YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Official Yerevan vehemently denied on Saturday Azeri President Haydar Aliyev’s claims that it had agreed last year to swap its southeastern Meghri district for a strip of land linking Armenia to Karabakh.
A senior Armenian source told RFE/RL that under a deal agreed by Aliyev and President Robert Kocharian in Paris Azerbaijan’s Lachin district would become an internationally recognized part of Armenia–while Baku would be guaranteed only unfettered communication with its Nakhichevan exclave via Meghri.
Aliyev claimed on Friday that the deal envisaged an equal exchange of territories between the two conflicting countries. He said it was part of a broader framework agreement to settle the Karabakh conflict which was brokered by French President Jacques Chirac in Paris in March 2001.
"It was stated during the discussions that Meghri would be under the sovereign control of Azerbaijan–while the Lachin corridor would be under Armenia’s control," Turan news agency quoted Aliyev as telling a visiting French negotiator in Baku. He went on to accuse the Armenian side of backtracking on those agreement during the subsequent peace conference on the Florida island of Key West.
The spokesman for Kocharian–Vahe Gabrielian–shrugged off the claims–saying that they "should not be taken seriously."As a person who participated in the Key West talks–I can state for certain that the claims about the Republic of Armenia giving up sovereignty over parts of its territory or agreemen’s on a sovereign Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan corridor are a nonsense," Gabrielian told RFE/RL.
"It is Azerbaijan that scrapped the agreemen’s," he said. "In order to understand how credible Haydar Aliyev’s statemen’s are–one should only recall that he had been stubbornly denying the very existence of the Paris principles for more than a year."
An Armenian source close to the negotiating process said the agreed territorial arrangemen’s were "asymmetrical" ones–allowing the Azeris only to "use the Meghri road" for communicating with Nakhichevan. By contrast–he claimed–the Lachin district–which has been controlled by the Karabakh Armenia’s for the past ten years–would become a "sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia."
The source–who asked not to be identified–also said that the so-called "Paris principles" of the Karabakh settlement were "formalized in a document at Key West" and that the Armenian government will now seek international mediators’ consent to make it public and prove that Aliyev "distorted" facts. "This is a great opportunity for Yerevan to publicize that document," he told RFE/RL.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation Bureau’s foreign policy office director Giro Manoyan told RFE/RL Monday that Aliyev’s announcemen’s probably served as a way for Azerbaijan to portray Armenia as a rejector of the peace proposal–while at the same time creating an anti-government sentiment within Armenia.
Manoyan said that the ARF was opposed to any peace proposal that calls for swaping of Lachin for a communication road between Azerbaijan and Nackhichevan.
The ARF leader added that when a resolution to the conflict is reached–which in ARF’s view is the independence of Karabakh or its reunion with Armenia–normal relations will be established–which will allow for the free flow of communications with all fronts. Manoyan said there is no need for a special staus issue.
Azeri leaders have until now strongly denied that any far-reaching agreemen’s were reached at the Paris talks. "We simply discussed various options in Paris–but we did not come to any firm decision," Aliyev had told reporters in Baku on August 4–2001. "Also–there were issues that at one time I said were acceptable–but now I say that they are not. So this is a process and there are no principles anywhere – neither in Paris–Key West–nor on a border in Nakhichevan."
For his part–Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev had described the Paris principles as "yet another Armenian myth created with the aim of avoiding responsibility for the breakdown of talks."The Paris principles do not exist," he told Turan in July 2001. "During the meeting of Aliyev and Kocharian in Paris with the participation of Jacques Chirac–there was just an exchange of opinions. No agreemen’s were reached there."
Nevertheless–Aliyev admitted on Friday the Paris principles do exist–but said the Armenia’s have "violated" them at Key West in April 2001.
But according to the Armenian source–the opposite was the case–with Aliyev unexpectedly demanding after the Florida talks that Meghri–which is Armenia’s sole conduit to Iran–become part of Azerbaijan. "The entire process collapsed because after Aliyev returned to Baku from Key West he demanded that the Meghri and Lachin arrangemen’s be symmetrical," he said.
The French–Russian and US mediators leading the OSCE’s Minsk Group announced at the end of the Key West conference that Armenia and Azerbaijan are as close to signing a peace deal as ever. However–they sharply toned down their optimism after meeting the 78-year-old Azeri leader in Baku in May 2001–canceling what was supposed to become a conclusive Armenian-Azeri summit in Geneva next month.
Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have since repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of backtracking on its pledges. Armenian officials have insisted that a comprehensive peace deal offered by the mediating troika upheld Karabakh’s de facto independence from Azerbaijan and overland link with Armenia proper.
Meanwhile–the Azeri opposition and many independent media on Saturday condemned Aliyev for his latest revelation–according to Turan. Tofik Zulfugarov–the former foreign minister–said that Baku can not cede any part of its internationally recognized territory to the Armenia’s without a nationwide referendum. He also said that Aliyev’s regime was "insincere" toward the domestic public when it denied the Paris principles.
Isa Gambar–the leader of the opposition Musavat party–accused Aliyev of "deceiving the nation" and spoke out against the exchange of territories. Another Musavat leader–Sulhaddin Akper–said Baku should instead press the international community to recognize Armenia as an "aggressor country."
In Yerevan–presidential spokesman Gabrielian said he was surprised with Aliyev’s commen’s. He said: "I wonder what prompted him to make such a statement. After all–the [peace] principles agreed in Paris and put on paper in Key West?will one day be publicized."