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Azerbaijan's stance puts Armenia under pressure

Azerbaijan and Armenia have exchanged threats after the unsuccessful round of peace talks, with Azeri officials warning that the country may resort to military action to settle the more than a decade-long dispute if the negotiating process continues to yield no fruit.

President Ilham Aliyev has said that Armenia's non-constructive position in the ongoing talks on settling Upper (Nagorno) Garabagh conflict prompts Azerbaijan to reconsider its policy. "Azerbaijan is interested in solving the problem through diplomacy and negotiations. But the talks carried out so far have produced no results, therefore, we have to be ready for other options," Aliyev said during his visit to the frontline districts in lowland Garabagh last week

The parties failed to agree upon the issues of principle during the negotiations held by Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Robert Kocharian in the French town of Rambouillet in February, despite high expectations for a breakthrough in the peace process. The president emphasized that Armenia's position shatters the already forlorn hope for a solution. Certain progress is being achieved, but Yerevan's stance ultimately prevents the sides from reaching peace. "Although opportunities emerged for reaching a peace accord within the Prague process [the talks mediated by OSCE], the latest talks show that Armenia is not interested in this. In such case, Azerbaijan should revisit its policy. We support settling the conflict by diplomatic means. But we will never come to terms with the separation of Upper Garabagh from Azerbaijan, and this is my resolute stance. The conflict must be settled strictly within the country's territorial integrity." Aliyev said that the fact that peace talks with Armenia have lasted for 12 years is the biggest concession on the part of Azerbaijan. "Armenia has been pursuing a policy of genocide against Azerbaijan, which is a crime against humanity. We are the victim side, and this gives us the right to solve the problem by any means." Azerbaijan's terse stance has apparently frightened Armenia. Its president Robert Kocharian said that if the Azeri government resolutely states that time is on its side and threatens with military action, his country may de-jure recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Upper Garabagh republic. "If the peace talks are suspended by either of the conflicting sides, this will lead to the developments unfolding according to an undesirable scenario." Kocharian said, however, that Armenia is prepared for any eventuality and disclosed the steps his country would take in case opportunities for talks are exhausted. The Armenian leader said further that the next step after the "recognition of Upper Garabagh" would be to ensure the security of Armenian residents there, to be followed by the implementation of comprehensive military reinforcement activities in the seven districts around Garabagh. Kocharian also called on the Armenian residents of Upper Garabagh not to be concerned over the ongoing peace talks with Azerbaijan. "You should not worry. If you see that the Armenian president is backing out of the talks, then there will be grounds for concerns, as this would mean that he does not believe in the success of the negotiations or is unable to complete the process." Kocharian said that despite the unsuccessful outcome of the Rambouillet talks, confidence remains for reaching a general accord. He again put forward the demand to get the Garabagh Armenians involved in the negotiating process. The stern messages coming from the conflicting sides have raised concerns of the international community. US ambassador Reno Harnish said that if no progress is reached in settling the conflict, several options are possible, including war. He noted, however, that military action could prove disastrous for the South Caucasus region. "I have said on many occasions what tragedies could ensue. You should remember the deplorable living conditions of the internally displaced persons. Therefore, we call on the politicians of both countries to find a way out of the current situation." Harnish said Kocharian's statement that Armenia could recognize Upper Garabagh can heighten tensions between the parties. "We suggest that the presidents be more flexible in the negotiations. We think the parties can reach agreement and must try to do so. The foreign ministers of the two countries must also strive to reach a negotiated solution," the US diplomat said. Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, in his remarks at a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council, expressed his concern at the tough rhetoric of the Azeri side. He alleged that such statements undermined the achievements already made in the negotiations.

Oskanian said Azerbaijan's statement that it was waiting for a more opportune time to resolve the conflict and the calls being voiced for the resumption of hostilities ran counter to the principles of the 'Prague process' of talks, which envisions a stage-by-stage conflict settlement. He said those principles were quite real and served as a platform for progress in the talks. In the current situation, great responsibility rests with the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group brokering the conflict resolution. At a meeting of the mediators due in Washington March 7-8, acceptable ways of continuing peace talks should be found. The co-chairs should express decisiveness and urge the parties to the conflict to reach agreement. Meanwhile, the international community must comprehend that Azerbaijan's compromises have limits and it is time for Armenia to take constructive steps toward reaching peace. However, if the mediators' attempt proves futile, this may lead to a failure of the entire Prague process of talks, which is nearly the only progress in the negotiations observed in recent years. In this case, Azerbaijan will have to seek new alternatives and it is likely that the limit of options will be exhausted, as the conflicting sides have already discussed all possible alternatives - from exchange of territories to the stage-by-stage conflict settlement. This could be possibly followed by the recognition of Upper Garabagh as a party to the conflict or Armenia's complete withdrawal from the negotiating process. Azerbaijan will never accept this, as its territories have been occupied not by the so-called Upper Garabagh republic but by Armenia. The talks between Baku and Khankandi could be possible only if Armenia pulls its military forces out of the conflict zone, suspends economic assistance to the separatist regime and shuts its borders with Upper Garabagh. Is war the only option left? Azerbaijan is currently under intense pressure from the international community, which could lose the strategic South Caucasus region over just a few years if the hostilities are resumed. Armenia is risking to face Azerbaijan's military machine, which is much stronger than it used to be in early 1990s. It will be challenging for this country, which has a considerably weaker economy, to withstand the armament race and the ensuing offensive. Azerbaijan, in turn, is risking to be deprived of the West's support and faces a temporary suspension of major regional projects in the event of military action. Upper Garabagh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, has both Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian population. It was occupied by Armenia in the early 1990s, along with seven other Azerbaijani districts, after large-scale hostilities that killed up to 30,000 people and forced over a million Azeris out of their homes. The ceasefire accord was signed in 1994, but peace talks have been fruitless so far and refugees remain stranded.

By Ilham Guliyev & Lala Alizada Azernews Staff Writers