Turkey, Russia in Talks for Quick Karabakh Resolution, Says Lavrov

BAKU (Combined Sources)–Russia and Turkey are in close negotiations for a quick resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday at a joint press conference in Baku with Azier Foreign Minister Elmar Mammedyarov.

"Many countries are interested in the quickest resolution of the conflict and Turkey is one of them," he said, adding that Moscow is talking with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest foreign ally, about the Karabakh conflict.

According to Lavrov, private Russian-Turkish negotiations on Karabakh do not conflict with the current peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. "There are no parallel talks which would contradict the existing format" overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group, he said.

Mammadyarov, for his part, told reporters that the Kremlin was in favor of a speedy resolution, while Baku remains firm in its position that a settlement can only come about if Karabakh remains territorially part of Azerbaijan, while enjoying broad autonomy.

Lavrov’s two-day official visit to Baku ended Thursday with all the traditional tributes to bilateral partnership. But the visit provided little indication of how far Russia has actually succeeded in assuaging Azerbaijani outrage at an alleged Russian arms transfer to Armenia.

His trip came after more than a month of warm-up diplomacy by Moscow following the eruption of the Armenian arms scandal in late January. Russian President Dmitri Medvedyev called Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev twice over the last several weeks, while Sergei Narishkin, chief of staff of the Russian presidential administration, visited Baku on February 26-27.

During the press conference, Lavrov repeated earlier assertions that the Azerbaijani media had "published completely false information" about the transfer. Russia, he continued, is carrying out military-technical cooperation in the South Caucasus without violating its international obligations, and tries to avoid further instability in the region.

But whatever overtures were made did not appear to cut through official Azerbaijani reserve. Mammadyarov responded that Azerbaijan will nevertheless continue its investigation into the issue — an investigation that Lavrov termed unnecessary in a March 10 interview with the Azerbaijani news agency Trend.

One Baku political columnist argued Thursday that Lavrov was treading carefully. In his interview with Trend, Lavrov noted that "the resolution [of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict] should not turn the region into a field of international political and military rivalry."

"It means that Moscow wants to keep Armenia as its major ally in the South Caucasus, but to keep Azerbaijan at least neutral towards Russia and its policy," said Zerkalo’s Rauf Mirkadirov:

The future of the Gabala radar station makes that neutrality even more desirable. Lavrov noted that Moscow is interested in prolonging its rental of the Gabala radar station after it expires in 2012. The Russian foreign minister also noted that an earlier proposal for joint use of the station with the US remains on the table. "When and if our American and European partners will show interest in it, we are open for discussion," Lavrov said.

Mammadyarov, in turn, indicated that Gabala was not under discussion. He denied media reports about the upcoming arrival of a Pentagon delegation to discuss the potential transfer of Gabala to the US after 2012. "The issue of the station’s transfer to a third party or the prolongation of an existing agreement is not on the agenda," he said.

On the energy front — increasingly, a sensitive issue as Azerbaijan strengthens its ties to non-Russian pipelines — the ministers said that both sides are preparing for a potential summit in Baku on finalizing the Caspian Sea’s legal status. Additional details about energy ties were not provided.

In his Trend interview, Lavrov emphasized that "it is Azerbaijan’s sovereign right to participate in international energy projects and we respect this right." At the same time, in apparent reference to the jockeying surrounding the US and European Union-supported Nabucco gas pipeline, he underlined that Russia opposes the "excessive politicization of this process."

In line with that theme, Elhan Shahinoglu, head of Baku’s Atlas political research center, believes that Lavrov actively promoted the outstanding Russian offer to purchase all of Azerbaijan’s export gas. "It is difficult to say what Baku’s reaction to it was, however, Ilham Aliyev will likely continue balancing between the West and Russia on this issue," Shahinoglu said.

Prior to his arrival, Lavrov had identified the expansion of economic ties with Azerbaijan as a priority for discussion, but no commen’s on this topic were forthcoming during the March 12 news conference. According to Lavrov, trade volume between the two countries reached $2.4 billion in 2008, almost a 40 percent increase from 2007. Russia remains the top exporter to Azerbaijan, and accounts for nearly 19 percent of its imports.

Cultural ties proved smoother sailing. Lavrov and Mammadyarov attended the inauguration of a Russian information and cultural center in Baku that will run exhibitions, promote Russian businesses and run various bilateral educational projects.

Earlier, on February 27, President Aliyev and Russian presidential chief-of-staff Narishkin opened a Baku branch of the Moscow State University. Aliyev’s sister-in-law, Nargiz Pashayeva, the sister of First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, will run the school, which has faculties in language and literature, chemistry and mathematics. "We appreciate the attention which the Azerbaijani leadership pays to the Russian language and Russian culture," declared Lavrov.

That attention, however, did not extend to language use during the press conference.
In a departure from usual Foreign Ministry practice for press conferences with visiting Russian officials, Mammadyarov who is fluent in Russian, made his statemen’s in Azeri.

The choice served as a subtle reminder that Azerbaijan’s government remains keen on pursuing its own interests and friendships in the region without kowtowing to Moscow’s traditional influence.

Iran is increasingly emerging as a potential foil to both Russian and US interests in Azerbaijan. Lavrov’s visit to Baku followed on the heels of President Aliyev’s March 10 visit to Tehran for talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. No important statemen’s were made after the visit, although seven various cooperation agreemen’s were signed.

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