By Emil Danielyan
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Tbilisi on Sunday for talks that were apparently dominated by the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkish-Armenian relations.
The two men met on the sidelines of the official inauguration of Georgia’s new president, Mikhail Saakashvili. A statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said they spoke about “the possibility of achieving concrete results” in the long-running Karabakh peace talks mediated by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States co-heads the group together with France and Russia.
“Vartan Oskanian and Colin Powell addressed the status of the Karabakh conflict following the meeting in Geneva late last year between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as exchanged thoughts about ways of resolving the problem,” the statement said. It said Powell voiced his support for further direct talks between President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliev.
The mediators are reportedly gearing for yet another push for a Karabakh settlement after a one-year hiatus caused by presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it is still not clear whether they will come up with new peace proposals or, as Yerevan hopes, will try to revive agreements reached by the parties in 2001. Oskanian last week rejected Aliev’s calls for a new Minsk Group plan that would restore Azerbaijani rule in Karabakh.
The strained relationship between Armenia and Turkey also figured prominently at the Tbilisi meeting. “Both sides found positive the ongoing Armenian-Turkish dialogue and the importance of U.S. role in turning it into practical results,” Oskanian’s office said.
Washington has for years been pressing Ankara to lift its economic embargo of Armenia imposed in 1993 out of solidarity with Azerbaijan. The current Turkish government signaled last year a softening of its Armenian policy. Armenian officials say it may now be ready to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border before a solution is found to the Karabakh dispute.
Also on the agenda of the meeting, according to the Foreign Ministry, was Armenia’s cooperation with the U.S.-led fight against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Powell found Armenia’s role in the effort “positive,” the statement said.
Oskanian is said to have assured Powell that his country remains committed to “actively participating in reconstruction programs in Iraq.” But there was no word about Yerevan’s stated intention to join the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq with a small unit of military doctors and demining specialists to Iraq. U.S.-Armenian negotiations on modalities of the operation have been going on for months.
Powell and Oskanian met at a hotel in the Georgian capital after attending Saakashvili’s oath-taking ceremony along with other foreign dignitaries, including Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
The open-air ceremony, held before tens of thousands of people, contrasted sharply with last April’s presidential inauguration in Armenia that followed a hotly disputed election. Much of central Yerevan was shut down by the authorities at the time to prevent thousands of protesting opposition supporters from approaching a government building where Kocharian was being sworn in for second five-year term.
Unlike in Armenia, the legitimacy of Saakashvili’s landslide victory in the January 4 was not challenged by the domestic opposition and the international community. Powell’s presence at the 36-year-old leader’s inauguration also underscored Washington’s strong support for Georgia’s new pro-Western government in its difficult relationship with Russia.
Oskanian’s one-day visit to Tbilisi also involved separate meetings with Saakashvili and the speaker of the Georgian parliament, Nino Burjanadze. Saakashvili was handed a congratulatory letter from Kocharian inviting him to pay an official visit to Armenia. The Georgian president reaffirmed his pledge to give “a new impetus” to ties between the two neighboring countries, according to Oskanian’s press service.