By Harry Tamrazian in Prague, Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia and Azerbaijan have reported further progress towards the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev saying that the peace process is nearing its “final phase” following his latest meeting with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian.
“I can say that we are already approaching the final phase of negotiations,” Aliev told Azerbaijani state television, commenting on his face-to-face talks with Kocharian held in Minsk late Tuesday.
In remarks broadcast on Wednesday, Aliev said the two leaders reached agreement on unspecified “several issues” that have precluded the signing of a framework peace accord so far. “But there are still contentious issues, and the two presidents spoke about them,” he added without elaborating.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who accompanied Kocharian on the Minsk trip, echoed Aliev’s positive mood as he spoke to journalists on his return to Yerevan on Tuesday night. “They [the presidents] mainly concentrated on the issues in the document [put forward by international mediators] on which no agreement has been reached,” he said. “I cannot say concretely whether progress was made or not, but both presidents assessed the meeting as positive in terms of atmosphere and constructive approaches.”
“I think that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents will analyze everything in detail within a few days and give precise instructions to the foreign ministers about their future work,” added Oskanian.
Kocharian declined to personally comment on the crucial negotiations that were held on the sidelines of a summit of ex-Soviet states and were seen as the last real chance to find a near-term solution to the Karabakh dispute. His press secretary, Victor Soghomonian, said he has nothing to add to Oskanian’s statements.
Kocharian’s most influential associate and potential successor, Serzh Sarkisian, also failed to shed more light on the Armenian-Azerbaijani summit, claiming that he is not yet informed about its results. Sarkisian reiterated instead that he is committed to achieving a “dignified peace” with Azerbaijan based on “mutual compromise,” even if that means liberating most of the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh.
“I have never specified whether we should surrender 15 meters, 20 meters or 500 kilometers [of land],” he told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s not important to me. The important thing is to have mutual compromise.”
Armenian withdrawal from at least six of the seven Armenian-occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper is one of the key elements of the international mediators’ peace plan currently discussed by the conflicting parties. Under that plan, the troop withdrawal would be followed by a referendum of self-determination in Karabakh.
Aliev and Kocharian failed to agree on the proposed peace deal during their previous face-to-face encounters earlier this year, all but dashing hopes for a resolution of the conflict before presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008. Armenia will also hold parliamentary elections next spring.
Oskanian admitted that the unfolding election period will make it more difficult for the parties to cut an unpopular compromise deal, but insisted that it “will not interrupt” the negotiating process. He would not say if there is any chance of an Armenian-Azerbaijani accord signed before the 2007 polls.
Reports in the Russian press said this week that the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders might meet again on the fringes of another CIS summit expected to take place in Moscow early next month. Kocharian’s spokesman declined to confirm or deny the information.