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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hope for Step Toward Karabakh Peace at CIS Talks

YEREVAN, Armenia -- European mediators hope Azerbaijan and Armenia will agree to small steps to improve life for people of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh at peace talks in St. Petersburg on Saturday, even if they make little progress on the main issue of the breakaway region's status.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, himself a former Nagorno-Karabakh leader, will meet in St. Petersburg on Saturday on the sidelines of an informal CIS summit amid signs that both leaders will stand by their positions.

One underlying fear is that if dialogue fails, violence could restart, destabilizing an area emerging as a major energy producer and a key oil and gas transport route between the Caspian Sea and Europe.

Mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the parties could kick-start talks on a deal, which would put aside the key issue of who rules the region and focus on step-by-step rapprochement.

"This is a golden opportunity," Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister and current chairman of the OSCE, which is guiding the negotiations, told reporters during a visit to the region this week.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian region of Azerbaijan, broke away in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union disintegrated, triggering a war between separatists and Azerbaijan from 1992 to 1994. More than 35,000 people were killed.

Since the war, the enclave and lands around it have been controlled by a separatist army, backed by Armenian volunteers. Nagorno-Karabakh's minority Azeri and Kurdish populations largely fled during the fighting.

The 140,000 population of Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Armenia, overwhelmingly voted in December in a referendum to reiterate their commitment to full independence; but the mountainous region has not been recognized by any nation.

Armenia is involved in talks on this most intractable dispute in the former Soviet Union, but it denies being a party to the conflict.

Ahead of the meeting between Aliyev and Kocharyan in St. Petersburg, Armenia's foreign minister said ensuring Nagorno-Karabakh's right to self-determination was paramount. "If we can do that, I believe we will find solutions to other issues," Vardan Oskanyan said.

Azerbaijan wants Nagorno-Karabakh back but says it would give the region a high level of autonomy.

"The current state of the negotiation process and also the known statements by the Azeri side in the past two months have left very little hope for a positive result," Kocharyan's press office said, the Armenian Mediamax news agency reported.

OSCE negotiators say that despite the lack of agreement on the principal issue, there is still a possibility of step-by-step moves to ease the crisis.

Diplomats said Moratinos likened the proposal to talks held by Spain, Britain and Gibraltar, where the parties agreed to maintain different opinions on the Rock's sovereignty but work together on practical steps to improve life around the area.