During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Frozen in Time

by Seymur Selimov (freelance writer based in Baku and a regular contributor to TOL)

Source: Transitions Online (TOL)
Date: April 9, 2001

BAKU, Azerbaijan - As Azeri President Heydar Aliev sits down this week with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian - surrounded by the lush palms of Key West, Florida - to discuss a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, their populations back home hold out little hope that the discussions will lead anywhere.

That is particularly true in Baku [for the view from Armenia, click here]. Recent leaks of earlier draft peace plans proposed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have hardened the popular mood against concessions and increased skepticism that the talks, like all proceeding talks, will bring an end to the impasse. Few believe an end to the conflict - frozen in time since a May 1994 cease-fire agreement stopped the war that claimed more than 20,000 lives - is anywhere in sight. Azeri officials continue to insist on the preservation of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, but offer a high level of autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh. But that solution remains unacceptable to Armenia, which opposes any subordination of the enclave to Azerbaijan.

To start with, most Azeris don't see the situation as a conflict, but as military aggression by Armenia that left a large chunk of their territory - with massive loss of human life - in the hands of an occupier. Armenia, they believe, wanted all along to annex Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians voted for succession in a December 1991 referendum; they reject Armenian assertions that the Azeri authorities had been unable to protect ethnic Armenians. They express disappointment that the international community did not respect the 1992 [1993] resolutions of the UN Security Council, entitled "On immediate release of occupied Azerbaijan grounds," but instead entrusted the "Minsk Group" of the OSCE with resolving the dispute. To Baku's dismay, the Minsk Group - co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States - has refused to recognize Armenia as an aggressor. Likewise, the Minsk group proposals, leaked to the press in January, caused a storm of protest , with the latest plan from November 1998 suggesting that Karabakh form a common state with Azerbaijan that would give it de facto independence.

Making matters worse, most Azeris have serious misgivings about the three countries that co-chair the Minsk group. They view France as a traditional ally of Armenia that has rendered considerable financial help and support in the international arena to Yerevan. On 8 November, for example, the French Senate approved a bill recognizing the genocide of Armenians committed by Ottoman Turks in 1915. Azerbaijan has sided with Turkey in claiming that the number of Armenians killed was far less than the 1.5 million figure estimated by most historians. According to political scientist Rasim Musabekov, "The Azeri community agrees with the Turks that the claims of the genocide are exaggerated and have the well-thought-out aim of pressuring not only Turkey, but at the same time [pressuring] Azerbaijan over the Karabakh problem."

Inconsistencies also abound in relations with the Russian chair of the Minsk group. Already at the beginning of the conflict, most Azeris believe, the Russian military aided the Armenians, leading to their victory. Azeris view the continued presence of Russian military bases in Armenia as a guarantee of military help should the conflict be renewed. And the discovery that billions of dollars in Russian arms had been funneled into Armenia between 1994-1999 also makes Azeris wonder about Russia's impartiality.

Azerbaijan is hoping that Russian President Vladimir Putin will take a different stance on the conflict. "Putin looks at the relations between the two countries more realistically," said Vafa Guluzade, former Azeri state adviser on foreign policy.

But anticipation that Russia will play a more constructive role is still just that - and there are no real signs that Putin is ready to change course. Russia has done everything possible to convince Azerbaijan that peace in Karabakh will come from the maternal arms of Moscow - and all Azerbaijan has to do is return to Russia for protection. Azeri observers interpreted the Russian president's comments following Armenian President Robert Kocharian's visit to Moscow last year - during which Putin agreed that Moscow held the key to settling the Karabakh conflict and was willing to play that role - as meaning that the Kremlin would not pressure Yerevan to come to a compromise until Azerbaijan did as well. That meant, observers thought, Baku would first have to accept that only Russia could guarantee the peace process. Many believe it is that attitude that has contributed to what they see as the Armenians' rigid position.

The policy path pursued by the United States is also a serious problem as far as Azerbaijan is concerned. Baku considers the U.S. position to be a double standard: Washington recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but at the same time sympathizes with calls to recognize the Armenia genocide. And the U.S. Congress continues to block aid to Azerbaijan, accusing Baku of engaging in a blockade of Armenia.

Azeri officials argue that Armenia shares boundaries not only with Azerbaijan, but also with Georgia, Turkey, and Iran, so there can be no real blockade. Though there is no official inter-governmental cooperation between Ankara and Yerevan, the two capitals' commercial structures actively conduct trade. And together with the prohibition of financial aid to Azerbaijan, the United States allocates millions of dollars to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh annually. As such, many Azeris feel that financial help, at the expense of assistance for other countries, prolongs what they see as Armenia's unpunished imperialist policy.

All those misgivings have created a feeling of doubt that the Minsk group will be able to solve the dispute objectively. "The war paused, but for how long?" asks Said Ragimov, a teacher. "You can see that no positive results have yet been achieved ... and let's look at who is benefiting from the conflict's [stalemate]. The Azeri side has lost 20 percent of its territory ... The world community is against any aggression, [but] when we were accepted into the UN, that 20 percent was included in our territory." Ragimov also questioned the focus of European countries on recognizing the Armenian genocide, while ignoring the current conflict: "Why don't those countries see modern aggression instead of dealing with what has taken place in the past?"

Even though Baku views each of the Minsk group countries with some suspicion, refusal to work with the group would likely have negative consequences. In particular, Armenia could present Azerbaijan's refusal to cooperate as its reluctance to find a solution to the problem and work toward peace. Moreover, working with the Minsk group serves to keep the conflict on the world's agenda - if Azerbaijan refuses to cooperate with the group, it could lose that advantage. As a compromise, Baku would like to see additional co-chairman added to the Minsk group, preferably an ally, such as Turkey.

For now, the majority of people in Azerbaijan are not optimistic about finding a peaceable solution to the cold war. "On the whole, the cease-fire is fine, but only if the war is eventually ended permanently and properly," says Esmira Mamedova, a nurse at the central military hospital in Baku, who saw enough fallout from the previous violence. "The conflict is basically frozen, but what if it suddenly is thawed and war will resume again?" she asks.

"This war has taken many of my relatives' lives, ... both my children have perished, my grandparents' tomb has been destroyed, and my house has been destroyed. Nevertheless, I do not want a prolongation of war," says an elderly refugee from Khodgali [Khojaly], a district of Azerbaijan that was overrun by Armenian troops in February 1992. "I do not want further bloodshed. I have experienced a lot due to that war, and I am personally for an armistice, but a true one - not just a cosmetic one. Now the conflict is being preserved and will be transmitted to the next generation. It is necessary to resolve this problem once and for all, and to make sure we don't burden our children with it."

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