No Agreement On Territorial Swap Exists US Says

YEREVAN (Noyan Tapan–RFE/RL)–US Assistant Secretary of State Steven Sestanovich on Wednesday said no agreement on a territorial swap between Armenia and Azerbaijan–within the framework of a peace plan exists–reported the Noyan Tapan news agency.

Sestanovich also called for more direct talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan–saying that they would brighten prospects for a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan after a meeting with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials–Sestanovich said that face-to-face talks between the two leaders–which have taken place regularly since the beginning of last year–are "very valuable and important."There is no substitute for the two responsible people sitting down and discussing this face to face," he said. According to the Armenian foreign ministry–Sestanovich "stressed the need to continue that process."

Washington has strongly encouraged the direct Armenia-Azeri dialogue–which last year raised hopes for an imminent solution to their decade-long territorial dispute. No progress has been reported since the October 1999 shootings in the Armenian parliament–however.

Sestanovich–who was accompanied by the US co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group–Carey Cavanaugh–discussed Karabakh settlement with Azerbaijan’s President Haydar Aliyev in Baku on Tuesday. The Group–co-chaired by the US–Russia and France–has been working on new peace proposals ever since its most recent plan–which would place Azerbaijan and Karabakh under a loose "common state," was rejected by Baku in late 1998.

Sestanovich told RFE/RL after a meeting with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian that it is still too early to expect a breakthrough in the Karabakh peace process. He said: "That’s not really what we are looking at here. It’s to review the situation–explore possibilities for some movement forward. Breakthrough is too dramatic." He made it clear later in the day that the controversial idea of a land swap between Armenia and Azerbaijan should still not be dismissed. "From what I hear of public discussions that doesn’t sound like an area where there is a lot of agreement. But I think it’s an important part of discussions of this kind–if they are undertaken in good faith and with the aim of seeking a real solution–not to rule out any ideas."

The Armenian authorities say the idea–which would require Yerevan to cede its southeastern Meghri district to Azerbaijan in exchange for an international recognition of its sovereignty over Karabakh–was floated last year by unspecified OSCE mediators but was rejected out of hand. The proposed deal is highly unpopular in Armenia and is frequently exploited by Kocharian’s political foes.

Official sources in Yerevan said the top US officials briefed Armenian leaders on the political situation in Azerbaijan where parliamentary elections are due to be held on Sunday. Sestanovich said he thinks there will be "an opportunity to take new policy initiatives" on Karabakh after the vote.

He said the purpose of his tour of Armenia and Azerbaijan is to "review" the United States’ relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan ahead of the US presidential elections and "make recommendations" to the new White House administration. "I think that there will be continuity of [American] policy because it’s based on the strong common interest between us and the states of this region," he said.

Prospects for improving the strained relationship between Armenia and Turkey were also high on the agenda of Wednesday’s talks. "The parties discussed a broad range of issues related to Turkish-Armenian ties," according to the foreign ministry. Sestanovich argued that the passage by the US House of Representatives of a resolution recognizing as genocide the 1915 mass killings of Armenia’s by Turks would have been "counterproductive to advancing a dialogue" between the two neighboring states. The resolution’s defeat bodes well for an improvement in their relations–he added.

That remark was in sharp contrast to the position of the Kocharian administration which takes the view that Ankara would facilitate such a dialogue by agreeing to discuss the bloodiest period of the Ottoman Empire. "I’ve been hearing about ideas from both Armenia’s and Turks about how such a dialogue could continue," Sestanovich said. "I’ve also been hearing in the United States the ideas of our scholars about how to approach such a process." The US delegation is due in Ankara on Thursday.

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