Azerbaijan International

Spring 1996 (4.1)
Pages 52-53, 63


Forging a Lasting Peace
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
An Interview with John J. Maresca
Former US Ambassador to the OSCE

by Betty Blair

John MareskaPhoto: John J. Maresca in front of Maiden's Tower in Baku (January '96)

In 1992, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, now renamed OSCE) was given the responsibility of facilitating a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, now going into its eighth year. John Maresca, former US Ambassador to the OSCE, recounts those early days when he helped to set up the 10-member negotiating body, which came to be known as the "Minsk Group". Today, though not involved with diplomacy, he still takes a keen interest in the development of the region. In January, Ambassador Maresca revisited Baku on behalf of the Open Media Research Institute (OMRI) and in February he responded to our questions about his role in the negotiations over Nagorno Karabakh.

How did you personally got involved with the Caucasus?

My involvement in the Caucasus happened quite by chance. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, suddenly there were 15 Newly Independent States (NIS). At the time, I was the US Ambassador to what is now the Organization on the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). I argued that these countries should be offered immediate membership. As part of the USSR, they had already been members for 20 years. To refuse them would have been to have expelled them just when they were exercising one of their basic rights under the Helsinki Final Act-the right to self-determination. Twenty years earlier, I had been involved as one of the negotiators of the Helsinki Final Act, and I believe my views were critical in shaping the US position on admitting the NIS to this European Conference.

But consensus did not come easily. Concerns were voiced, especially from the Europeans, who felt that not all the Republics were really European. Some people are still not happy with the decision but, in my opinion, membership in the OSCE has been an important lifeline, providing an alternative to Russian domination. In any event, we prevailed, and all 15 Republics were admitted. Afterwards, I was sent as a Special Envoy to open US relations with most of these states, and gradually became identified as the "Point Man" for the US on the Caucasus.

What has been your own role in helping to set up a forum for peace negotiations in this region?

During 1992-1994, I put a great amount of energy into trying to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. I ran many risks, both physical and professional, undoubtedly, more than I should have. They started calling me "Full Metal Jack" at the State Department, referring to my frequent trips to war zones. However, I believe my efforts were a major factor in the creation of what came to be known as the "Minsk Group" as a valid negotiating forum for the conflict.

About a year and a half ago, after leaving the US diplomatic service, I published some of my ideas on what might be the basic elements of a political solution on Nagorno-Karabakh, convinced that unless someone advanced a rational plan for compromise which might be acceptable to all the parties, the discussions could drag on forever. As an impartial outsider who had been dealing extensively with all parties and had come to understand everyone's "bottom line," I felt I could suggest ways in which all the demands could fit together to everyone's advantage.

I had helped to formulate the US' role in helping to resolve the problem, but I felt the US should have taken a much more active role than the Administration agreed upon in order to counteract Russian efforts to control the process. I did not think then, nor do I now, that Russia alone can, or even should, resolve this problem. On the contrary, I believe it requires international commitment.

What are the issues that must be resolved for both sides-Azerbaijanis and Armenians-in order to establish peace in the region? In other words, what do you believe is the "bottom line" for both sides?

The main elements for a peaceful settlement have already been accepted by all sides. In no particular order, they are:

1 A status of broad autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh, under the continuing sovereignty of Azerbaijan;

2 Some form of guarantee for the security of Nagorno Karabakh;

3 Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijan's occupied territories;

4 Special arrangements for the Lachin corridor and Shusha which would permit the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians access to Armenia (possibly coupled with similar arrangements between Azerbaijan and Nakhchevan);

5 Arrangements which will permit at least the major portion of the refugees on both sides to return to their homes; and

6 A major international reconstruction effort.

Of course there are many details under each of these headings which must be carefully defined and which require difficult negotiations. For example, "autonomy" can mean many things-from education in one's own language to the choice of one's own police forces. So these points only represent a point of departure.

Only the parties themselves can work out the details which should be done through direct negotiations, and reported to the Minsk Group. This is not only the best way to resolve the conflict, but it also best guarantees each country's independence. The last thing Azerbaijan wants is an imposed settlement, either through military force, or outside intervention, or the growing "de facto" acceptance of the situation as it currently exists.

The government of Azerbaijan, I believe, should initiate direct contacts with the leadership of the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh. After all, these people are also citizens of Azerbaijan, and there would be nothing more natural than for the government to try to hear them out and reach a settlement. Ultimately, they too must be satisfied with the agreement.

What pressures do the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments face in trying to resolve the conflict?

Political pressures inside countries often make it difficult for national leaders to move toward compromise unless they are pressured from outside. So outsiders have an essential role to play in encouraging a peaceful settlement. Domestic pressures usually tend toward more extreme positions-such as trying to "win" a conflict by military means-and there is sometimes little political incentive to take the difficult steps required to arrive at a settlement.

There are political figures on both sides who continue to press for some form of "victory." These people do their countries no good, for they merely prolong the suffering. In Azerbaijan, those who would like to use oil profits to build a greater military capacity and then seek a military victory in the conflict would lead the country toward national disaster.

Why has the negotiation process been so slow?

Negotiations have been dragging on for four years, which is particularly tragic for the refugees. Blame for the delay must lie with the parties in conflict, who have been unwilling, up to now, to accept the need for some kind of compromise. As both sides have held out for some form of victory, the result is that everyone loses.

The problem is not in the structure of the negotiations, which are just a way of offering the opposing sides a place to talk to each other; rather, it is one of political will to reach an agreement. No outsider can impose a peaceful settlement; sovereign countries are responsible for their own affairs.

We hear so little in the Western media about what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. Why has the West seemingly been so hesitant to get involved?

Azerbaijanis have a point when they compare the West's willingness to go to war to defend Kuwait with the seeming indifference toward the Caucasus. Most lists of America's so-called "vital interests" include some language about "access to energy resources." Yet the Caspian Basin has not yet been identified in public perceptions as an important source for the world's energy. Western leaders are uncertain how they should treat this region. It is a "new" region in the geopolitical sense, because until recently it was simply viewed as part of the USSR.

When I first became interested in the Caucasus and Central Asia, very few people in the West were even thinking about this region. This is gradually changing as more academics begin to study the area and more institutions initiate relevant study programs. I would like to think that I helped generate some of this interest. But it will take some time before Western publics equate the Caspian with the Persian Gulf.

There has been a gradual process of realization in the US and in the West in general, that the Caucasus and the Caspian Basin are important for Western interests, largely, though not entirely, due to the energy resources in the region. This has led to an increased interest in the various conflicts in the region-Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, and Chechnya.

What has been the effect of US Congressional legislation in regard to the "Freedom Support Act" (Section #907 passed in 1992) which denies all assistance to the Azerbaijani government, including humanitarian aid?

I think Azerbaijanis have a valid point when they complain about the American law which prohibits the US Government from giving direct assistance to the Government of Azerbaijan. I have written about this and testified before Congress, arguing that it is unfair. I do not believe such a provision would be approved by Congress were it voted upon these days; but to repeal such a law is quite difficult now. Hopefully, progress in negotiations will permit the President to confirm to Congress that the conditions of this law have been fulfilled, so that the restriction can be removed.

What else can be done to encourage the peace settlement?

Foreign oil companies and their countries have a special duty to encourage a peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh. I'm not convinced that they have carried out these responsibilities particularly well. Such companies are strictly commercial enterprises, true, but they have every reason to push for a peaceful, stable, democratic and free-market Azerbaijan so as to carry their own important work forward. Until now, they have generally acted as if the conflict was none of their business.

Perhaps they do not understand the enormous influence they could wield over the situation, or perhaps they've been afraid that the governments of Azerbaijan or Russia would resent their encouragement and turn to rival companies. This is short-sighted. For Azerbaijan, the way West is essential, both for prosperity and for real independence. That means working out some "modus vivendi" with Armenia. The sooner this occurs, the better for every Azerbaijani and for everyone with interests there.

How do you see Russia's role in the Caucasus?

Russia will always play a significant role in the Caucasus. They have always been involved historically, and they play too important a role in the balance of power for it to be otherwise. The Russian language and culture, economic and security interests, as well as Russia's own perception of their role on the Eurasian continent meaning that they will always have a key presence in the Caspian region.

However, the October 1995 decision by SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan) and the AIOC (Azerbaijan International Operating Company) announcing dual pipeline routes (through Russia and Georgia) for "early oil" reflected the consensus that a single pipeline route through Russia would make energy supplies from the Caspian Basin too dependent upon Moscow. Chechnya certainly had a decisive impact on this decision to make multiple routes available.

Such a decision leaves future choices open. Commitments are being made by various players all the time, but until the actual construction of the major oil pipeline begins, all plans are subject to revision. Routes through Iran or Armenia certainly look impossible under the present circumstances, but the situation could change. Don't forget, the route through Chechnya looked relatively problem-free until a year ago.

Right now Russia is going through a complex period of adjustment resulting from the triple losses: (1) disintegration of their empire with its ideology and superpower status, (2) incredibly difficult economic times, and (3) political confusion. Some elements in Russia are not yet reconciled to the notion that the countries of the "Transcaucasus" are now independent. Nor have they realized that Russia's principal interest in this region is not to control it, but that it be stable so that it can be independent of outside domination and become prosperous. Such conditions, if they can be achieved, will best guarantee Russian interests in this region.

The Caucasus will need a lot of help, much of which Russia simply cannot provide. I'm very sympathetic to Russian problems, both in general and with respect to the changed role they are facing in the region, but realistically, it will probably take several years before Russia fully adjusts to its changed role.

The Russian attack on Chechnya demonstrated just how difficult the process of democratization is for Russia. The use of brute force to suppress a people with aspirations for independence or, at least, autonomy, is no longer acceptable to the world community. The modern way, the democratic way, if you prefer, is to treat such problems with dialogue, reconciliation, and efforts to adjust national policies to meet the genuine needs of minority peoples. One can only hope that Russia will learn some lessons from its experience with Chechnya. Russia is simply too important to allow its fate and its future to be determined by a war in Chechnya.

What about Azerbaijan? How well are they faring during this transition?

Azerbaijan is going through a difficult transition from a backwater of the Soviet Union to an independent democracy based on free market principles. This evolution will undoubtedly take many years. Along the way, there will be difficulties, and I hope Azerbaijan will be able to work through them and become a true democracy.

I have read the reports of the international observers who monitored the most recent elections, and it's evident that those elections were not perfect. There has been a tendency to suppress political opposition and even imprison some political figures. My friend and former negotiating partner, Tofig Kasimov, who as Foreign Minister was a tenacious defender of Azerbaijan's national interests, is in jail. While I'm in no position to judge the validity of the charges against him, I find it tragic that such a person, with all his ability to contribute to the construction of a modern society, is imprisoned. The same holds true for former President Abulfaz Elchibey, who lives in exile in his village in Nakhchivan. These are people Azerbaijan needs. I hope President Aliyev will find a way to bring them back not only to freedom but to a constructive role in the life of the country. Azerbaijan should be seen in the world as a mature and free society.

How did you find Baku on your last trip? Were there a lot of changes since your last visit?

On my latest trip to Baku in January, it was very satisfying to see how Baku has developed these past two years since I was there last. Economic progress is visible all over the city. Some of the beautiful older buildings are being renovated. There are new shops and restaurants and many new cars. The foreign community is much larger than before.

Baku feels cosmopolitan. I know all the other capitals of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and I believe Baku is destined to be the principal city of the region and a hub for economic, cultural and tourist activities. Underneath all the neglect of the Soviet period is a distinguished and historic city with the potential to be a real tourist attraction as well as a major center of the oil and gas industry. I hope the Azerbaijani government will continue to bring the city back to life.

What do you sense is the attitude towards peace in Armenia? Have you been there lately?

I visited Armenia last autumn where I found the economic situation, though difficult, much improved since my earlier visits. Electricity and hot water are limited, for example, although there is more of both than before. I've heard stories of children fainting in school from malnutrition. I'm told that the economic situation is marginally better in Nagorno-Karabakh, but I haven't been there recently.

Nonetheless, I believe there is a growing realization among Armenians, both in the Caucasus and among the Diaspora, which is just as important, that Armenia must find a way to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh soon or lose whatever possibilities it has to establish itself as a free and prosperous country.

Lately, there has been serious debate over re-starting the nuclear reactor at Metzamor. This Chernobyl-type reactor sits atop a great earthquake fault line. An earthquake under that reactor could be disastrous for the whole region. Fallout could extend from the Black Sea to the Caspian, just as fallout from Chernobyl reached as far as northern Scandinavia. But the Armenians have no choice, since they do not have alternative energy resources of their own. So the situation is very difficult. And this is another reason why I believe the time is right to move toward a peaceful settlement to the war. Both sides need it.

I believe the time is relatively favorable for a peaceful settlement. A cease-fire has been in place for nearly two years, allowing passions to cool. The governments on both sides, including the Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, are relatively stable and confident, which makes reaching agreements easier. Both sides are increasingly aware that they need an agreement-Armenia for economic reasons and Azerbaijan because of its refugee problems, its ability to attract investment and its necessity in maintaining independence. Critical to the whole process is that the publics on both sides want peace.

What are you doing professionally since you've left your diplomatic post with the OSCE?

Today, I'm a private citizen and do not represent any government, nor am I involved in the negotiating process. I preside over the Open Media Research Institute (OMRI) which is the privatized successor to the Research Institute of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), now located in Prague.

We have a staff of about 100 specialists and analysts who receive daily publications from the region and transcripts of radio and TV news broadcasts. We are intensively watching the evolution of the post-Communist states and publishing news and analyses in a Daily Digest, a weekly Economic Digest, and a bi-weekly journal called "Transition." We're becoming known as the most comprehensive private center in the world for study in this vast region. A large part of our funding comes from the Soros Foundation in New York.

Though my work extends far beyond the Caucasus, I don't suppose I will ever lose my fascination with this region and all its many peoples, nor my sense of the tragic waste and loss that have resulted from conflicts in this area.

What is your personal assessment of the peace process? Do you think that there is still hope for peace between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, given the historical context of the conflict, or will the present "status quo" arrangement of a tenuous cease-fire continue indefinitely?

I'm still committed to this region and if there is anything I can meaningfully contribute to this process, I'll gladly do it. Personally, I've been harshly criticized at one time or another by both sides of the conflict. I guess that's the fate of people like me who try to find a middle ground of compromise. It has sometimes been very discouraging and I've often asked myself if it wouldn't be better just to leave these people "to stew in their own juice." But somehow interest and hope manage to outweigh discouragement, leaving me convinced that a peaceful solution to this difficult situation will be found soon.

From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.

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