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Armenia, Azerbaijan Meet to End Dispute Over Nagorno-Karabakh

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are meeting outside Paris, to try an unblock a 15-year dispute over the mainly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Experts are cautiously hopeful about the talks.

The stakes are high for the meeting between Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian. The status of Azerbaijan's mainly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has remained in limbo ever since it declared independence in 1991. The ensuing war in the southern Caucasus region left some 30,000 people dead, and at least 600,000 refugees.

Now, after years of international diplomacy, analysts hope this two-day meeting in the Paris suburb of Rambouillet will lead to a road map toward the final status of the disputed enclave.

At best, says International Crisis Group expert Sabine Freizer, based in Tbilisi, Georgia, the two sides might be able to negotiate an agreement of principle at Rambouillet - basically laying down the steps needed to reach a final, compromise agreement.

"It's true that both sides do have very tough positions," said Freizer. "But they have been negotiating for the past two years in something called the Prague Process. During that time they seem to have come to some compromises on how a peace might be implemented."

News reports suggest the two leaders might agree to a two-stage process. In the first step, Armenian-backed forces would withdraw from occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, which is currently located in Azerbaijan. They would be replaced by international peacekeepers. Then, at a later date, a referendum would be held to determine the enclave's ultimate status.

If an agreement can be reached, experts say, the Caucuses region - including Georgia - could reap significant economic gains, through new trade and investment. But if a breakthrough is not achieved, Freizer warns, the region could spiral into a new conflict.

"Azerbaijan has this year, significantly increased its military budget - it's now a budget of $60 million - and Azerbaijan said it will continue to increase its military budget to prepare for an eventual war," she said. "So if we do not see a negotiation sometime in the near future, there is a high likelihood that Azerbaijan will resort to force and try to regain its territories through force."

But experts say cobbling a lasting peace will be difficult. They say it will need high-level support from the international community - like that now being offered by French President Jacques Chirac who met with the two leaders on Friday. And the populations of Azerbaijan and Armenia - along with those living in Nagorno-Karabakh - must also be prepared to accept a future settlement.