Minsk Group Ends Karabakh Talks

BAKU (Agence France Presse–Reuters)–Co-chairmen of the OSCE’s Minsk Group ended five days of intensive talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on Sunday but announced no breakthroughs–officials said.

In their first trip to the Caucasus since Robert Kocharian was elected Armenian president–the three co-chairs met with Armenian and Azeri leaders–as well as with representatives of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Russian mediator Yuri Yukalov said on Saturday that talks in Yerevan earlier in the week had been "tense" and the meeting with the Karabakh Armenia’s was "sharp," but no further details were given.

Azeri authorities likewise restricted any reports on the discussions in Baku–though a government official said that a meeting with Azeri President Haidar Aliyev lasted until late Saturday evening.

"Our (Armenia and Azerbaijan’s) positions are not very close," Vafa Gulizade–Azeri President Haidar Aliyev’s top foreign policy adviser–told Reuters news agency.

"In time the new Armenian leadership will recognize the need to resolve the problem as soon as possible. This was just a beginning after a long delay," he said.

Azerbaijan favors the OSCE plan. Gulizade said he was confident that Armenia would eventually modify its stance.

Participants in the talks have usually maintained strict silence during the mediation process–arguing that the subject matter was too sensitive and any information could compromise the outcome.

Yukalov said on Saturday that Armenian negotiators had lobbied for more openness in the talks–though he believed that "we are not ready for this."

Tuesday marked the fourth anniversary of an OSCE-brokered cease fire in the conflict–which despite occasional border skirmishes has held for the duration of its existence.

But Azeri officials privately concede that they are pessimistic over the talks since the election of a new government in Yerevan–which opposes any compromise with Azeri over Karabakh’s future political status.

Armenia and Azerbaijan reached a compromise in autumn 1997 whereby the two sides put off the issue of Karabakh’s status until final talks–allowing Azeris in the meantime to return to areas occupied by the Karabakh Armenia’s.

Statemen’s by Armenia’s new Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian prior to the Minsk Group’s arrival indicated that Yerevan would not accept any agreement short of full independence for the region. Azerbaijan offers the territory full autonomy–but within the administration of Azerbaijan.

Oskanian also advocated a "package deal" in which all issues between the two sides are addressed at once–as opposed to the step-by-step approach agreed to by Aliyev and former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan.

Western diplomats here said before talks began that–though they did not expect any breakthroughs–this round of meetings was nevertheless crucial–since Armenia’s official position would become known for the first time since the March elections.

"The main importance of the talks is to hear the official position of Robert Kocharian," Russian ambassador Alexander Blokhin told AFP recently.

"As long as we have not heard Kocharian’s official position–it will be very difficult to say at all about how the talks will go," he added.

US ambassador Stanley Escudero also stated that–despite expectations from both parties that the Minsk Group should advocate one position over another–any outcome would in fact be welcome.

"We would support any solution in Nagorno-Karabakh that all of the parties agree to," he told AFP.

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