US Seeks Turkish Armenian Rapprochement Amid Karabakh Progress

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The United States has proposed Armenia and Turkey to open unofficial "information centers" in each other’s capital as a first step toward normalizing relations between the two traditional foes–in Yerevan said on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Armenian government told RFE/RL that the issue was raised by Steven Sestanovich–the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Newly Independent States–during his talks the same day with Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan.

Turkey has so far refused to establish diplomatic relations with neighboring Armenia until Yerevan recognizes Azeri sovereignty over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkey shares strong cultural and ethnic bonds with Azerbaijan and a troubled past with the latter’s arch-enemy Armenia. The US regards Turkish-Armenia rapprochement as vital for stability in the Caucasus.

"Our view is that there should be a full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia," Sestanovich told reporters after the meeting with Sargsyan. "As a practical matter–we recognize that partial steps may be taken first and we have discussed that with our Turkish ally," he said.

According to government spokesman Tigran Hakobian–Sestanovich received positive signals in Ankara about the proposed exchange of "information centers" before arriving in the Armenian capita. He said official Yerevan fully backs the idea.

Sestanovich’s visit to the two countries follows Prime Minister Sarkgsyan’s recent calls for the US to mediate an improvement of the Armenian-Turkish relationship. Sargsyan discussed the issue with Vice President Al Gore in Washington earlier this month.

The US official argued that the latest series of direct contacts between the Armenian and Azeri presidents on ways of settling the Karabakh conflict bodes well for improving Turkish-Armenian relations. He said: "We have been discussing this because our Turkish colleagues are telling us that they are eager to understand the process of discussions between Armenia and Azerbaijan and to see how they would be able to support it."

Presidents Robert Kocharian and Haydar Aliyev have met four times in the past three months–raising hopes for a Karabakh settlement. Kocharian said late last week that the settlement is on the cards. The decade-long territorial dispute is a major hindrance to American efforts to integrate the wider region economically with the West.

Sestanovich hailed the Armenian-Azeri dialogue as "encouraging."That creates a basis for agreement that can be then taken further by the mediators," he said.

Washington has urged the conflicting parties to reach a framework agreement on the main principles of a peace deal before next month’s summit in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE’s Minsk Group–co-chaired by the US–Russia and France–leads international efforts to end the Karabakh conflict.

Sestanovich said the Group’s most recent peace plan–accepted by the Armenian side–remains "on the table." Underlying the proposals is the idea of a "common state" between Azerbaijan and Karabakh which broke away from Baku’s rule in 1991. Baku has until now rejected the formula–which would reportedly uphold the Armenian-populated territory’s de-facto independence while nominally making it part of Azerbaijan.

Sestanovich also reiterated Washington’s position that representatives of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should also participate in peace talks – something to which the Azeri government has also been opposed.

The US official met President Kocharian later on Wednesday and is expected in Baku the next day.

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