Strolling down Key West's funky main drag in a polo shirt and shades, President Geidar Aliev of Azerbaijan could have been just another snowbird — if not for the entourage of sharply dressed aides and sharp-eyed bodyguards.
"That's more people in suits than I've seen all week," said Kevin Flanagan, a labor relations consultant from Medina, Ohio, who watched Aliev from a patio bar and wondered who he was.
Aliev, 78, was taking in some local color after a day of peace talks seeking an end to his country's 13-year conflict with neighboring Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The talks, which involve Secretary of State Colin Powell, Aliev, Armenian President Robert Kocharian and negotiators from the United States, Russia and France, opened on Tuesday.
The talks seemed a bit out of place on this low-key island resort. In Key West, a diverse and tolerant community where beach bums and bizarre characters seem like part of the mainstream, a visit from the presidents of two small faraway nations had a decidedly unfamiliar flavor.
"I've heard of Armenia, obviously," said Kathy Eddins, 53, an interior designer. "The other country, I have to honestly say: never heard of it, can't pronounce it."
Bud Turnbull gave it a try.
"Azerbarootie — I can't remember the name of that place in Russia," said Turnbull, 73, of Jupiter, Fla. He was a little off: Azerbaijan and Armenia are former Soviet republics that have been independent since 1991.
Not Much Focus on News
The war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic Armenian enclave that moved to secede from Azerbaijan in 1988, killed thousands of people and drove a million from their homes. Seven years after a cease-fire, Armenia and Azerbaijan have not made peace and about 200 people die every year as a result of the conflict.
Flanagan said he was surprised he had not seen anything about the peace talks on television. Then again, he hadn't heard who won the Cleveland Indians' opener — an issue closer to his heart.
"When you're down here, you don't focus on the news that much," he said.
Key West's distance from the mainland — in both latitude and attitude — was among the reasons the head of the U.S. negotiating team, Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, chose it for the talks.
"It's far from political distractions," he said, adding that in Washington or another large city, the presidents might be drawn off to meet with political leaders, corporation heads or representatives of an ethnic community. The United States has a large and politically influential ethnic Armenian community and U.S. oil companies are interested in Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea oil deposits.
"Here, what they can focus on is the work at hand," Cavanaugh said.
Enjoying a balmy evening like many others on this subtropical island closer to Havana than Miami, Flanagan put it this way: "If you can't relax here, you can't relax anywhere."