Bitter Armenian dispute edges towards accord

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The Independent Online
DESPITE THE murder of Armenia's Prime Minister and seven top officials last month, this week's OSCE summit will mark a further step towards a settlement of the country's decade-long feud with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Before the attack, officials had been confident the two presidents - Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia - would sign a full framework agreement in Istanbul. Now, however, a statement of intent is the most to be expected to resolve a dispute that has taken more than 30,000 lives since 1988, and contributed much to instability in post-Soviet TransCaucasia.

Initially, there had been fears that the killing of Vazgen Sarkisian in the Yerevan parliament building on 27 October was plotted by hardline Armenian nationalists opposed to any concessions over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian by population but legally part of Azerbaijan since Stalin's times.

However, no evidence has emerged to support this thesis, and although he has spent the past three weeks setting up a functioning government, Mr Kocharian seems determined to clinch an agreement. Thougha ceasefire has been in place since 1994, only a formal end to hostilities would lead to Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey lifting a trade embargo that has crippled Armenia's economy.

For President Aliyev, a peace treaty would enable hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to their homes on Azeri territory around the enclave, seized by Armenia during the war. It would wrap up important unfinished business before the expected handover of power to his son Ilkham - a transfer which, given Mr Aliyev's rumoured ill-health, could come sooner rather than later.

It is believed the enclave would not be permitted to rejoin Armenia and would remain juridically within Azerbaijan, albeit with almost complete autonomy. But if such a compromise is acceptable to both governments, hardliners on either side regard it as little short of a sell-out.