Armenian Foreign Minister Says Azeris Are Eyeing War

YEREVAN (Reuters)–Armenia’s foreign minister accused Azerbaijan on Friday of contemplating a new war over the disputed Karabakh region and said Baku’s overtures towards NATO were undermining the stability of the Caucasus.

Vartan Oskanian said there was little hope for a quick end to 11 years of conflict between Azeris and Armenia’s after Azerbaijan rejected recent proposals by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for restarting direct talks–saying they did not respect its territorial integrity.

"Their lack of flexibility leads us to think that in the back of their minds they are thinking about a military option," he told Reuters in an interview.

"If you conclude in whose interests war is–it is certainly in theirs. They have the territory to think about–they have the refugees.

"We are getting more concerned as the situation becomes more protracted. The cease-fire is very fragile. If the Azeris have the chance to cleanse Karabakh–I doubt they will hesitate to. But they should not doubt our determination."

Oskanian said Azeri President Haydar Aliyev–whose disputed election victory last year has galvanized opposition forces alleging that he rigged the vote–had become too weak politically to risk compromise over Karabakh.

"He’s not in a position to compromise. His refusal to accept the idea of a common state is based on his domestic political situation," he said.

The OSCE mediating group–chaired by Russia–the United States and France–has put forward the idea of a "union state" between the Armenian-populated Karabakh region and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan rejected it as a ploy designed eventually to win internationally-recognized independence for Karabakh.

It has called the plan a non-starter and accused Russia of spearheading the idea. Baku insists that the leadership of Karabakh accept autonomy instead.

Oskanian said Azeri overtures towards NATO–including statemen’s by officials indicating a desire to host US or Turkish military bases–meant Azerbaijan was looking for help in retaking Karabakh and territory around it lost in fighting.

"They hope for the assistance of Turkey to solve it militarily," said Oskanian. "It adds to the tension."

Oskanian said it was because of continuing conflict with Azerbaijan and tension with its ethnic cousin and ally Turkey that Armenia was pursuing a strategic partnership with Russia.

"We feel a continuing threat from our neighbors. All of this makes us very nervous about our security–and we need to use all means to guarantee it. Russia is the only country currently that can guarantee our security," he said.

Oskanian said it did not mean Armenia risked becoming part of a new Moscow-oriented anti-Western axis or that it would not continue to develop ties with the West and NATO.

"In our view one does not rule out the other," he said.

He defended Armenia’s hosting of a Russian military base–saying shipmen’s of S-300 air defense systems and MiG-29 fighter planes to the base did not put Armenia afoul of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty–as Azerbaijan says.

"We have given part of our (CFE) quota to the Russian base. It does not violate the CFE agreement," he said.

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