Hopeful Signs Appear in Solving Nagorno-Karabakh Impasse

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Feb 2 14:34:41 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, February 2, 2006

Hopeful Signs Appear in Solving a Post-Soviet Impasse

MOSCOW, Feb. 1 Negotiations for a peace settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh,
the contested region in Azerbaijan that slipped into war as the Soviet
Union collapsed, have gained ground recently after years of stalemate,
raising the possibility of an agreement this year, diplomats familiar with
the talks say. Fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in
Nagorno-Karabakh killed at least 18,000 people and displaced more than one
million others in the early 1990's. The region, an ethnic-Armenian enclave
within the borders of Azerbaijan and a fortified area around it, has been
under military occupation by Armenian-backed forces since a cease-fire in
1994, creating a formidable military front in the western mountains of

The territory has remained a source of violence and lingering social
costs, with expelled civilians living in grim conditions away from the
front. Commercial and social contacts between the populations are almost
nonexistent, and the conflict has dragged down the region's economic
development and threatened its stability. The International Crisis Group,
an independent organization that assesses conflict areas, said in a report
last year that the occupied region, nearly 12,000 square miles, holds "one
of the world's most militarized societies" and risks sliding back to war.

But diplomats involved in recent negotiations say there is now a
possibility of a settlement. They have been preparing for a meeting in
France of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and President Robert
Kocharian of Armenia on Feb. 10 and 11, with hopes they will agree to a
comprehensive plan. The United States, France and Russia lead the
so-called Minsk Group, a body of mediators working under the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe, under whose auspices the
cease-fire was reached.  Representatives of the three countries were
scheduled to visit Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, on Wednesday, for more
meetings with Mr. Aliyev.  Similar meetings are planned with Mr. Kocharian
in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, on Thursday.

No one as yet is predicting success, and Azerbaijan signaled reservations
before the mediators' arrival. But several diplomats said there remained
the potential for agreement. "There has been a mass of very thoughtful
negotiations that have brought us to this stage," said a senior State
Department official who is familiar with negotiations. "We are now at the
point where the presidents need to turn the corner from negotiations to
decisions, and close the remaining gaps."

The official, like several others, spoke on condition of anonymity because
both sides have sought to keep much of the contents of negotiations out of
the public discourse. Several people familiar with the talks, however,
said a document summarizing the core issues had become the basis for
proposing a two-stage process: first an agreement in principle, then a
working out of the details.

One possible plan would involve a withdrawal of Armenian-backed military
forces from much of the territory around Nagorno-Karabakh, accompanied by
international security guarantees and an international peacekeeping force.
At a later date, the diplomats say, a referendum could be held to
determine Nagorno-Karabakh's political status. The first step toward
settlement, the diplomats said, would be for Mr.  Aliyev and Mr. Kocharian
to endorse a broadly defined plan based roughly on these proposals. If the
presidents were to agree, delegations from both countries would work with
mediators on details, including the timing and chronology for troop
withdrawals. All involved said any referendum would be years away.

Keith Jinks, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe, said the proposal also covered other issues, including the
creation of a secure corridor in and out of the area, return of displaced
civilians, reconstruction of infrastructure and clearance of land mines.
While talks have become more constructive in recent months, the diplomats
said, the presidents still disagree on critical issues.

For Azerbaijan, a central issue is territorial integrity, and restoration
of control over a region within its internationally recognized borders.
"We stand for the reintegration of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, while
Armenia wants to disintegrate Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan," Araz
Azimov, Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister, said in a telephone
interview. "Azerbaijan understands that all territory should be returned."

Armenia, which maintains that Nagorno-Karabakh is historically Armenian,
contends that the region's fate and political affiliation should be
determined by its inhabitants. "That is the core issue because of that the
conflict erupted," Vartan Oskanian, Armenia's foreign minister, said by
telephone from Yerevan. Because so much complexity remains, diplomats
familiar with the proposals also cautioned that even were Mr. Aliyev and
Mr. Kocharian to reach an agreement, working through details would require
at least several months, and might lead to a fresh impasse.

"Once we begin to work on a compromise document, I think new problems will
continue to emerge," Mr. Oskanian said. Still, diplomats say 2006 offers a
window for negotiations. There are no national elections in Armenia or
Azerbaijan this year, allowing negotiators to work without the pressures
of a campaign. Azerbaijan is also expecting surging revenues from oil and
gas pipelines scheduled to come on line late this year, and Mr. Aliyev is
using new income to strengthen the military. This has raised concerns that
Azerbaijan could be preparing for war and raised hopes for a settlement
before more militarization could occur.

The senior State Department official also said the mediators had tried to
impress upon both sides that new fighting would be a catastrophe. "An
attempt to bring about a military solution would not succeed, and it would
have disastrous humanitarian and economic effects," the official said. Mr.
Azimov said renewed fighting was not in Azerbaijan's plans. "We are not
interested in a war solution," he said. He added, "But war does not
recognize any normal logic, and it happens when no one expects it and
regardless of what people want."

Sabine Freizer, the author of the International Crisis Group's report,
said the Azerbaijani position has hardened as the country has gained
wealth and frustration has grown. "There is a level of belligerence that
is just incredible, because they think that ultimately they can win," Ms.
Freizer said.


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