During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Trying to Break the Deadlock

Le Monde Diplomatique
Date: May 2001

Since Levon Ter-Petrossian was ousted by a palace coup three years ago, accused of wanting to sell out Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia's Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijan's Heydar Aliyev have held meetings to look for a peaceful solution to the conflict between their two countries. After four days of talks in Florida this April, and a meeting with President Bush, no result was announced; a further meeting will be held in June in Geneva. In the meantime public opinion in both countries is putting increasing pressure on the two leaders, asking them to harden their stances and not make compromises against their national interests.

by our special correspondent JEAN GUEYRAS *
It is possible the Armenian and Azeri heads of state will look again at the old plan for a territorial exchange put forward by the United States as a way out of their continuing impasse. First drawn up by former senior State Department official Paul Goble in 1992 and modified several times since, the plan envisages Azerbaijan recognising the independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and transferring to Armenia the Lachin corridor linking it to the enclave. In exchange, Azerbaijan would get the district of Meghri (1), a consolation prize for the Azeris to help them swallow the bitter pill of losing Nagorno-Karabakh (2).

Made public following an indiscretion in January last year, the day after the Davos meeting between Presidents Robert Kocharian and Heydar Aliyev, the proposed barter deal was received favourably by Baku's foreign minister, Vilayat Guliyev, who described it as an "historic breakthrough". On the Armenian side, official reaction was slow and embarrassed: diplomatic chief Vardan Oskanian admitted that a territorial exchange had been looked at during the summit, but said that President Kocharian had rejected it out of hand and the matter was therefore closed.

That was not the view of Aram Sarkissian. He was prime minister for seven months after his brother, former prime minister Vazgen Sarkissian, was assassinated on 27 October 1999 while the Armenian parliament was in session. In that capacity, he discussed the Karabakh problem many times with President Kocharian. "The president not only agreed with the Meghri project, he was one of its most enthusiastic supporters, even going so far as to say that he was actually the originator of the plan," he told us categorically.

According to a western observer, "The sad thing is that while Kocharian is convinced the Meghri solution is the only way of resolving the problem, he's unable to sell it to the Armenians". In fact, everyone in Yerevan and the diaspora believes that you cannot exchange "one Armenian territory for another Armenian territory". Anyone who agreed to such an arrangement would be committing political suicide.

Ashot Manucherian presides over a small party on the far left, the Union of Socialist Forces. Known for his pro-Russian sympathies, he considers the situation to be far more serious. At a dramatic press conference in October last year, he "revealed" that the two main victims of the 27 October 1999 massacre, prime minister Vazgen Sarkissian and speaker Karen Dermichian, were assassinated "on orders from above" because they were categorically opposed to any solution to the Karabakh problem based on an exchange of territory.

Although Manucherian produced no evidence to support his allegations, it does appear certain that, whatever Vardan Oskanian may say, the "Meghri corridor" question is not closed for good. Following recent talks with Kocharian, former US assistant secretary of state Steven Sestanovich clearly stated that the idea of a territorial exchange should not be permanently shelved even if it was unpopular in Armenia. For the Americans, it was the best way of bringing a fair settlement to the Karabakh conflict while safeguarding the geopolitical interests of the US and its allies in the region.

Alarm Bells in Moscow
Turkey would be the main beneficiary of such a solution. Removing the Armenian "stopper" would enable it to join up with Azerbaijan and the Turkish-speaking republics of central Asia through Nakhichevan and the Meghri corridor. That would make it a major regional power capable of countering the influence of Russia and Iran. Armenia would lose its geographical link to Iran that has enabled it to survive the economic blockade imposed by Ankara and Baku. Teheran and Moscow are making no secret of their keen opposition to the plan.

The quarrel is in fact an episode in the covert struggle for influence that has set the Russians against the Americans in the southern Caucasus, one of the last theatres of the former cold war. It is a kid-gloves confrontation, with each of the protagonists declaring it has no wish to exclude the other from the region. But for nearly five years the Russians have been losing ground. Georgia and Azerbaijan have distanced themselves from Moscow, embarking on ever closer economic, political and military cooperation with the West. Only Armenia, fearing its hereditary Turkish enemy, is hesitating to move decisively in the same direction. It has entered into a 25-year alliance with Russia, providing in particular for the maintenance of Russian bases on its territory.

In an attempt to reconcile the imperatives of Armenia's national defence policy with the need to develop a still faltering market economy, Yerevan has devised what it calls a "complementary" foreign policy, combining military alliance with Russia with economic and political cooperation with the West. Is such a hybrid, found nowhere else in the world, viable? The Russians were reluctant to accept Armenia's adoption of a western-oriented economy, fearing it might be the first step towards a fresh erosion of their influence, including military influence, in Armenia.

For Moscow, the 27 October 1999 bloodbath sounded an alarm. The main victims were the Russians' most trustworthy allies. They had come to power following legislative elections that had witnessed a landslide victory for the Republican Party, controlled by Vazgen Sarkissian, the charismatic leader of the Yerkrabah (3), and the People's Party led by Karen Dermichian, a former apparachik of the Armenian Communist Party. With a comfortable majority in parliament, this new Sarkissian-Dermichian team had sidelined the Armenian president politically.

Contrary to what official spokesmen would have us believe, the 27 October killing was not therefore the work of a few fanatical hotheads, but a virtual coup. By depriving the Miasnutiun (Unity) majority parliamentary coalition of its leadership in the space of a few seconds, it succeeded in changing the balance of forces within the government. It is now under the full control of Kocharian, assisted by the efficient and formidable Serge Sarkissian (4) the very people who lost the parliamentary elections in May 1999. Deprived of their charismatic leaders, who had done nothing to organise their succession, and with no experienced managers, the two majority parties were powerless to stop the irresistible rise of Kocharian. Little by little, wielding the carrot and stick with Machiavellian skill, he managed to split the ranks of his adversaries, who were trying in vain to depose him.

Strict Neutrality
Moscow adopted a policy of strict neutrality in the struggle, not turning a hair even when, seven months later, Kocharian cavalierly sacked his new head of government, Aram Sarkissian, brother to "martyr Vazgen", and the reputedly pro-Russian ministers who surrounded him. But the Moscow leadership discreetly let it be known on several occasions that they were against any attempt by Armenian diplomacy to push the theory of the "complementarity" of its foreign policy too far.

In May last year a senior Russian defence ministry official, General Leonid Ivashov, made his position absolutely clear: "The United States, Nato, and in particular the US embassy in Yerevan are trying to drive a wedge between Armenia and Russia and destroy the military cooperation between our two countries." He added that Russia considered any "US military presence in the region extremely dangerous for the security of the southern Caucasus". A thinly veiled allusion to Kocharian's repeated suggestions of US and European Union involvement in a future security system in the region.

There is another sign of discord between Moscow and Yerevan. Despite his soothing words about the success of his October trip to Moscow, President Kocharian apparently did not obtain Russia's unequivocal support for Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan. On the contrary, President Vladimir Putin took advantage of his Armenian opposite number's presence to announce his visit to Baku in January, where he attempted to start a thaw with Azerbaijan, and to re-emphasise his neutrality in the conflict. Russia, he stressed, had no "special rights" regarding settlement of the Karabakh problem. It was as good a way as any of proclaiming Moscow's political ambivalence towards the southern Caucasus.

Weakened externally by his policy of equivocating between Moscow and the west, Kocharian remains insecure at home. True, he has managed to neutralise some of the pro-Russian military linked to the Yerkrabah by promoting the most ambitious of them to administrative posts within the army high command and the defence ministry. He has also sacked from the government all those considered slightly too restless. And he has divided and marginalised the Miasnutiun majority parliamentary coalition.

But he has not succeeded in establishing a new, cohesive and loyal parliamentary majority. Neither has he allayed the suspicions of a large part of public opinion, which remains convinced that members of his entourage were involved in the events of 27 October. More seriously, he has failed to solve the socio-economic crisis severely affecting the majority of the population.

Rightly or wrongly, the Sarkissian-Dermichian team had inspired a great deal of hope among the population. It is generally believed that the loss of that "last desperate hope" greatly accelerated the exodus caused by record unemployment over 40% of the population of working age have left the country. Armenian Communist Party leader Vladimir Tarpinian calls this a national disaster. "The conditions for normal life no longer exist in Armenia," he says, reluctantly justifying the mass exodus that some have no hesitation in calling the "new genocide".

For the communists and their allies on the far left, only a clearly Moscow-oriented policy, or even Armenia's joining the Russian-Belarus alliance, will extricate Armenia from its difficulties. On the other hand, for the advocates of closer collaboration with the US and the EU, Russian influence will inevitably decline in a country subject to the laws of market economics. And only a massive injection of western investment can rescue the economy.

But the Karabakh conflict will have to be settled first. Not only has it frightened off potential investors, but its legacy will dog Armenia's economic and political life for years to come. At the end of his term in office, Ter-Petrossian was ready to accept a compromise solution proposed by the Minsk group (5). He had come to the conclusion that there could be no sustainable development for Armenia until the Karabakh conflict, which has set the country against Azerbaijan for more than 13 years, had been settled. That was what led to his downfall in February 1998. Will President Kocharian have the courage to take the same path?

* Journalist, Paris.

(1) The latest version of the Goble plan envisages the creation of a 10 km wide corridor crossed by two narrow passages that would allow a certain amount of traffic between Armenia and Iran.

(2) See Jean Radvanyi and Philippe Rekacewicz, "The oil rivals", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, October 2000.

(3) A paramilitary organisation of former veterans of the Karabakh war, the Yerkrabah (Guardian of the Country) had become, under Vazgen Sarkissian's leadership, one of the main political forces in Armenia.

(4) Minister of national security at the time of the 27 October killing, Serge Sarkissian ought to have been punished, as were the interior minister and public prosecutor. All three were accused by the army of culpable negligence. Instead, he was promoted several times and, as defence minister, is now considered the regime's second most powerful man.

(5) The Minsk group was formed in 1992 under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is chaired by three countries: the US, Russia and France.

Translated by Malcolm Greenwood

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED + 1997-2001 Le Monde Diplomatique

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