Azerbaijan is ready to open its border with Armenia and establish formal relations if Yerevan returns five occupied regions adjacent to disputed Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani official has said.
Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Elkhan Polukhov told on Tuesday that Azerbaijan may consider opening its borders with Armenia in case of a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“It has been said in earlier statements from Azerbaijani officials that Azerbaijan is ready to open borders and restore dialogue with Armenia if the first stage of a plan to resolve the conflict is implemented,” he said.
Explaining Azerbaijan's firm position on what it means as the first stage, Polukhov said it would involve the return of five regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory heavily populated by ethnic Armenians, without conditions and a certain date set for the return of two neighboring cities, Kelbecer and Lachin. These two towns constitute a corridor for Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians to mainland Armenia and are of great significance for a possible unification with Armenia.
Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey and a key natural gas supplier for the proposed Nabucco project destined to reach Europe, earlier criticized Turkey's own plans to open its border with Armenia, closed in 1993 in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Commenting on the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, the spokesperson said Azerbaijan had clearly stated its position that the opening of borders between Turkey and Armenia is not in line with the national interest of Azerbaijan at this point. During his visit to Baku in mid-May, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated that the borders would not open unless there were a breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Talking about further steps, Polukhov also said that after these developments, there will be negotiations on the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to the occupied regions. When these conditions are met, “Both railways and highways between the two countries will be operational,” the spokesperson said. Azerbaijan has nearly half a million IDPs and refugees who fled from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh during the clashes with Armenians. However, as they are granted citizenship, they are no longer regarded as IDPs or refugees. There are several hundred thousand Armenians who fled to Armenia from Azerbaijan during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Polukhov said it is too early to discuss the mandate and structure of peacekeeping forces in returned lands. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a full-scale war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. The Armenian side claims that Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians were deprived of their basic rights under Azerbaijani rule throughout the century and the region either needs to be annexed to Armenia or be independent. The Azerbaijani side, however, argues that the solution to Nagorno-Karabakh's problems should be found within Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. Azerbaijan agrees to grant a high level of autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians.
US appoints new co-chair to Minsk Group
Meanwhile, the US announced it has appointed Ambassador Robert Bradtke as the next US co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group, a group of international mediators working for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.
Bradtke, a career diplomat with 36 years of experience, last served as the US ambassador to Croatia. In July, he completed a three-year assignment as chief of mission at the US Embassy in Zagreb. Prior to that, he served from 2001 to 2004 as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, with responsibility for NATO and the OSCE.
“The United States understands the critical importance of achieving a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” said Ian Kelly, spokesman for the US State Department in a statement issued on Monday. He said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated to the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan “her strong interest in the Minsk Group's ongoing efforts to bring the process to a fruitful conclusion” and that “the Obama administration is committed to doing everything possible to support this goal.”
World media monitoring