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BAKU, DECEMBER 21, ARMENPRESS: Sabina Freizer, the Project Director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) on Caucasus told in an exclusive interview to an Azeri Trend news agency that Armenia and Azerbaijan were not far away from a peace deal. “Yet they need to take a few last difficult steps to secure a compromise, she told Trend. She was commenting on the results of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs visit to the South Caucasus region.

“It remains to be seen whether they can do this in 2006,” Freizer said noting that otherwise the last historic chance to resolve the conflict peacefully may be lost. “The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ last visit to the South Caucasus seem to have succeeded in maintaining momentum in the negotiations process and in laying the ground work for meetings between the Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in January 2006. The hope is that a meeting between the President of Azerbaijan and the President of Armenia will be organized soon thereafter. As the Presidents have not met since August 2005 it is essential that they do so if we are to expect real progress in the negotiations,: she said.

Freizer voiced her agreement with the Minsk group cochairmen’s statement that there is now “a window of opportunity”. With elections planned in the region in 2007 and 2008 it is unlikely that political elites will be willing to make difficult compromises at that time, according to her. “The sides have come a long way since the start of the Prague Process. Armenia in particular has stepped away from its demands that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh be resolved before any withdrawal from the occupied territories begins. Both sides now agree that any peace process will begin with troop withdrawal, the provision of security guarantees and the return of internally displaced persons,” she said.

Regarding the role of the European Union (EU) in the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, she said the EU does not play a direct role in facilitating the resolution of the conflict. The EU Special Representative (EUSR) Ambassador Talvitie is kept regularly informed of developments in the negotiations but he does not take part in the Minsk Group co-chairs’ talks with the sides. The EU can however include a part on conflict resolution in the Action Plans it is currently negotiating with Azerbaijan and Armenia. “The EU is likely to be called upon to significantly contribute to support the peace process if a peace agreement is signed. EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana stated on 13 December in Brussels “if we are asked to get involved we will; we will meet our obligation, as friends, to help,” she said.

According to her, at the same time, at a minimum, the EU will help assist with humanitarian help, reconstruction and rehabilitation assistance, infrastructure and economic development. But there is also a chance that the EU will initiate a more substantial civilian-military operation in the region, including the provision of peacekeeping troops or police.

“If the EU sees real signs of progress in the negotiations they should therefore begin considering sending an assessment mission to the region to get a better understanding of the needs in any post-conflict environment,” she said noting with regret that the EU’s capabilities were extremely limited due to its involvement in other crises of the region.

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