Azerbaijan Sees Possible Karabakh Deal This Year

By Lawrence Sheets

BAKU (Reuters)–Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Hasan Hasanov said on Tuesday that a peace plan ending his country’s bitter decade-long conflict with neighboring Armenia might be signed before the end of the year.

"We hope so very much because there are no obstacles. Armenia needs peace and communications–and Azerbaijan needs territory for the return of refugees," Hasanov told Reuters.

US Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat told a Senate hearing last week that a first-phase agreement on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh could be signed by the end of the year.

Levon Ter-Petrosyan last month raised hopes that the conflict might be in its final stages by reversing a long-standing policy in support of self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ter-Petrosyan–after several years of diplomatic pressure from western countries–said it was unrealistic for Karabakh to gain independence or unite with Armenia–the first time any major Armenian politician has made such a statement.

"To us the main thing is not why he (Ter-Petrosyan) has decided this–but that we find compromises," said Hasanov.

Ter-Petrosyan also signaled support for a two-stage solution advocated by the so-called Minsk Group–a mediation body set up by the United States–Russia and France.

In the first stage–Karabakh forces would have to give up six regions of Azerbaijan proper which they have captured. International peace-keepers would then move in and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be decided later.

"The main thing is that they (Armenia) have given a positive answer to the two-stage settlement," Hasanov said.

He said several members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had offered to send peace-keepers–although he did not name them.

Hasanov said both Armenia and Azerbaijan had made their latest proposals to the Minsk Group negotiators.

But the Nagorno-Karabakh government–led by Arkady Ghoukassian–opposes the two-stage proposal or any compromise on independence from Azerbaijan. It remains unclear what effect this will have on a settlement.

By rapping the plan–Ghoukassian has opened a rift between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Many western diplomats–however–say the Karabakh government’s heavy political–economic–and military reliance on Yerevan may mean that Ghoukassian will have to give in.

"Ghoukassian is a small man and in the end he will have to do what he is told in Yerevan. There will be a signing ceremony between the Azeris and Armenia’s. Ghoukassian will get to shake hands with Clinton and Yeltsin and that will have to be enough for him," said a Western diplomat in Baku.

Some observers are far more skeptical–however–saying any agreement could be very problematic to implement.

"Signing an agreement is one thing. Making it work is entirely another," said the western diplomat. "We could have a long period where nothing happens."

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