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Nagorno-Karabakh Talks Moving in Right Direction, Analysts Say

The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan plan to meet Friday in Paris to discuss ways to settle the conflict over the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. VOA's Margaret Besheer looks at the recent history of the conflict and gets a sense from experts on where this round of talks might go.

In 1988, the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh began their quest for independence. Three years later, they held a referendum and declared their independence from Azerbaijan, although their government is not internationally recognized.

Heavy fighting followed, with Armenian forces supporting the Nagorno-Karabakh army. A Russian-mediated cease-fire ended the worst of the fighting in 1994. Thousands of people had lost their lives in the fighting and some 300,000 Armenians had become refugees, while nearly a million Azeris were expelled from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and displaced from six occupied districts in Azerbaijan.

Sabine Freizer, the Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, spoke to VOA from a noisy street corner in the Azeri city of Ganja. She says the Armenians and Azeris define the conflict differently.

"The Azeris consider that the origins of the conflict are territorial claims that Armenia has on Azerbaijan territory," she said. "While the Armenians consider that the conflict is about national self-determination and the right of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh to express their will for sovereignty."

International efforts to mediate the dispute have been mostly limited to the work of the Minsk Group created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"The Minsk Group is the main and only international organization which is facilitating dialogue at the state level between Armenia and Azerbaijan," Ms. Freizer said. "Currently there are three co-chairs, France, Russia, and the United States."

So far, the Minsk Group has been unsuccessful in proposing a single solution agreeable to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. But as Azerbaijan expert and Jamestown Foundation correspondent Fariz Ismailzade tells VOA from Baku, the two sides are still considering parts of two Minsk Group proposals.

"The Azeris are supporting a so-called step-by-step proposal, which means the territories around the disputed NK province will be liberated," he said. "And the refugees and displaced people, these are the Azerbaijanis, will go back, and then the status of Nagorno-Karabakh will be decided. The Armenians are proposing to solve all the issues at the same time. This is called a package proposal. They want return of refugees and liberation of occupied territories to be done at the same time with the status of disputed Nagorno-Karabakh."

Last month the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met on the sidelines of the Council of Europe summit in Warsaw. Mr. Ismailzade explains why that meeting was important for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

"The presidents met and decided, 'yes, we are on the right track, let's continue this negotiation.' So in a way, the presidents gave a new mandate, a new opportunity for the [foreign] ministers to continue the talks," he said.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian says he hopes to build on the progress made in Warsaw.

"During the two presidents' meeting in Warsaw, certain progress was made on one of the most critical items," said Vartan Oskanian. "I will meet with my counterpart from Azerbaijan on the 17th [of June]. We will try to build on the progress that the two presidents have made during their meeting in Warsaw."

Absent at the negotiating table Friday will be a direct representative of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Their representative in the United States, Vardan Barseghian, says they still welcome Friday's peace talks.

"Our president says he welcomes this kind of discussion, but to achieve a long-lasting resolution, Nagorno-Karabakh should be present at the negotiating table," Mr. Barseghian said.

Ms. Freizer of the International Crisis Group says the Paris talks are a continuation of a process which has been moving in a positive direction, but she does not expect there to be a major breakthrough at Friday's meeting.

"It seems that there is good will on both sides to talk about very hard issues," she said. "But at this point, it looks like they are still in a negotiation phase where they are still hashing out ideas and trying to come to a consensus on the key ideas."

Mr. Ismailzade of the Jamestown Foundation agrees.

"They will come out of that saying that they have discussed some details, things are in a right direction, they are narrowing down their positions, and they will continue negotiations," he said.

No matter what comes out of the Paris meeting, Mr. Barseghian of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians says their goal will remain unchanged, and that is to have an independent state where their people can live in freedom and choose their own government.