February 17, 2008 / 12:31 AM / 12 years ago

Kosovo "will boost Karabakh recognition drive"

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Kosovo’s independence will strengthen a bid by the Armenian-backed breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to be recognized as a state, Armenia’s prime minister Serzh Sarksyan told Reuters in an interview.

Sarksyan drew a link between the Serbian province which will declare independence on Sunday and Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenian separatists broke away from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s but have failed to win international recognition.

“We are getting a rather favorable position,” said Sarksyan, front-runner in the February 19 Armenian presidential election. “Recognition of Kosovo’s independence can be welcomed by us.

“If countries recognize the independence of Kosovo and then don’t recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, we’ll think of double standards,” he said late on Saturday.

But Sarksyan, a native of Nagorno-Karabakh, said international recognition for Kosovo “does not mean ... Armenia will immediately recognize the independence of Karabakh.”

Armenia is the breakaway region’s closest ally.

Armenia and neighbor Azerbaijan are still technically at war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a source of instability close to the route of a pipeline that pumps Caspian Sea oil to world markets.

Armenia’s relations with its other neighbor Turkey are fraught, in part because Ankara refuses to recognize as genocide the killings of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turkey.

Efforts to resolve both disputes are stalled. If elected, Sarksyan is expected to leave Armenia’s approach largely unchanged.

But he said: “We need to add some flexibility to our foreign policy ... I think one of the most important issues is establishing good relationships with our neighbors.”

Speaking about the fiercely-contested election, 53-year-old Sarksyan said: “I assess my chances as very good. If in the coming days nothing extraordinary happens, the election will end in just one round.”

Armenia has suffered bouts of political turmoil and previous elections have been followed by mass opposition protests alleging vote-rigging.

On the possibility of protests, he said: “We have state bodies to defend law and order in our country.”

Sarksyan is a close ally of President Robert Kocharyan, who is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election.

Sarksyan said if he wins Tuesday’s vote Kocharyan, also 53, will continue to play a role in government, though he said he did not yet know what that would be.

“We have been collaborating for more than 27 years, so why should we not use Mr. Kocharyan’s knowledge and experience in the future?” said Sarksyan.

Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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