During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Peace for the Caucasus

by Brenda Shaffer

Source: The Miami Herald
Date: April 4, 2001

At the invitation of Secretary of State Colin Powell, President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and President Robert Kocharian of Armenia are holding a summit in Key West. They hope to resolve the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict that has persisted since the late 1980s.

Current conditions suggest that resolution of this conflict is attainable. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been in conflict over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh province since the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union. Nagorno-Karabakh is populated predominately by ethnic Armenians but is within Azerbaijan's borders. The Azerbaijan-Armenia war waged over this territory has created many refugees (about one million Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians). Since the 1994 cease-fire, the Nagorno-Karabakh province has been de facto autonomous.

What can the United States do to ensure that this historic opportunity for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict materializes?

It should refrain from attempting to implement a Pax Americana peace for the Caucasus. Instead, it should ensure that this peace process and agreement is carried out in full partnership with Russia. There is a big difference between relative power and relevant power.

The United States is indeed the global hegemon, but Russia is still a big weight in the Caucasus. For peace to succeed, Russia must feel that it has a stake in it. In the early 1990s, Russia exacerbated tensions between the sides to keep each vulnerable to its dictates. Under President Vladimir Putin, however, Russia seems more interested in ending the conflict.

The United States should encourage this through partnership with Russia in the peace process, but it also should stand up for the sovereignty of the Caucasus's states.

It should recognize that this conflict is not about "ancient hatreds'' or religious and cultural divides, but about conflict of interests between regional factors and external powers, as well as a simple struggle over land. By stressing the religious and other differences between the combatants, the United States may miss focusing on the actual causes of the conflict, which are much more mundane.

It should work toward a settlement based on opening the region and relaxing the borders - not creating new ones - among the three states in the south Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

It should encourage direct trade among bordering provinces, even if state-to-state trade and cooperation has not been formally established. Direct trade would be useful in the border areas between Armenia and Turkey; Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku; and Azerbaijan and Armenia (in the territory of Georgia).

It should face reality. Armenia has maintained that it is not a side to the conflict, but rather that the war is between Baku and the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Also, Azerbaijan has refused participation of Nagorno-Karabakh's local authorities in the formal negotiations. Both fictions must be dropped.

Armenia is a full side to the conflict, and the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities should participate in the formal negotiation process.

It should help the sides realize that the current status quo (no war, no peace) is not an option. Must the refugees be punished because they have not chosen the path of violence to force an international spotlight on their desperate situation?

Also, since independence, a significant portion of Armenia's population has emigrated due to the country's inability to develop under the current conditions.

It's time for the two sides and outside powers meeting in Key West to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, change the status quo in the Caucasus and prevent the renewal of violent hostilities.

Brenda Shaffer is research director at Harvard University's Caspian Studies Program.

Published Wednesday, April 4, 2001

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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