Russia Presses Diplomacy as Caucasus Truce Halts Fighting

  • Medvedev says `hot phase' in Karabakh crisis must be avoided
  • Lavrov says Russia has `proposals' for resolving conflict

Russia mounted a diplomatic offensive to reinforce a cease-fire that halted the worst fighting in two decades between Armenians and Azeris over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

It’s vital to prevent “a hot phase that can have the most tragic consequences for the region,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. The crisis over the Armenian-held enclave in Azerbaijan must be resolved by diplomacy, not war, he said, after talks with Armenia’s Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan.

Nagorno-Karabakh army artillerymen prepare to open fire from a howitzer on Tuesday.

Photographer: Vahan Stepanyan/PAN Photo via AP

“We have proposals” and the clashes should “make us more active in seeking a political settlement to the conflict,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at talks with President Ilham Aliyev in the Azeri capital, Baku, late Wednesday, according to the presidential website, which gave no details. Azerbaijan is committed to resolving the conflict peacefully within international law, Aliyev said.

The truce that took effect on Tuesday was thrashed out at Russian-mediated talks in Moscow between the Armenian and Azeri chiefs of general staff. It ended nearly five days of spiraling violence that killed scores of soldiers and civilians, the largest loss of life since a Russian-brokered truce 22 years ago. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan warned on Monday that escalation in the conflict could trigger a “full-scale war,” threatening to destabilize a region flanked by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Fighting between Armenia, a Russian ally, and Azerbaijan, which has stronger ties to NATO member Turkey, would also potentially disrupt a new energy corridor between central Asia and Europe.

‘Political Settlement’

The conflict is “close” to settlement and Russia will “do everything” to move the peace process forward, Lavrov said Thursday at a news conference in Baku with the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers. Confidence-building measures are needed in the conflict zone, though this “doesn’t mean we should relax about finding a comprehensive political settlement,” he said.

The status quo in Karabakh is unacceptable and unsustainable, and the conflict must be resolved sooner rather than later, Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said.

Azerbaijan is responsible for the escalation in the conflict and Armenia will continue to meet its obligation to ensure the security of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abrahamyan said at the talks with Medvedev, according to the Interfax news service.

Killed, Wounded

Peace talks won’t be complete without the participation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s officials, who aren’t aware of proposals made at meetings led by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mediators, Bako Sahakyan, who’s president of the unrecognized republic, said in the capital Stepanakert.

Azerbaijan said 31 of its servicemen and four civilians died in the clashes that first broke out April 1. Nagorno-Karabakh said that 36 Armenian soldiers were killed, 21 are missing and 122 were wounded, while 11 civilians also died.

Armenians and Azeris accused each other of violating the cease-fire overnight. An Armenian serviceman was killed in an Azeri mortar attack near the contact line, according to the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry.

The truce isn’t stable and Russia’s continuing mediation efforts, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday on a conference call. “There has been a step back because, up until these clashes, there were very positive moves toward a resolution,” he said.

Mediators Visit

Medvedev travels to Azerbaijan Friday, while Lavrov will have talks with Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandyan in Moscow. Lavrov is also due to visit Armenia April 21-22.

U.S., French, and Russian OSCE mediators met with Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Minister Levon Mnatsakanyan on Thursday in Stepanakert to discuss ways to resolve the conflict, according to the Defense Ministry’s website. They held talks with Aliyev on Wednesday. The mediators will meet Sargsyan and Nalbandyan in Yerevan on Saturday, the Armenian Foreign Ministry said.

The conflict dates back to the dying days of the Soviet Union, when a dispute over the territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan flared into a war that killed 30,000 and created a million refugees. Armenians took over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts from Azerbaijan in the 1991-1994 conflict.

OSCE mediators have failed to negotiate a lasting peace since then. Armenia says the enclave’s Christian Armenians, who declared independence from largely-Muslim Azerbaijan in 1991, have the right to self-determination. Azerbaijan demands respect for its territorial integrity.

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