BAKU (Reuters–RFE/RL)–US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott pledged support for Azeri President Haydar Aliyev on Tuesday over efforts to solve the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Talbott’s commen’s came on the same day that Aliyev fired Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov amid reports of a government rift over how to settle the long-running dispute with neighboring Armenia over the region.
"The United States of America stands ready to help you in the great cause of peace in any way we possibly can," Talbott told Aliyev at the start of a meeting.
Talbott arrived late on Tuesday in the oil-producing Caspian state and is due to visit Armenia–Russia and France.
Talbott said he would report to President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Aliyev’s opinion of the chance of progress in solving the dispute.
Talbott is expected in Yerevan on Wednesday to discuss the latest international efforts to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after holding talks with the Azeri leadership in Baku–officials said.
A spokesman for the Armenian foreign ministry told RFE/RL that the trip was not planned in advance–adding more weight to reports that Washington is keen to see a breakthrough on Karabakh before next month’s summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The US–which is one of the co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group on Karabakh–is widely believed to have been behind the recent face-to-face meetings between the Armenian and Azeri presidents.
Talbott’s visit follows a series of resignations of top foreign policy officials in the Azeri government. In a decree signed on Tuesday–Azeri President Aliyev relieved Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov of his duties. The move followed requests to resign by presidential advisers Vafa Guluzade and Eldar Namazov. Reuters quoted a Western analyst as suggesting that top government members might be trying to distance themselves from a potentially unpopular peace deal that could involve major concessions to the Armenia’s. Political observers in Baku said that the parties appear to be close to reaching the framework agreement in time for the OSCE summit in Istanbul–the news agency said.
In Yerevan–several major politicians agreed with the hypothesis about serious differences within the Azeri government–with Aliyev favoring a softer line on Karabakh. The Azeri opposition is firmly opposed to the most likely peace deal based on the idea of forming a "common state" with Karabakh. But Artashes Geghamian–leader of the Right and Accord bloc also opposed to the idea–claimed that Aliyev wants to create a semblance of a strong internal opposition in a bid to clinch more concessions from Armenia and Karabakh. "We are witnessing a manifestation of a typical oriental diplomacy," he said.
In Stepanakert–a senior Karabakh lawmaker–said the opposition outcry in Azerbaijan necessitates firm international guarantees about the irreversibility of a future peace treaty. "The Azeri opposition makes us more vigilant," Boris Arushanian–chairman of the Karabakh parliament’s foreign relations committee–told RFE/RL. "History knows no cases where the party that was defeated in both military and diplomatic fronts is seeking a maximum result for itself [in peace talks] with such persistence," he said.