KEY WEST (Reuters)–The fun-loving Florida island of Key West–made famous by Ernest Hemingway and singer Jimmy Buffett–is set to host the serious business of Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks next week and the residents of "Margaritaville” are frankly puzzled.
"We don’t know exactly why we were picked but we’re very honored,” said Bob Wolz–the historian who runs the Harry S. Truman Little White House–where the talks will take place.
About 100 negotiators from the United States–France–Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will join Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev at Truman’s summer White House to try to fashion peace.
All that gravity seems incongruous in Key West–a subtropical island of 30,000 people at the southern tip of the Florida Keys–ringed by coral reefs and turquoise waters. The locals–called Conchs (pronounced konks) after an edible mollusk–revel in a laid-back approach to living.
Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh–US special negotiator for Nagorno-Karabakh–said he chose Key West because "it provided a peaceful–tranquil setting that will be helpful for the negotiations."In Washington–you have a strong desire to meet with other officials–go up to Capitol Hill–meet with corporate heads–work on business. Key West is removed from those kinds of distractions,” said Cavanaugh–a Florida native.
Key West has lots of hotels–an international airport with Customs and immigration facilities so negotiators can fly in directly–and a nearby military base–Boca Chica Naval Air Station–where the presidents can land their planes–he said.
Key West also has Truman’s Little White House–a wooden home on the harborfront built in 1890 as naval officers’ quarters. Some 60,000 visitors tour the house–operated as a museum since 1991 but closed to visitors for the summit week.
Truman–the 33rd US president–vacationed often at the home–which has seen its share of diplomatic intrigue. This is where he decided to adopt the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe.
President Dwight Eisenhower recuperated from a heart attack there in 1956 and wrote his state-of-the union address on the dining room table.
In 1961–President John F. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan huddled at the Little White House–to discuss the growing crisis in Southeast Asia.
Secretary of State Colin Powell will meet the presidents separately then formally open the talks with a Tuesday luncheon–Cavanaugh said.
Bob Wolz figures that a peace treaty would be a fitting tribute to Truman–who famously said–"I would rather have a lasting peace than be president of the United States.”
The Florida Keys themselves are no stranger to border wars. When the US Border Patrol set up a roadblock on the only road linking the Keys with the mainland in 1982 to check cars for drugs and illegal aliens–incensed residents declared independence as the "Conch Republic” and adopted the motto–"We seceded where others failed.”
Conch Republic leader Peter Anderson said he hoped to offer honorary citizenship to the visiting presidents. "We seek only to bring more humor–tolerance and simple human respect to a world we find in need of all three. We think anyone in armed conflict could benefit from our philosophy,” Anderson said.
Regional Leaders Have Low Expectations From Key West
Recent peacemaking efforts presided over by the OSCE in January and earlier this month in Paris failed to break the stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aliyev said the Paris talks had failed to advance the process–and Kocharian said the two sides had exhausted common ground. The two leaders have met more than a dozen times since they began a direct dialogue in 1999–and Aliyev has become increasingly frustrated by the slow rate of progress.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said resolving the dispute is a priority–underscoring Washington’s interest in shipping Azerbaijan’s vast oil wealth to Western markets.
Despite this US initiative–regional leaders and experts have been lowering expectations ahead of the April 3rd meeting in Key West.
Political analysts believe it is too soon for a major breakthrough over Nagorno-Karabakh.
"It’s impossible to solve the problem in artificially set terms. Previous meetings between the two presidents have not defined the main principles for resolving the conflict,” Armenian analyst Amayak Ovanesyan said.
Tofik Zulfugarov–an Azeri political observer–said he feared the current tense relationship between the United States and Russia could have negative impact on the discussions. "It’s not the best time for the Russian-American relationship and it is causing tensions between the negotiators," he said. "The negotiations are under threat when there is no unity," he added.