For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Walking a Dangerous Road to Peace

Hard Issues Remain for Mediators in Conflict Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

By John Ward Anderson

Washington Post Foreign Service, Page A16
Date: Sunday, July 15, 2001

EAST OF FIZULI, Azerbaijan - Generally speaking, walking through a minefield is not the preferred way to get from Point A to Point B.

But for a delegation of U.S., Russian and French peace negotiators trying to end 13 years of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the 2 1/2-mile march through a heavily mined no man's land separating the two combatants was more than just an exercise in getting to the other side.

"If there are new hostilities, this is the most likely place where fighting will break out," said Carey Cavanaugh, a troubleshooting U.S. ambassador with a theatric flair who is a co-chairman of the three-nation mediating group. "We are very concerned about . . . recent saber rattling. We think it's irresponsible. We see no way further hostilities will advance peace in this region, and we deliberately crossed here to shine the international spotlight on that."

The conflict between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia revolves around control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a remote mountainous enclave inside Azerbaijan that is populated principally by ethnic Armenians who want to become either independent or a part of Armenia.

The mediation effort has made significant headway since the beginning of this year in brokering a final peace - details of which are closely guarded. The presidents of the two countries have agreed to about 80 percent of an armistice - including one of the most politically sensitive issues, the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh - but several contentious issues remain, negotiators said. The effort has been complicated by recent calls in Azerbaijan to consider renewed military action.

"Nobody wants to resume military action," Nikolai Gribkov, the Russian co-chairman of the mediating group, told a group of Azerbaijani lawmakers in the capital, Baku. "It's easy to start a war, but it's very difficult to stop it. We've had a war in Chechnya for six years, and there's no way we want you to suffer that."

Fighting, which killed about 30,000 people, peaked following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when Armenian troops seized Nagorno-Karabakh and hundreds of square miles of Azerbaijani territory surrounding it, occupying a large swath of Azerbaijan. Russia helped negotiate a cease-fire in 1994, but about 100 people a
year are still killed by snipers and land mines near the line of control.

The mediation effort has a highly unusual level of personal involvement by the presidents of the United States, France and Russia, each of whom has met with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts in recent months to prod the process ahead and urge a spirit of compromise. President Bush met separately with the leaders - Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan - in
Washington in April after a four-day, U.S.-sponsored round of negotiations in Key West, Fla.

Wednesday's minefield crossing was part of the effort to keep the two presidents from backtracking on the progress they made in Florida in the face of strong opposition to compromise by their intensely proud and nationalistic citizens.

White flak jacket around his torso, freshly painted green helmet atop his head and garment bag slung over his shoulder, Cavanaugh stepped gingerly along the path, pointing to spots where mines had been excavated earlier that day for the passage. "We're the first foreigners in this area since the fighting stopped" about eight years ago, he said. "Nobody's crossed here in years. They'll re-mine as
soon as we're across."

Insisting on walking across the line of control ensured that the 14-member negotiating team flew over and drove through a wide swath of Azerbaijan that is occupied by Armenia. What the group saw was complete destruction: mile after mile of razed villages, destroyed farms and factories, and overgrown fields and vineyards speckled with broken grain silos and rusted water tanks.

Artillery barrages caused much of the ruin in the early 1990s, and other damage was from people who stripped the land of anything useful to take with them. What is left now here and in much of the occupied territories, members of the mediation group said, is essentially a tear-down civilization, blanketed over several hundred square miles, that will have to be almost completely rebuilt, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

There were occasional signs that Armenian civilians were farming the region, which is supposed to be occupied only by soldiers. Settlements in the occupied territory could complicate negotiations and the eventual return of about 750,000 Azerbaijanis who fled the area almost a decade ago and now live in refugee camps scattered around Azerbaijan.

Beyond humanitarian concerns, the conflict has been elevated on the international agenda for several reasons. France and particularly the United States have large and politically powerful Armenian populations and lobbies pushing for a resolution. Azerbaijan and Armenia are sandwiched among Russia, Turkey and Iran, and any renewed hostilities could draw in those powers on opposing sides, with Russia supporting Armenia and Azerbaijan backed by Iran and Turkey, a NATO country.

Both countries receive massive amounts of international aid because their economies have been strangled by war-related blockades and sanctions that probably will be lifted only after a final peace is sealed. They lie just west of oil-rich Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, and many plans for pipelines to the west call for oil and gas to be transported across or near their borders. Also, political analysts say that Azerbaijani leader Aliyev, 78 and in failing health, is
eager to settle the conflict to boost the succession chances for his son, Ilham.

Some of those issues are what originally prompted more intense, face-to-face negotiations between Kocharian and Aliyev, who have met 16 times since the spring of 1999 trying to bridge their differences. During those talks, according to a diplomat familiar with their meetings, they developed "enough of a rapport to flush out what kinds of things might be possible," and at the Key West sessions, ideas and issues were committed to paper.

Vardan Oskanian, Armenia's foreign minister, said time was running out, because both Armenia and Azerbaijan have presidential elections scheduled for the spring of 2002, and "early January of next year will be election time already. Everything will be so political it will be impossible" to finalize a peace plan.

Negotiators met with both presidents last week to help refine some proposals, they said, and to encourage them to prepare their people for compromise. They refused to say what has been agreed to so far. Azerbaijanis are adamant that Nagorno-Karabakh, which during Soviet times was about 75 percent Armenian, remains part of their country but said it would be granted full autonomy.

People in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia say the region is part of Azerbaijan
only because it was ordered to become so in the 1920s by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. They demand that Nagorno-Karabakh have equal status with Azerbaijan and not be under the Azerbaijani government.

"Karabakh will never be part of Azerbaijan," declared Col. Avsharyan Eduard Mkhitar of the armed forces of Karabakh, who commands a tank unit with several dozen Soviet-made T-72 tanks. "Karabakh can and must be united with Armenia."

Other apparently unresolved issues include the status of Shusha, a mountain town overlooking Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, which Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis both claim as a religious and cultural center.