STEPANAKERT (RFE/RL)–The president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic–Arkady Ghukasian–on Monday urged international mediators to build upon recent months’ progress in peace talks during their upcoming visit to the region but voiced skepticism about chances of a breakthrough this year. He blamed the latest slowdown in the peace process on Azerbaijani intransigence–saying that Baku is trying to avoid major concessions to the Armenian side.
"I don’t think that a peace agreement will be signed before the end of the year," Ghukasian told RFE/RL in an interview. "I don’t think that Azerbaijan is now ready for a solution."
Official Stepanakert "strongly suspects" that the Azerbaijani leadership is "trying to abandon agreemen’s reached in Paris last March and the Florida resort of Key West in April–he said.
The talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan–mediated by the French–Russian and US co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group–are thought to have resulted in considerable progress–leaving the conflicting parties as close to a settlement as never before. But the subsequent cancellation of another Armenian-Azerbaijani summit–due to be held in Geneva in June–fueled renewed pessimism about prospects for peace.
The mediators–however–still hope that a framework deal will be agreed later this year. They say the parties simply requested more time to prepare their publics for mutual compromise. Next week the co-chairs will embark on yet another tour of Armenia–Azerbaijan and Karabakh to try to push the process farther forward.
"The Paris and Key West agreemen’s must not be forgotten," Ghukasian said–speaking in his Stepanakert residence. "They laid a pretty good basis for the conflict’s settlement and must be built upon."
Armenian officials have said that–while in Paris–Presidents Robert Kocharian and Heydar Aliev agreed on the main principles of a new Minsk Group plan on Karabakh. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told reporters in Yerevan on Tuesday that he hopes the troika will be able to "return the process to the Paris path" and "remove complications" holding up further progress in the peace talks.
Ghukasian said the NKR leadership trusts Yerevan’s assurances that the so-called Paris principles are largely in line with the Armenian side’s position on the issue.
He said: "Our position is very clear: Nagorno-Karabakh can not be part of Azerbaijan–it can not be subordinated to Azerbaijan." Ghukasian said the NKR’s insistence on only "horizontal relations" with Baku presupposes "certain limits" on its independence–but added that those limits would be set by the Karabakh Armenia’s and "would not necessarily be in Azerbaijan’s favor."
Turning to the domestic political situation–Ghukasian claimed that Karabakh has become "much more democratic and open to the outside world" since June 1999 when he moved to curb and eventually eliminate General Samvel Babayan’s pervasive control of all power reins in Karabakh.
"The atmosphere of fear has disappeared; the parliament plays a greater role; a [democratic] political system takes shape; and the army does not meddle in politics," he argued.
Babayan–the once powerful commander of the Karabakh army who was stripped of all his posts by the end of 1999–is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for allegedly masterminding the March 2000 attempt on Ghukasian’s life. The NKR president was heavily wounded in the assault–which the authorities say was part of a broader coup plot.
Babayan has denied any involvement in the shootings. He and his supporters claim that the charges brought against the general are politically motivated–accusing the authorities of cracking down on dissent. Babayan’s allies in Armenia have recently stepped up their campaign for his release from jail–suggesting among other things that he be pardoned by Ghukasian.
But Ghukasian ruled out such option on Monday–saying that Babayan’s guilt was proven by a Stepanakert court and that the local population would disapprove of his pre-term release.
Pro-Babayan groups in Karabakh–who had hoped to win last year’s parliamentary elections–have kept an extremely low profile over the past year–leaving the local branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) as the main opposition force.
The ARF–which controls nine seats in the 33-member Karabakh legislature–has so far been unable to weaken Ghukasian’s hold on power and appears to have adopted a more cooperative line on the authorities in recent months. One of the party’s leading members–Georgi Petrosian–is now a top aide to Ghukasian.