By Armen Zakarian in Prague
Ukraine’s President Leonid Kuchma made on Thursday an unusually blunt endorsement of Azerbaijan’s position on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, denouncing “Armenian occupation” of the disputed region and calling for its return under Baku’s control.
“We have always supported and will continue to support the principle of territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijani media quoted Kuchma as saying after talks in Kiev with Azerbaijan’s visiting President Ilham Aliev. He said this principle must be at the heart of any solution to the Karabakh dispute and urged international mediators to work along those lines.
Kuchma publicly agreed with Aliev’s belief that “time favors Azerbaijan,” implying that the Armenian side must be more interested in a peaceful settlement than its oil-rich foe. He went on to claim that more than a fifth of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory remains “under Armenian occupation.” “Let’s call things what they are,” he told a joint news conference with Aliev, according to the Turan news agency.
Aliev responded by expressing his country’s “gratitude” to Kuchma for the backing. “The truth is on the Azerbaijani side,” he said.
Aliev arrived in Ukraine on an official visit which reportedly focused on the transit of Azerbaijani oil through the country. Meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich on Thursday, he also discussed ways of developing military cooperation between the two former Soviet republics, according to an Azerbaijani TV report monitored by the BBC. Yanukovich told reporters after the meeting that they plan to “jointly upgrade” their military equipments.
Ukraine reportedly supplied Azerbaijan with military hardware both during and after the Karabakh war. It has at the same time sought to establish military ties with Armenia in recent years. Agreement on that was announced during Kuchma’s last visit to Yerevan in October 2002. President Robert Kocharian said at the time that there is “serious potential” for bilateral military cooperation. The issue appears to have been on the agenda of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s visit to Kiev late last month.
The Azerbaijani leader, meanwhile, is expected to inaugurate in the Ukrainian capital a statue of his late father and predecessor Heydar Aliev. Kuchma said the latter had done a lot to foster Azerbaijani-Ukrainian ties.