Economic Integration Seen As Incentive for Peace

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The United States is stepping up its efforts to promote economic cooperation and integration among Armenia–Azerbaijan and Georgia to build a "politically enabling environment" for bringing stability to the troubled region–the US ambassador in Yerevan said on Thursday. Ambassador Michael Lemmon said the three post-Soviet states–impoverished by ethnic disputes–would draw "tremendous benefits" from facilitating regional trade.

"We might find a formula to bring together the three countries despite continuing political differences. We encourage economic and other interaction among all of the peoples of the region so that they might better appreciate the possibilities for a more positive and constructive future," Lemmon told RFE/RL in an interview. He was speaking after a two-day conference in Yerevan on "regional synergy" earlier this week–organized by the US government and attended by the US ambassadors to the three Transcaucasian countries–other diplomats and aid officials.

"What we are trying to do is to look at projects regionally. We seek not only to better integrate the region but also help it become a crossroads for trade and commerce," Lemmon said. He said the US government’s efforts will focus on helping Armenia–Azerbaijan and Georgia put in place an adequate transport infrastructure and harmonized customs system. "I hope that in the near future we will see concrete manifestations of that enhanced collaboration," he said.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991–Armenia and Georgia have been major recipients of American economic aid exceeding $100 per annum. Efforts by Armenian-American lobbying groups led the US Congress to impose serious restrictions on direct assistance to Azerbaijan. Despite those sanctions–the US has showed a strong interest in developing Azerbaijan’s substantial oil reserves and many American oil multinationals have established their presence there since 1994.

While admitting that the region’s unresolved ethnic disputes are a serious obstacle to integration processes–the American diplomat argued that economic benefits would be a strong incentive for all conflicting parties to achieve a peace. "I think everybody is realistic at challenges we face and I’m not sure how successful we are going to be. But we must try and see if there is a way forward that is mutually acceptable to all peoples of the Caucasus."

Russia indicated last week it will support possible changes in the OSCE’s most recent peace plan on Karabakh to make it more acceptable to Azerbaijan. Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have overall approved the plan which proposes a "common state" between Azerbaijan and the disputed enclave.

Asked about Washington’s position on how to break the deadlock–Lemmon said: "One should not be hung up on specific phrases or terminology. We are looking for additional thoughts and ideas that might come from the parties themselves."

He further reasoned that the expected meeting between Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Haydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan–expected this week at the CIS summit in Moscow–"offers certain opportunities." The Armenian side has said it will not make any more concessions beyond those specified by the existing OSCE proposals.

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