Armenia, Azerbaijan seek peace breakthrough
The rival leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia meet Friday at a summit hosted by Russia to seek a breakthrough on an old territorial row that has shackled development in the strategic Caucasus.
The meeting in the Russian city of Kazan between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev will be supervised by Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and is accompanied by rare optimism.
The two sides still exchange deadly fire around the Nagorny Karabakh conflict zone, 17 years after fighting a war over the now Armenia-controlled region in western Azerbaijan.
But the two sides have now been encouraged to sign up to a "basic principles" agreement that would mark the most significant progress in many years of excruciatingly painful talks.
"This meeting is expected to play a decisive role in the Nagorny Karabakh peace process," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Moscow added that the document Medvedev hopes to get the two rivals to sign in Kazan should pave the way for "a comprehensive peace agreement" to be sealed at a later date.
US President Barack Obama on Thursday called the two presidents and urged them to sign the "basic principles" document, the White House said.
"President Obama told both leaders that now is the time to resolve this conflict and to offer the people of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorny-Karabakh a better future for themselves and for their children," a statement said.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- which has been a part of the global peace initiative together with the United States -- also sounded a note of promise.
"Very rarely have we observed moments when our hopes for a final peace settlement have been as high as they are now," said OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut.
Armenia's Sarkisian told a meeting of the Council of Europe on Wednesday that he was "full of optimism" but fearful of new demands from Azerbaijan.
The deal set up for Friday's signing would see an Armenian withdrawal from areas around Karabakh that were also seized during the early post-Soviet war.
The interim deal also envisions international security guarantees and a vote on the final status of the territory at some point in the future.
"We expect that on these grounds, the parties will reach an agreement in the interests of peace, prosperity and development of the whole region," the Russian statement said.
The conflict in the 1990s killed some 30,000 people and forced around a million more from their homes.
But Western negotiators are concerned that a new flare-up could be even bloodier and potentially threaten pipelines that take Caspian Sea oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.
Russia meanwhile remains sensitive to any rise in hostilities on its vulnerable and already restive southern border.
Analyst say that the sides may very well announce a "breakthrough" on Friday while achieving very little substantive progress.
Huge obstacles remain to a final peace deal because Armenia says Karabakh will never return to Baku's control while Azerbaijan still insists that the region must remain part of its sovereign territory.
© 2011 AFP