During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict
Crossroads in Karabakh?
Copyright 2001 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved
Source: The Economist
Date: April 21, 2001 U.S. Edition
AT LEAST until this month, when prospects suddenly brightened for the settlement of a bitter 13-year-old feud between the Armenians and the Azeris, western talk of a rosy future for the southern Caucasus sounded like a sick joke. Now there really is fresh hope of a lasting peace.
In diplomatic theory, the region's three small states - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - were supposed to provide a natural thoroughfare between Europe and Asia for gas and oil from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. In practice, more than a decade of conflict has turned the region into a patchwork of poorly-observed ceasefire lines, minefields and dead ends - preventing humdrum local trade, let alone big international deals.
Few ends are deader than Talysh, a community of Armenians surrounded on two sides by troops guarding a ceasefire line at its most north-easterly point in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed Armenian-held territory that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The villagers' freshwater supply, the river Indzhachai, is now out of reach on the front line. In the old days, the Azerbaijani town of Ganje and all its business opportunities were just 50km (30 miles) away. Now the nearest metropolis is Armenia's capital, Yerevan, a twisting and circuitous eight-hour drive to the west.
After six years of worsening strife, when the two sides took turns to bombard, shell and ethnically cleanse territory with scant regard for civilian life, some locals may have been grudgingly thankful, in 1994, when the losing Azerbaijani side cut its losses and agreed to a truce. But economic development has been frustrated by the lack of a long-term settlement.
Things look better, though, after a five-day conference that ended earlier this month at Key West in Florida, bringing together Presidents Heidar Aliev and Robert Kocharian of Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively, the American secretary of state, Colin Powell, and senior French and Russian officials. The State Department said "substantial progress" had been made after international peace-makers relayed proposals between the Armenian and Azeri leaders, who later flew to Washington to see President George Bush. More talks are planned for Geneva in June; there are hopes that at a further meeting in Moscow the two Caucasian presidents may even sign a binding accord.
The contours of a possible deal are becoming clear. The Armenians would give Azerbaijan back six of the seven regions they captured. Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent Lachin region that links it to Armenia would be granted self-governing status. Azerbaijan would be compensated with an internationally protected road, linking it to its isolated enclave of Nakhichevan.
If the logjam were at last to break, it would be a rare example, these days, of co-operation among the big powers. The Bush administration has been energetic in the Caucasus, even as it vows not to micro-manage the Balkans or the Middle East. It seems willing to accept Russia as a partner in diplomacy; for its part, Russia may have been persuaded that it has more to gain from co-operation than from wrecking.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has begun to repair relations with Azerbaijan, which had, until recently, been among the most Russophobic of ex-Soviet republics. If the Azerbaijani position has become less rigid, that may be because Mr Aliev, a 77-year-old veteran of the Soviet Politburo, wants to bequeath a settlement to his son and heir-apparent, Ilham. France's president, Jacques Chirac, has also been involved in negotiations. And, intriguingly, the senior American negotiator at Key West, Carey Cavanaugh, said Iran was being kept informed of developments too.
So the region may finally emerge from its morass of sputtering conflict and closed borders. Not before time: the combined GDP of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia is a pitiful $10 billion a year; and the talented from all three countries have been steadily emigrating.
But to win a lasting peace, you have to persuade people like the villagers of Talysh of its virtue. So far the region's leaders are adopting the Soviet practice of keeping their citizens in the dark.
Talysh was captured and recaptured during the Karabakh war; three-quarters of its 600 houses are still in ruins. The inhabitants, most of them old, scrape a living from their animals and pensions of around $12 a month. Securing peace will mean persuading such people that the benefits of a settlement, such as the possibilities of trade with Azerbaijan all around them, outweigh the perceived risks, such as the return of people they see as enemies to live among them. That job has barely begun.
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