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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Mediators' visit raises hopes

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Another visit by the OSCE mediators to Baku raised hopes for settling the long-standing Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Upper Garabagh. The co-chairs of the mediating OSCE Minsk Group did not cite an exact timeframe for the conflict resolution but said a peace accord between the conflicting sides may be signed soon.

Russian co-chair Yuri Merzlyakov told a news conference on the results of the mediators' two-day visit to Azerbaijan on Tuesday that the talks held over the past year have been more beneficial than before. He said that developing the wording of a peace agreement may take several months.

"We would certainly like for this to happen sooner. As you know, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents will meet in Kazan [Russia] in August. But developing a draft peace agreement in the same timeframe is not feasible."

Radio Liberty quoted a high-ranking diplomatic source as saying that most issues on the conflict settlement 'have already been agreed upon' and the parties are working 'on several remaining provisions' of the peace accord.

The Garabagh conflict may be settled as early as this year or early in 2006 and the parties are likely to reach an agreement at the Presidents' meeting in Kazan.

US co-chair Steven Mann said the timing for the conflict resolution is uncertain and will depend 'on the will of the sides'.

"The peace accord may be signed in the coming months or in 100 years. The issue depends on the heads of state as well as the two peoples. I believe that both presidents deserve the international community's assistance in solving the problem."

The co-chair said that no new proposals were discussed in Baku. "We held broader discussions and received more comprehensive explanations this time", he said.

Touching upon the possibility of restoring the road connecting Azerbaijan with Armenia through Upper Garabagh, Mann said he discussed this with the head of the Azerbaijani community of Garabagh Nizami Bahmanov as well as Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. He noted, however, that it is inappropriate 'to add the issue to the range of matters being discussed at this point'.

Commenting on some assumptions that Russia may apply pressure on Armenia, the Russian co-chair said this contradicts reality.

"Russia cannot rule Armenia. In general, I do not consider this wording appropriate as Armenians may be offended by it. Russian State Duma (parliament) chairman Boris Gryzlov did call Armenia a forepost of Russia a while ago. But we should keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes and Gryzlov is not an exception."

Merzlyakov noted that Russia has no 'separatist peace plans' on the Garabagh conflict resolution. "Moscow has shown its unequivocal approach on this issue. President Putin laid out these principles several years ago", he said.

French co-chair Bernard Fassier said the mediators support continuing the peace process, recalling the Warsaw meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian Presidents.

"They realize that an end should be put to war, the occupied land liberated and refugees returned home. The two Presidents said in our meetings that the primary goals are to ensure the prosperity of the two peoples. They understand that this is possible only after peace is restored in the region."

"If we take major steps in this direction, the people will start understanding the benefit of regional peace prospects. We hope the cities will be restored and lands returned. The people will see the importance of this and contribute to the process."

In reply to a statement at a news briefing that a referendum is scheduled in Upper Garabagh in 10-15 years to determine its status, Russian co-chair Merzlyakov declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the talks. He somewhat clarified the issue currently being discussed, saying that the parties continue working to establish framework for the agreements reached during the Paris talks.

"These elements may be vital for the conflict resolution and envision the demands of the sides. There is no need to disclose them."

The French co-chair Fassier disagreed with the statements accusing the Minsk Group of the lack of activity, saying that the co-chairs have carried out extensive work on the conflict resolution.

"If no progress has been achieved, we are not to blame. We will be able to revitalize the process. But we cannot ensure that the parties will show political will [to resolve the problem].

With regard to some statements that the democratic processes in the region will greatly affect the conflict resolution, Fassier said this 'will have a certain impact' on the negotiations. He also voiced a hope that the November parliamentary election in Azerbaijan will be democratic.

As for the involvement of neighboring states in the negotiations, the French co-chair said he does object to this 'in principle'. He did not rule out that Iran, Turkey and Georgia may join the process.

The US co-chair generally approved of the suggestion but came out against Iran's involvement in the talks. "As an American, I do not want to be involved in discussions with Iran", he said.

The MG co-chairs will leave for Yerevan on Wednesday. They are further expected to visit Upper Garabagh despite serious discontent from the radical Garabagh Liberation Organization (GLO).

GLO attempted to hold a picket outside the Foreign Ministry on Monday in protest against the mediators' planned visit to Upper Garabagh through Yerevan.

The protest action came amidst Foreign Minister Mammadyarov's meeting with the co-chairs. The protesters demanded that the mediators visit Garabagh through Azerbaijan but not Armenia. "The co-chairs should stop visiting Garabagh via Yerevan", GLO said in a statement.