* Medvedev hosts Azeri, Armenian leaders at crucial meeting
* United States, Russia, France hope for breakthrough
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, June 24 - Bitter neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan are under pressure from global powers for a breakthrough on Friday in their long and bloody dispute over the mountainous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Serzh Sarksyan hold talks in Russia on Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenian-backed forces wrested from Azeri control in the deadliest war to break out as the Soviet Union splintered apart two decades ago.
A 1994 ceasefire halted the conflict with 30,000 dead and as many as one million driven from their homes.
But gunfire and landmines frequently kill soldiers on both sides of the frontline and the threat of a return to war looms over an energy transit corridor sandwiched between Russia and Iran.
After years struggling to shepherd the ex-Soviet rivals toward a resolution, the United States, Russia and France — leaders of international mediation efforts — are pushing for a serious step forward.
At a G8 summit on May 26, Presidents Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy said they were “convinced that it is time for the sides in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh to take a decisive step towards a peaceful resolution.”
They hope the meeting hosted by Medvedev in Kazan, 720 km (450 miles) east of Moscow, will bring final agreement on a 14-point framework document — known as the Basic Principles — that would set the stage for talks on a peace settlement.
Obama, Medvedev and Sarkozy “believe the current version that’s on the table is a just and balanced document,” said Ambassador Robert Bradtke, who leads U.S. mediation efforts.
“Now the question is, do the parties have the political will to make the decision, to accept the principles, and then move on to the next stage, which is to transform those principles into the details of a final peace settlement,” he said.
The 14-point framework document would set guidelines for the future determination of the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has run its own affairs with Armenia’s support since the war, as well as the return of territories surrounding the enclave to Azeri control, with a corridor linking it to Armenia.
Other principles are the right of return of refugees on both sides, an interim status providing security and self-governance for Nagorno-Karabakh as well as international security guarantees to keep the fragile deal from falling apart.
But it was unclear whether Friday’s meeting would produce agreement on the Basic Principles.
Each side has accused the other of hampering progress over years of diplomatic nudging, closed-door talks and public recriminations.
With its legacy of death and displacement, Nagorno-Karabakh is an issue close to the hearts of Azeris angry over losing control of a chunk of territory and Armenians bitter over isolation by Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey.
So far, the international push for a resolution has been overmatched by domestic pressure to avoid concessions.
A breakthrough would be a boon for Medvedev, Obama and Sarkozy, all three of whom may run for re-election next year.
For Medvedev, who has huddled with Aliyev and Sarksyan eight times since taking office in 2008, the absence of agreement would be a “personal failure”, said Tom de Waal, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It would leave a shrinking window for agreement as elections approach in Russia, France, the United States and Armenia, he said.
“It becomes more difficult in 2012 to make a deal.”
Diplomats say that agreement on a blueprint could melt away if subsequent talks on a peace treaty get stuck.
The dispute scuttled a historic rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey last year and Azerbaijan has said it could reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh by force if the status quo persists.
“If there is no agreement, then certainly we are entering a slow slide towards war,” said de Waal. (Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)