Karabakh: Edging Towards the Big Agreement

War Report, No. 34, June 1995
(c) Copyright: The Institute for War and Peace Reporting 1995

Edging Towards the Big Agreement

by Hratch Tchilingirian

The dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno Karabakh–a small enclave of 4388 square kilometres in Azerbaijan, with a population of about 150,000–is the oldest conflict in the former Soviet Union. By 1991, what started as a popular movement for self-determination in 1988 had turned into a full-scale war with far reaching political and military implications for the region. The situation in Karabakh was further complicated by the fact that both parties in the conflict--the Armenians of Karabakh and the Republic of Azerbaijan--consider Karabakh an integral part of their territory. In September 1991, the Armenians of Karabakh declared an independent Republic of Mountainous Karabakh. No state has recognised Karabakh's claim to independent statehood. While the war is not officially over, May 12, 1995 marked the first anniversary of the cease-fire in Karabakh, after six years of armed conflict and bloodshed.

Willingly or unwillingly, the Republic of Armenia--after declaring independence in 1991--was drawn into the war and became a formally recognised party to the conflict with Azerbaijan. Yet Armenia has insisted all along that it is not at war with Azerbaijan and that it does not have any territorial disputes with its neighbour. Levon Ter Petrossian, Armenia's President, has stated at every possible opportunity–from the UN General Assembly to the summit of the Confederation of Independent States (CIS) Summit in Almaty–that negotiations should be held directly between Azerbaijan and Karabakh. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has persistently refused to recognise the Karabakh Armenians as a side in the conflict.

From 1988 to 1992, there was lack of international, diplomatic and political will to solve the Karabakh problem. However, in February 1992, the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe–CSCE at the time–called for a cease-fire, humanitarian aid, an arms embargo and a guarantee of human right. Since then, OSCE has become actively involved in facilitating negotiations for the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict–and since March 1992, OSCE's Minsk Group has become the main forum of negotiations. During more than half a dozen Minsk Group meetings between the parties to the conflict, attempts have focused on drawing a "Big Political Agreement" between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis.

At the last OSCE Minsk Group negotiations held in Moscow in May, Vardan Oskanian, Armenia's First Deputy Foreign Minister, outline the main issues discussed during the meetings. Armenia's position on the five points of the Agreement could be summarised as follows:

1) The security of Nagorno-Karabakh. As far as Armenia is concerned, there are four necessary conditions for Karabakh's security. Firstly, the deployment of international peacekeeping forces; secondly, full demilitarisation of liberated territories; thirdly, permanent land connection between Karabakh and Armenia; fourth, guarantees to be provided by the UN, OSCE and possibly CIS Interparliamentary Conference that the hostilities will not be resumed. The terms of the guarantees have not been specified yet, but they would include deployment of multi-national peacekeeping forces and setting up of monitoring structures in the region.

2) The Lachin corridor issue–the land passage that connects Karabakh with the Republic of Armenia. Armenia maintains that the issue of Lachin should be discussed irrespective of the issue of Shushi (the 'Golan Heights' of Karabakh). For Armenia, the status of Lachin can be solved only after the status of Karabakh is determined.

3) The problem of Shushi–a strategic area for both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. For Armenia, the question of Shushi could only be considered in connection with the issue of the return of refugees to their homeland. According to official estimates, there are about 450,000 refugees spread throughout Armenia and the former Soviet republics, and close to 1 million refugees in Azerbaijan–mostly near the Iranian border.

4) The status of Karabakh. Armenia did not raise this issue at the last Moscow negotiations, but Azerbaijan and Karabakh did. Armenia said it would agree to any decision taken by Azerbaijan and Karabakh concerning the status issue. Armenia has always thought that this should be determined by the Minsk Group conference.

5) Refugees from the Northern Caucasus. There are an estimated 400,000 refugees from Chechyna now living in various parts of Transcaucasia–mostly in Ingushetia and Dagestan. The conflict in Chechnya has major implications for the stability of the region. Karabakh is particularly concerned about the growing number of refugees coming to the southern areas of the Caucasus. Armenia has not presented any position on the problem.

According to the Foreign Ministry of Armenia, there is so far no consensus among the parties to the conflict–Armenia, Azerbaijan, Karabakh–on these issues. As to the deployment of peacekeeping forces, it is generally agreed that it will take place only after the Big Political Agreement is signed. Armenian and Azerbaijani negotiators have agreed to resume the talks in Helsinki, on June 15. Meanwhile, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the cease-fire, on May 12 of this year, POWs and hostages were exchanged between Armenia and Azerbaijan under the auspices of the Minsk Group and the International Red Cross.

The OSCE and the regional powers are eager to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Besides the military threats it presents to the region, the conflict is having a great impact on the economic development of the Caucuses. Armenia has been blockaded by Azerbaijan, causing extreme hardship in daily life and stalling economic recovery. Azerbaijan's 'deal of the century' with Western and regional oil companies to exploit its oil reserves has been greatly hampered by the war in Karabakh. It is to the benefit of all the sides to resolve the Karabakh question as speedily as possible, so that the state and nation-building processes that has started in these newly independent states could continue under more favourable conditions.

One of the main objectives of Armenia's foreign policy has been to establish normal and friendly relations with its neighbours: Georgia, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan. Despite the occasional internal problem in Georgia, Georgian-Armenian relations have been friendly. Iranian-Armenian relations have been increasingly solidified by numerous bilateral agreements. Turkish-Armenian relations are not normal yet, but the prospects are promising. As for Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, Armenia has been trying to find a way of normalising relations without antagonising its own population. Armenia finds itself in a precarious situation, where it has to balance finding an acceptable resolution to the Karabakh conflict with securing a normal life for its citizens.

What are the prospects of solving the Karabakh conflict? A compromise solution would be as follows: Nagorno-Karabakh would remain as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, territorially and legally. But Karabakh Armenians would be given real independence or autonomy (unlike the Soviet model) to run their affairs, with permanent land link to the Republic of Armenia. Variations of this scenario are already being discussed in political circles in the region, as well as diplomatic circles in the West.

As both sides become increasingly tired of the war and the military situation, the chances for a political agreement are increasing. If negotiations fail and hostilities intensify, both Armenia and Azerbaijan would find it difficult to mobilise their scarce resources for war again. Thus, a gradual shift toward a political settlement of the Karabakh conflict is seen as imminent. This would be desirable for the whole region.

Hratch Tchilingirian
1995-06-01
e-mail: info@hrach.info
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