By Aza Babayan in Moscow and Emil Danielyan
Russia’s chief Nagorno-Karabakh negotiator put on Monday an optimistic spin on international efforts to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, saying that the peace process is not in deadlock and may still yield a breakthrough this year.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Yuri Merzlyakov pointed to a continuing flurry of diplomatic activity involving top representatives of the conflicting parties as well as the three nations co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group. He noted in particular that the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan will hold further discussions on the issue this week in Moscow and Washington respectively.
Armenia’s Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who has just returned from a visit to the U.S. capital, is scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Friday. According to Merzlyakov, the Karabakh dispute will be high on the agenda of the talks.
“So the process is continuing,” said Merzlyakov. “The Minsk Group is today working in a more bilateral format. Namely, the co-chairs plus a representative of Armenia or Azerbaijan.”
The Russian diplomat added that the Minsk Group’s French co-chair, Bernard Fassier, will pay a separate visit to Baku and Yerevan later this month. The group’s third, U.S. co-chair, Steven Mann, toured the conflict zone last month as part of a high-level U.S. delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried.
In a March 27 speech in Washington, Fried said he was “sufficiently encouraged” by what he was told by Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders and believes that “there is a possibility for progress in 2006.” He also made it clear that the United States will not seek to impose any solutions on the parties. “We're not going to force Armenia or Azerbaijan to take anything,” he said.
That the parties may fail to reach any agreement this year was not denied by Merzlyakov. He also admitted that in this case the Karabakh conflict would remain unresolved for several more years as Armenia and Azerbaijan are due to hold national elections in 2007 and 2008. “Today the parties are not yet prepared to explain to their publics that the issue can only be settled by peaceful means, that mutual compromise is inevitable and that a viable settlement can not be ideal for any party,” he said.
Merzlyakov further stated that the international mediators do not plan to arrange another meeting between Presidents Ilham Aliev and Robert Kocharian in the coming months. He said the two leaders could only meet on the sidelines of an international forum.
Aliev and Kocharian were widely expected to strike a framework deal on Karabakh in the run-up to their most recent encounter that took place in the presence of the Minsk Group troika near Paris on February 10-11. However, the two-day talks ended without agreement and were followed by renewed exchanges of bellicose rhetoric and skirmishes along the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact.
Azerbaijan said on Monday that one more Azerbaijani soldier has been killed and another wounded in a gunfight with Armenian forces southeast of Karabakh. The Defense Ministry in Baku accused the Armenian side of violating the ceasefire regime in the area.
The Defense Ministry of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic denied any shooting incidents, and alleged that Azerbaijani officials often try to cover up hazing incidents and pump up anti-Armenian sentiment by attributing them to ethnic
Armenian forces, the Associated Press reported. "At the same time they get an opportunity to accuse the Karabakh side of violating the cease-fire regime," a ministry spokesman, Senor Hasratian, was quoted as saying.
The Karabakh government last week accused Azerbaijan of violating the cease-fire and forcing the suspension of foreign monitors' activity.
(Photolur photo: Yuri Merzlyakov.)