YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian sought on Friday to defuse the row caused by his recent remark that Azerbaijani territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh were "occupied" by Armenian forces–a term that has negative connotations in Armenian language.
Oskanian’s use of the word in a Wednesday interview with the independent A1 Plus television has drawn a sharp reaction from Armenia’s leading politicians and some media outlets who find the move inappropriate. Political groups opposed to President Robert Kocharian’s Karabakh policy have said it is further proof that the authorities are bent on making unacceptable concessions to Azerbaijan.
But Oskanian dismissed the uproar–saying that the remark was misinterpreted by his critics. "What is being attributed to it wasn’t in my mind," he said–responding to allegations that he effectively endorsed Azerbaijani claims of "Armenian military aggression" in Karabakh. He argued that–as a diplomat–he is "not allowed" to describe as "liberated" the areas in Azerbaijan proper seized during the 1991-94 war.
Oskanian spoke to RFE/RL in Strasbourg where he was attending a meeting of foreign ministers of the Council of Europe member states. The meeting marked Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s debut in the Council’s Committee of Ministers. The two arch-enemies became full members of the organization last January.
In Yerevan–meanwhile–leaders of radical opposition groups stuck to the line that Oskanian’s gaffe signals an imminent Karabakh sellout. "He is saying what he is told to say by the head of state," Ashot Manucharian–the leader of the opposition National Accord Front (AHCH)–told over a thousand supporters who rallied at the city’s Liberty Square. "We didn’t occupy lands–we just liberated a certain part of our historic homeland," said another speaker.
A statement denouncing official Yerevan’s efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement with Azerbaijan was issued by another alliance of small left-wing groups favoring a hard line on Karabakh. Its leader–Aram Sarkisian–likened Kocharian’s policy with that of his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrossian–who was forced into resignation in February 1998 after advocating sweeping concessions to Azerbaijan.
Kocharian’s apparent readiness to make a long-awaited peace deal was also attacked by one of Ter-Petrossian’s closest associates–former parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian. Ararktsian told reporters that the Armenian side is now forced by international mediators to give away more than it would have had to under the ex-president. He further alleged that Ter-Petrossian’s ouster was orchestrated by unspecified foreign states who have been seeking to establish regional hegemony.
In a veiled reference to France–and possibly the West in general–Ararktsian said: "Kocharian got his Legion d’Honneur [the highest French state award] back in 1997–and not in 2001." Kocharian paid an official visit to Paris in late 1997 in his capacity as prime minister of Armenia.