Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

State Department Background Briefing on Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Talks

Date Released:
April 3, 2001
Source: U.S.Department of State

Briefer: Senior State Department Officials
Philip Reeker, State Department Spokesman

Briefing Room, Department of State
3:06 P.M. EST Friday, March 30, 2001

MR. REEKER: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome back to the State Department - and there's no using cell phones in the briefing room. Let me remind you of the withering stare that the president of the United States gave to a journalist whose cell phone went off in the Oval Office.

As advertised, we have a briefing today for you on the upcoming talks, peace talks, on Nagorno-Karabakh that will be held in Key West, Florida, beginning Tuesday. Secretary Powell will be traveling down there; a number of you will be accompanying the secretary for the day. And we have with us this afternoon a senior State Department official, so for attribution, this background briefing, you should refer to a "senior State Department official" to make a few remarks about those talks, and then he'll be happy to take your questions, and we'll just go from there.

MR. REEKER: Yes, sir.

The transcript will be made available without us having to beg for it? Will this be made routinely, on demand?

STAFF: No. You have to beg.

MR. REEKER: You have to beg, yeah. I'm afraid we'll take begging and cash will also be accepted. No - (laughter). As usual, the transcript will be made available. I can't promise the time. Our crack transcribers will be hard at work; their fingers are nimble, and we will try to have that for you by the end of the business day.

You don't provide background transcripts? (Off mike.)

MR. REEKER: Right. We won't be putting it out; it won't be on the Web, but we will make it available to you if you want it. Okay?

So with that, let's turn it over to our senior administration official.

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. Let me say a few comments about what's sort of the background on Key West, and then I'll be glad to answer questions.

The talks are scheduled to start formally on April 3rd. They will go till April 7th. There is potential they could go for two days longer, as well, that's the weekend, if warranted. The attendees are the president of the Republic of Armenia, the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and delegations from the United States, Russia and France.

The focus is to deal with the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, and I know there have been sheets given out to you on background on that conflict. This is a conflict that's more than a decade old. It's a conflict that has created severe impediments to developments in both the countries that will be represented in the talks - Armenia, Azerbaijan - and the region as a whole.

I'd like to highlight the United States has important interests here, and interests on all dimensions. There's a significant humanitarian interest in working on this problem. The fighting between the countries resulted in about 35,000 deaths. There's been a cease-fire in place now for about six years, which has been helpful, but in fact there's a couple hundred deaths every year still as a result of this conflict, mostly due to sniper fire and incidents with land mines, but far too many deaths for people to be comfortable with.

There's also a significant problem with internally displaced people and refugees. The fighting drove over a million people from their homes, and today upwards of 600,000 people are living in refugee camps and railroad cars and villages made out of mud huts. So, there's a strong incentive from the humanitarian side to resolve this conflict and stop the killings and get the refugees and displaced people back in homes.

There's also a military dimension to this. Anywhere where you have an unresolved conflict you have instability. Both countries have sizeable armed forces. The prospect of fighting is always there if you cannot find a peaceful settlement, and I believe there is not a lot of confidence that this is a frozen conflict that would permanently remain frozen. The status quo creates problems that hurt both countries and that lead some individuals to argue, if you can't find peace, then perhaps you should fight. I would point out as well that this instability occurs in a region where Russia, Turkey and Iran all come together. The prospect of violence in that region could lead to situations that I believe no country would be comfortable with, and it creates a high incentive on doing whatever possible to facilitate resolution of that conflict.

There's a political dimension here that's important to the United States. We have been very adamant and strong supporters of democratic development in the New Independent States that formed at the collapse of the Soviet Union. We've had significant assistance programs in these countries to help on this path, but their democratic development, their independence is hindered by the fact that this conflict has not been resolved.

Finally, I would add there's an economic dimension. Concern for the welfare of people. In Armenia, there's been a significant loss of population and the papers, the background papers you have, detail some of this.

The only way we think that loss of population can be stanched is by creating better economic conditions where people have jobs and incentives to stay in the country. There is also a desire to help economically develop this region. In that sense, I know all of you are aware Azerbaijan plays a significant role with its oil and gas reserves, but again effective development of those resources, both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, is only possible in the context of a settlement and greater stability and peace in this region.

The peace process itself is run by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States has been engaged in this peace process from the beginning. That's for the past nine years, since 1992. The United States has been part of the Minsk group, a body formed to help address this conflict. For the past four years, the United States has been a co-chair of that body together with Russia and France. It's a unique arrangement. Normally, you would not expect a triple co-chairmanship to be very effective. Normally, as you add people into a chairmanship, it becomes more difficult to deal with agenda. I think what we have found here and what has been witnessed in recent months is that this triple co-chairmanship has been quite effective, because what it has done is it has marshalled the resources of three very significant players in the international arenas, three permanent members of the UN Security Council, countries with significant political, economic and military clout to help work to advance this peace process.

For two years now, there's been a direct dialogue between the presidents of these two countries. That has helped enormously, and the effort to try to find a resolution. They have met about sixteen times. Often just by themselves, the two men alone. They've been working on how can you find peace. There was a slight change in that format this year, with two meetings in Paris, on in January, one in March, with French president Jacques Chirac, where in addition to the two presidents meeting by themselves, they had separate sessions together with the French president.

Some of the progress that came out of those led to the feeling that it would be advantageous to change that format yet again, and invite the two presidents to the United States. This was done both with concurrence of Russia and France. This was a logical next step in this process, and obviously concurrence from the two presidents that this would be a way to help move this process forward.

We intend, in Key West, to build on the efforts that have come previously. This is a long-term process but we see a unique window of opportunity here, and the view of the United States is we should not let windows of opportunity pass when we're working on the resolution of conflict. The results that we hope for in Key West are to narrow the differences between the parties and to build as much as we can on common ground.

We think we've assembled teams that can do that. As I said, there'll be negotiating team from Russia, France and the United States. The talks will be launched by Secretary Powell on Tuesday. He'll be there that day, and they he'll return to Washington. But the talks will then continue with delegations with the three co-chair countries.

What comes next is always difficult to say. I've been asked by many people what are the chances for resolving this conflict in Florida? Let me say, my answer to that is an easy one: that finding peace is always an extremely difficult endeavor. The United States never underestimates how hard it is to find compromises that can work for both sides, that can effectively advance conflicts that have roots decades or even centuries.

We have seen in the Middle East and Northern Ireland and Cyprus how hard it can be to move forward these delicate processes. But we see an opportunity in the situation regarding Nagorno-Karabakh to be able to move ahead. For that reason, we're bringing them to the United States. We're working together with Russia and France on this. And we think some progress can be made. We hope for as much as possible. It's obviously highly dependent on the leaders of the two countries, what they feel can work both for themselves and their populations, and the good will that they bring to these talks.

What we have seen however in the past two years as part of this direct dialogue between these presidents is a very serious commitment to the peace process and not to seeking to resolve this problem by military means; a very clear statement by both presidents that the only way to find a durable resolution of this problem is with serious compromises. And we believe with that kind of attitude, that kind of initiative behind them, that we can work together in Key West to move this process forward.

I understand that some people - (inaudible) - believed there was a real chance that a deal could actually be done in Moscow. Is this - so I understand this (properly ?) - and are these talk sort of repeating now? Are you going to be sort of moving them from - (inaudible) - or from country to country and having - (inaudible) - until you get where you're planning to get to? Or is this a (one- all ?)?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think what's clear from what I said is that this is a process that's been evolving. There have been direct meetings between the two presidents. Those have occurred in

Moscow, in Washington, in New York, in Geneva, in Paris, a variety of places.

The recent discussions in Paris with French President Chirac led to a different change in how this process has worked, and now that has led to yet another one of the meetings in the United States. That doesn't mean there's a specific rotation. I don't think it gives you a window as to what might come after Key West. If this format is successful in Key West, then that may be something that would be repeated elsewhere. If in fact it's clear at the end of Key West the leaders do better with a different format, we may engage in yet a different angle to address this problem.

I think what's been helpful here has been a lot of flexibility in how you work with the two presidents to try to move it forward.

You've been talking about procedural matters. Has anything happened on the substantive end, such as confidence-building measures along military lines, et cetera, that you can point to?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Sure. As the presidents have had this direct dialogue, I can tell you that in the co-chairmanships there were concerns that it's very hard for presidents to meet directly if there are outside problems that could undermine the political atmosphere that supported that. And we were concerned last year at the number of deaths that were taking place along the line of contact. The way we attacked that - and "attack" is probably the right word - was to decide to, in fact, cross the border between Armenian and Azerbaijan in July, just before the 4th of July, where the most recent deaths had taken place. And what we did in crossing there was bring together local government officials and local military commanders to have them work on steps that could be taken to improve and enhance the cease-fire regime, and also to improve direct communications in the field from one side to the other.

There had been incidents where you would have situations like a soldier cleaning a rifle and the rifle would go off. That would elicit fire from the other side, elicit fire back, and normally the fire would continue back and forth until someone was killed. You would have other incidents where an animal - a cow, a lamb - might cross into a mine field and be blown up. That would initiate volleys of fire from both sides, which could continue until people were killed.

We found that crossing, that took place in July, to be effective, and we did yet another one of those just before Christmas in the southern border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And there, not only did we again bring local commanders together, we convinced the two ministers of defense to meet - this was January 15th - on their border and to agree to implement a hot line communication link between the two capitals, and also to work out procedures for the release of all prisoners of war, and they have done that. So all the prisoners of war have now been released between the two countries.

When you say "we" you mean...

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: We - the French, the United States and Russia working together.

I understand you had a preliminary meeting with all the Minsk Group co-chairs in Vienna several days ago.


Could you give us some details on that?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: To go beyond that, I would say that the contact between the co-chairs has been almost constant for all of this year.

There have been communications back and forth at virtually every level.

On this conflict itself, I can say, for instance, that in the 10th day of the Bush administration, President Bush dealt directly with this question with French President Jacques Chirac. And here you see in the 10th week of the Bush presidency we're having peace talks in Florida. There are communications at the presidential level, the level of the secretary of State, level of the national security adviser.

If you looked over the recent visits to Washington, you would see that Secretary Powell met with the Russian national security adviser here to discuss this, as did Condi Rice. There were meetings today, even, with Turkish Foreign Minister Cem, where this has arisen.

There's very solid communication back and forth all the time. There was a coordination meeting between Minsk Group co-chairs in Vienna last Thursday and Friday, and then there will be another one this weekend in Key West.

Is there going to be any new proposals made to the sides this time in Key West?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think what I can say is at this point the Minsk Group co-chairs have not presented a new proposal to the presidents, but we certainly could look at presenting one on the basis of what may develop in Key West.

But the question is, there's noting new on the ground. What makes you think that the Key West meeting will be more successful than the Paris meeting?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I have not said the previous meetings weren't successful. I think what I've tried to highlight, in fact, is there has been continuous, steady movement forward and some progress in this dialogue between these presidents. At the simplest level, in fact, having had a relationship established between the two leaders of countries that are formally at war is very valuable. But they've gone beyond that, and they've obviously been addressing in this two-year period lots of the questions they feel need to be dealt with in order to try to find peace.

Is there going to be made any clear distinction between Karabakh and the other six occupied regions of Azerbaijan?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think what we're working on very much is the overall resolution of the problem and how you can solve that in all its complexity.


Is it correct to say that in Key West the Minsk Group - in particular, the three ambassadors - will play a more active or more broad, if you will, role in negotiations with the two presidents than before?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think what - yes, in a direct sense, what you have in Key West is very different from what's been happening when two presidents met alone or two presidents simply met together with French President Chirac. Those meetings often would be an hour or two, maybe three, in length, and usually for a single day. What you had in Paris were two days where there were meetings between the two presidents and the next day meetings between the two presidents and the French president.

What you will have in Florida are many days of meetings, almost continuous, where you will have a lot of time to work directly with the presidents, both together and separately, to see what might be possible to advance peace.

To what extent does the 907 legislation hinder our ability to either affect events on the ground or to mediate this conflict?

I've heard Azeris complain rather vociferously about this, as I'm sure you have.

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: You know the administration opposes Section 907, as did the previous administration, as an unhelpful impediment in our ability to be even-handed in dealing with both parties. At the same time, I believe it's been clear by the negotiations that have gone on to date that we are accepted both parties as an impartial negotiator; that both parties welcome the contribution we've made to this process. But again, Section 907 has not been something that helps us in our ability to engage even- handedly both countries.

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: No. Section 907 is a restriction of the Freedom Support Act that prohibits providing assistance directly to the government of Azerbaijan. There have been some carve-outs of that, so there are ability to provide assistance in humanitarian areas and other areas, but it's a piece of legislation that stops there.

Obviously, the closer you get to a peace deal, the more likely those who are opposed to peace are going to turn to violence. What is your assessment at the moment of the likelihood of any peace deal being welcomed and supported in the region?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think peace, as I said earlier, is always a very difficult prospect, and it's very hard to advance peace without taking into account both the practical considerations of what can be negotiated and how people will respond to it. We've seen this past year how difficult that was with the Middle East. We've seen the problems that arose there. I think there's an understanding here by both leaders of what their populations need, there's an understanding by both leaders that if you can find a compromise, it has to be a compromise that can be embraced by people.

At the same time, we know it's very important not simply to reflect the will of the people but to lead the people. I believe we've seen this in many conflicts around the world, the importance of leadership at the top, the importance of having a vision of the future and not a focus or concentration on the past as what provides the key for moving ahead and provides the key for a real future.

I would say in this region we have seen that the development of both countries has been significantly blocked due to the absence of peace. I believe both presidents understand that and that becomes a very strong incentive for them to seek peace.

In case of an agreement, any kind of agreement, would the U.S. or other Western countries be ready to provide some kind of assistance, economic assistance or military assistance on the ground to help implementing the peace accord?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think, obviously, that the West is prepared to help where it can as the co-chair countries, obviously, by participation in this negotiating process, or provide the help. Exactly what would be needed or what would be required is highly dependent, obviously, on what kind of agreement could be reached.

We have always said that the key to a settlement would be the resettlement of displaced people and refugees and the basic reconstruction of the region. And, in fact, the Minsk Group co-chairs last year began some work on this in preparation -- in case some progress could be achieved. We brought together in May in Geneva, representatives of over a dozen international institutions to begin looking at the requirements that might be needed to do the resettlement and the reconstruction. Those contacts have continued and would be reenhanced if, in fact, significant progress is made in Key West.

As to what might be required in the way of monitors or observers, again, I think that's highly dependent on what kind of agreement might result from discussions.

Is there a danger that in the absence of a settlement there could be a renewed conflict in that region?

U.S. TRADE OFFICIAL: Yes, I think there is. I think if you look around the world, you see a number of frozen conflicts that some of them sadly stay frozen quite easily, and you see others that do not; that have a threat that they can thaw and that hostilities can reemerge. I think what we have seen here is, over time, there has not developed a stable situation on the ground in Armenia and Azerbaijan that would make countries be comfortable that this can simply stay the way it is.

What are the chances, in your view, for representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh to join these talks in the future? There were some discussions on the possibility of -- to change the format of this meeting and to invite, probably, the representatives of Nagorno- Karabakh to take part in them as the body of the conflict.

U.S. TRADE OFFICIAL: Let me say two things on that: One, as I said, there's an evolving format here, and you've seen that it's gone from two presidents meeting alone to two presidents meeting with another president to two presidents meeting with the three co-chairs of the Minsk process, and obviously also with Secretary Powell kicking off these negotiations. So there is a flexibility here and there is an evolution here.

The Minsk Group co-chairs have always said that it's important that authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh and the population of Nagorno- Karabakh be, at the proper point, involved in this process. A solution to the dispute there has to be one that can be embraced by people on all sides. So it's not a situation where they would be excluded from working out, at any time and for all time, how this situation could be resolved.

It's key though, I think, that they be brought in at the appropriate moment. And so it's obviously something we are always watching and judging.

At the same time, the Minsk Group co-chairs constantly travel to the region, and when they do they go to Stepanakert, they meet with local officials there. And we're also aware that the president of Armenia maintains constant communications with officials in Nagorno- Karabakh. So there are two links there that ensure that both the officials there on the scene are informed of what's under discussion, and concerns and views they have are taken into account and fed into the peace process.

Are you going to renew the proposals already made by Minsk Group, the three proposals, again in Key West, or are they in history already?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: There's no reason to renew them in that they were made by the Minsk Group previously. None of them were ever accepted by all the parties. The view is they remain on the table if the parties choose to accept part of them or embrace pieces of them or concepts that are included in them. But, no, there's no need to renew them particularly, and there's no reason to think, in fact, that those would be the basis of an agreement that would be reached in the end.

My understanding is that these proposals were made in '97 and '98. They were discussed practically for more than two years; nothing has changed. Both sides have very strong objections to some of the elements of these proposals, the first one, the second or the third one.

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: The three proposals that were made previously also all predate the direct dialogue between the presidents. So you have a lot of discussion since their creation in this peace process, a lot of movement since then. Obviously, they also predate what's happened in Paris in the last few months, and what will be happening in Florida next week.

Aside from a humanitarian interest, is there a U.S. national interest here that would be served by a peace settlement? The president was talking yesterday about an energy crisis. Does this conflict impede the energy development situation in that region?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I think it does. But at the same time, I would not highlight that as the focus of our interest here. I think primarily our interests and concerns are focused on military, political, humanitarian dimensions. As I said, no one can be comfortable at the prospect of fighting erupting in a region that brings Iran, Russia and Turkey together; where Russia is clearly allied with one of the parties and Turkey is clearly allied with another; where a sizable portion of Azerbaijanis live both in Azerbaijan and Iran. It's not a region that anyone would welcome renewed fighting in.

And as I said, the prospect of being able to find a peaceful resolution to this conflict, to allow hundreds of thousands of people to return to their homes and be settled again in a normal capacity is a significant one. And the United States has been very strong, as I said, in our advocacy of helping support the political development of the counties that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So there's a lot of key interest here.

That there is conflict in this region - does that impede economic development of energy in Azerbaijan? Of course. That would be a factor that would have to be included in any calculation by any company investing in this region, be they someone who wants to build a shoe factory in Stepanakert or an automobile plant in Yerevan, or a pipeline that would cross Azerbaijan and Georgia.

MR. REEKER: Elise?

Are the Iranians going to - I mean, I know that, you know, there are certain co-chairs of the conference, but are the Iranians going to have a delegate?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: No, they will not, because, again, they're OSCE-sponsored peace talks, and Iran is not part of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Can you tell us - you've talked a lot about the fact that there's direct - the direct dialogue between the two president has changed the dynamic. Can you tell us how you think Secretary Powell personally can influence this process, given that he's - I mean, it's quite surprising that this particular peace process should be the first one he tackles in person.

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Well, as I said, one - in terms of being the first one, I think it's clearly one that has provided a window of opportunity. And as I said, the United States recognizes how rare sometimes these windows of opportunity can be. Secretary Powell obviously saw that and sees the value in engaging this, as does the president. I think he can play a very important role here.

We have seen in the last three months the Russian president involved in it. Russian President Putin paid a state visit to Baku and sent his national security adviser, Sergey Ivanov, to do a shuttle diplomatic run in the region. We've seen the president of France, Jacques Chirac, engaged in this to lend his own diplomatic good offices to this process. I think Secretary Powell can both do the same and can also help move this to a new level.

With this format that is taking place in Key West, we are highlighting both the intent to advance a resolution of this problem and the cooperation toward that end by the United States, Russia, and France together, and the importance to which we attach stability in this corner of the world. I think it comes together in a very strong message that's of importance not only to this region, but to other parts of the world. Where presidents can work together trying to find peace, where the United States and others see an opportunity to facilitate that peace, we are prepared to lend our good offices and to help.

(Off mike) - what the issues are dividing the two parties? Obviously, it's territory, but is it also reparation, ethnic rights and language? Can you sort of run through what the - the details of the dispute?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: I mean, it's primarily territory at this point, because a sizable portion of Azerbaijan is currently in the hands of Armenia. And that would be the principal issue, but also the return of displaced people to where they had lived before. In Nagorno-Karabakh itself there's the question of the future political status of that region and how it would exist.

MR. REEKER: Is there one more? Yes?

Are you going to provide any briefings or readouts in the Key West?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Yes, we will. I think probably every day, in fact.

MR. REEKER: We'll try everyday.

Could you tell us, is there anybody else with the OSCE coming to Key West?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Yes. I should add the secretary general of the OSCE will also be attending the talks in Key West. His name is Yan Kubish, as will a representative of the chairman in office of the OSCE. The chairman in office is the current Romanian foreign minister Mircea Geoana, and he will be sending his representative Ambassador Constantine Ene E-N-E.

MR. REEKER: Anything else. One last one?

One last one. Ambassador, just let me get it more concrete. You told that the three proposals are in history and you're not going to propose anything more to the sides more. What are you ...

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: That's not what I said. I said the three proposals were made. They remain on the table. The presidents are free to take the pieces of them, if they choose, or all of them if they choose. They're simply there.

They are still on the table. Right?

SR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: At the same time, there's a substantial history now since those proposals to efforts to resolve this conflict, and I said that there has not been a new proposal made by the Minsk group co-chairs, but there certainly could be the potential for one on the basis of what happens in Key West.


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