By Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Emil Danielyan
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan were meeting in the Belarusian capital Minsk late Tuesday for crucial peace talks which international mediators hoped will produce a breakthrough in their long-running efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliev came face to face for a third time in less than a year on the sidelines of a summit of former Soviet republics making up the Commonwealth of Independent States.
An Armenian diplomatic source told RFE/RL that the talks, held at the Russian embassy in Belarus, began in the presence of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht. French, Russian and U.S. diplomats co-chairing the OSCE’s Minsk Group were also in attendance before the two leaders continued their discussions in a tête-à-tête format, the source said.
Kocharian’s spokesman, Victor Soghomonian, was quoted by the Russian Regnum news agency as saying that no statements are likely to be made after the talks.
The Minsk talks were widely seen as the last real chance to settle the Karabakh conflict before national elections that are due to take place in Armenia and Azerbaijan next year and in 2008. The mediators have indicated that failure to cut a framework peace deal now would keep the conflict unresolved at least until 2009. They arranged the latest Armenian-Azerbaijani summit during a visit to Baku and Yerevan last week. It followed a series of negotiations between the foreign ministers of the two South Caucasus states.
Those talks reportedly centered on what the Minsk Group co-chairs call “complementary elements” to their existing peace plan that was discussed by Aliev and Kocharian during their two previous encounters earlier this year. The two men failed to reach any far-reaching agreements, contrary to unusually high expectations of a breakthrough in the Karabakh peace process.
The Minsk Group plan calls for a gradual resolution of the dispute that would lead to Armenian withdrawal from most of the Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh and culminate in a referendum on the disputed territory’s status. Officials in Yerevan have said the peace formula is largely acceptable to the Armenian side. Official Baku’s position on the issue is more ambiguous, with Aliev repeatedly stating that he will never recognize Karabakh’s secession from Soviet Azerbaijan.
The unpublicized “complementary elements” are aimed at helping the parties bridge their differences. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov indicated after their recent talks that they managed to make further progress towards that goal.
However, Kocharian sought to cool fresh talk of Karabakh peace during a visit to Germany earlier this month, saying that he is not optimistic about the success of the Minsk meeting.
(Itar-Tass-Photolur photo: Kocharian and Aliev line up for a photo session during the CIS summit in Minsk.)