problems between our countries.”
The two ministers reportedly began their meeting in a tête-à-tête format and were later joined by the French, Russian and U.S. diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group. They held separate talks with the mediators earlier in the day. Yuri Merzlyakov, the group’s Russian co-chair, told Armenian Public Television that he is “very content” with the results of the discussions held on the sidelines of a regular session of the Council of Europe’s decision-making Committee of Ministers.
According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Nalbandian reassured the co-chairs about Armenia’s overall acceptance of their proposed basic principles of resolving the Karabakh conflict. The mediators heard similar assurances from President Serzh Sarkisian when they met him in Bucharest in early April.
The basic principles, formally submitted to Baku and Yerevan last November, envisage a gradual solution to the dispute that would delay agreement on Karabakh’s status, the main bone of contention. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev and Sarkisian’s predecessor Robert Kocharian apparently accepted most of those principles, leading the mediators to express hope that the Armenian-Azerbaijani framework peace deal will be cut in the course of this year.
However, chances for the signing of such agreement appear to have diminished since last February’s disputed presidential election and ensuing political turmoil in Armenia. Azerbaijan appears to have hardened its position, buoyed by the passage on March 14 of a UN General Assembly resolution that upheld its sovereignty over Karabakh and demanded an “unconditional” Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territories.
Aliev, who is up for reelection this fall, reportedly stated last month that Baku will never agree to a referendum of self-determination in Karabakh, a key provision of the Minsk Group plan. He also pledged to continue Azerbaijan’s military build-up which he hopes will force the Armenians to give up control of the disputed territory. Just last week, the Azerbaijani government raised its projected defense spending in 2008 by 53 percent to $2 billion. By comparison, Armenia’s 2008 defense budget is projected at $410 million.
Still, the influential chief of Aliev’s administration, Ramiz Mehtiev, said on Wednesday that Baku is committed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. “We should try to solve this problem and ensure Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity by peaceful means,” he told a news conference in Baku, according to Day.az.