Russia hosts Karabakh peace talks amid hope and fear

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Armenia and Azerbaijan hold peace talks in Russia on Friday, raising hopes of progress towards ending the long conflict over Nagorny Karabakh but also fears that failure could lead to a new war.

Ahead of the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in Kazan, the bitter enemies have been urged to sign a "basic principles" agreement -- a small step on a long road to a settlement.

"Very rarely have we observed moments when our hopes for a final peace settlement have been as high as they are now," Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, general secretary of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been mediating in negotiations, said.

But 17 years after the ceasefire that ended all-out fighting, tensions have escalated again with regular firefights along the Karabakh frontline and repeated threats from Baku to seize the region back by force if talks don't yield results.

In response, the ethnic Armenian separatists who have controlled Karabakh since the war and their backers in Yerevan have threatened large-scale retaliation if Baku takes military action.

The US, Russian and French presidents put pressure on both countries to "move beyond the unacceptable status quo" and "take a decisive step towards a peaceful settlement" in a statement issued at the G8 summit last month.

The statement urged them to sign the "basic principles" document that envisages an Armenian withdrawal from areas around Karabakh also seized during the war, the return of refugees, international security guarantees, and a vote on the final status of the territory at some point in the future.

Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have been cautiously optimistic ahead of the talks in Kazan.

Speaking at the Council of Europe on Wednesday, Sarkisian said he was "full of optimism and strongly hope it will be possible to find a common denominator," at the upcoming meeting.

But, he added, "it is difficult to say that we will have a positive result," because there exists in Azerbaijan an "Armenia-phobia" that has consistently undermined attempts to resolve the dispute.

Analysts have warned however that the prevailing rhetoric on both sides remains hostile and a major breakthrough appears unlikely.

The conflict in the 1990s killed some 30,000 people and forced around a million more from their homes.

A new war could prove even bloodier, causing another refugee exodus and threatening pipelines which pass close to Karabakh, taking Caspian Sea oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.

Analysts suggest it could also drag in neighbouring powers like Turkey, which supports Baku over Karabakh, and Russia, which has troops stationed in Armenia.

Even if the two leaders do sign the basic principles document in Kazan or at a later date, it will not represent the end of the conflict and huge obstacles to a final peace deal will remain.

Armenia says that Karabakh will never return to Baku's control, but Azerbaijan insists that the region must remain part of its sovereign territory.

"Azerbaijan's position is clear -- territorial integrity cannot be a subject for discussion," said foreign ministry spokesman Elkhan Polukhov.

Flush with oil and gas revenues, Azerbaijan has massively increased spending on weapons and two days after the Kazan talks will hold a showpiece military parade intended to highlight the strength of its armed forces.

© 2011 AFP

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