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Can thaw unstick frozen conflict?

Armenian soldiers fire on Azeri positions near the village of Hanatag in Nagorno- Karabakh 19 May, 1992

By Konul Khalilova
BBC Azeri.com

Hopes of a breakthrough in the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan are increasing as the presidents of the two countries prepare to meet this week at a European Union summit in Prague.

There is a sense of a window of an opportunity that must be seized.

The meeting is the culmination of a series of moves which has seen both sides edging towards a lasting peace.

It is also linked to a third player in a complicated diplomatic triangle: Turkey.

A rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, which could lead to the opening of their joint border, has caused alarm in Azerbaijan, which has always had Turkey's sympathy over Nagorno-Karabakh.

We understand the importance of links between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev

But at the same time, there are signs that the thaw may also unstick that frozen conflict.

The Azeri and Armenian foreign ministers have visited Washington this week for discussions with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

They follow recent talks between the two countries' leaders and their Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, after which President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and President Serge Sarkisian of Armenia expressed their high hopes for a lasting peace.

'Ready to move'

A deal has been a long time coming.

A ceasefire was signed in 1994 after a three-year war which claimed up to 30,000 lives.

map

The Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh - a disputed ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan - was displaced as a result of the war and now lives in different parts of the country.

Azerbaijan demands an immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from the territory.

Armenia insists on the enclave's independence.

But now a peace plan has been drafted by the OSCE Minsk Group, which was set up to help settle the conflict.

One of the main issues to be solved is that of the Lachin corridor, the main transport route between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The president of Azerbaijan has made some unusually warm statements saying that "we understand the importance of links between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the issues regarding Lachin corridor can be resolved efficiently".

Mr Medvedev said that the parties were "ready to move in a constructive direction in order to solve this very difficult problem".

Matthew Bryza, the American co-chair of the Minsk group, sounds optimistic, saying that a framework for a peace accord between Azerbaijan and Armenia is "absolutely possible" within the next months.

Turkish influence

The meeting in Prague comes two weeks after Armenia and Turkey agreed on a roadmap to normalise relations.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, in Moscow, April 2009
President Aliyev (left) has had some unusually warm things to say about Armenia

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Turkey and Armenia started high-level talks last year but the real thaw came just weeks after US President Barack Obama urged Turkey to come to terms with the past and open its borders.

The "positive mood" created by the Turkish-Armenian roadmap "gives a new energy to accelerate our work to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict" according to US envoy Matthew Bryza.

The EU, which will formally launch a new Eastern Partnership this week with six former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan and Armenia, has so far stood back from the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.

But the EU could gain a lot from a deal, as it attempts to secure energy supplies by completing the Nabucco gas pipeline project which would carry Caspian gas to European markets, reducing their dependency on Russia.

The opening of borders and easing tension in the region suits both the US and EU, as they attempt to prize Armenia gently away from Russian influence.

Limited window

However, there are problems to be overcome.

Azerbaijan hints that it is not happy at Turkey having the opening of the Armenian border "in mind", though Turkey continues to insist that this would be dependent on an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan also does not seem to be in the mood to make any concessions regarding its territory.

President Aliyev has said recently that self-determination of Azeris and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh "can happen within the framework of territorial integrity of Azerbaijan" and the conflict can be resolved "only on this basis".

Rasim Musabeyov, an Azeri political pundit told the BBC Azeri Service that if this chance of settling both the Turkey-Armenia rift and the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is lost, "it might bring the region to the very brink of a new war".

Many experts believe that it will still take several months of intensive diplomatic effort involving the EU, US and Russia before any substantial breakthrough is made.

But if the negotiating parties fail to achieve a peace deal in the coming months and the window of opportunity closes, it is feared that the West, including the EU, may turn their political energies away from what may by then seem an intractable problem.



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