TODAY.AZ / Politics

Nagorno Karabakh fails to make progress after 12 years

20 December 2006 [11:39] - TODAY.AZ
Though negotiations are wrapped in secrecy to hide 12 years of failure, the former Soviet Union's bloodiest conflict pitting Armenia against Azerbaijan may be edging closer to talks that could yield peace - or destroy current diplomatic efforts entirely. Earlier this year, a raft of new proposals for Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway region in the oil-rich Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan, received rare positive assessments among international mediators in Moscow, Paris, Bucharest and Brussels.

But despite several meetings during 2006 between Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and and Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, no progress appears to have been made on resolving the conflict.

Aliyev has warned that if talks fail, "Azerbaijan will definitely reconsider its strategy, tactics and behaviour."

The 4,400-square-kilometre enclave in western Azerbaijan - populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians - was ravaged by war in 1988-94 and is today occupied by Armenian troops.

Underscoring the sensitivity of a conflict that left an estimated 35,000 dead and threatens to reignite, the proposals made earlier this year were kept secret.

Since hostilities ended, the Armenian leadership in Yerevan has insisted on independence for the region. Baku says it will allow "the greatest measure" of autonomy, but refuses to part with the enclave.

"The position of Armenia is founded on dreams and illusions. They think a temporary military supremacy gives them the right to think about the separation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan," Aliyev says.

Efforts aimed at talks come amid a strong flow of petrodollars into Aliyev's coffers, with BP's 4-billion-dollar Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline well into its second year of operation.

President Aliyev has made it clear he wants to spend these funds on arms. Last summer he told his country's parliament that Azerbaijan's defence budget should surpass Armenia's entire state spending.

Almost all the 500,000 Azeris that once lived in Nagorno Karabakh having long since fled. The region's residents buy their food using the Armenian dram and the streets are patrolled by troops from Yerevan.

But 12 years after the official end of fighting, Azeri leaders remain bitter over the scars left by the Soviet collapse and the ensuing war.

Television commercials and billboards appeal in English to the BP workers in Baku, reminding them of Azeris displaced from their home villages in the exodus that accompanied the war.

The presidential bookstore in Baku carries such titles as "The Myth of a Great Armenia" and "Blood Politics, Or the Philosophy of Revenge: Armenia in Azerbaijan."

And under the Soviet-era television tower, perched on a promontory overlooking the skyscraper-studded city, is Martyrs' Alley, row after row of graves - most bearing photographs - of Azeris who died in Nagorno Karabakh.

The conflict's roots are found in the earliest days of the Soviet Union, when Lenin in 1923 created the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous District within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, rather than Armenia, in an effort to win Turkish sympathies.

But with Baku's perestroika-era leader Heydar Aliyev - the current president's late father - encouraging his countrymen to settle in the 95-per-cent Armenian region in the late 1980s, calls for an independent Nagorno Karabakh found resonance in Moscow.

A peaceful nationalist movement quickly turned violent. During and after the Soviet collapse, Yerevan and Baku vied for Russian support in equipping their armies as a full-scale war broke out.

For six years the upper hand in the conflict was determined by the amount of weaponry Moscow supplied, Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said.

"Armenia had the advantage, then Azerbaijan, then Armenia again," Felgenhauer said, adding that Armenia was able to decisively gain control of the region in 1993 after diplomatic relations between Moscow and Baku took a turn for the worse.

With Armenian forces occupying nearly one-seventh of Azerbaijan in 1994, peace talks began.

For 12 years negotiations went nowhere, and the Nagorno Karabakh question became the trump card in the politics of both countries.

Armenian President Kocharyan was a leader in the breakaway region, and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev rode to power on the coattails of his father, who promised to reclaim the lost territory.

But although Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan earlier this year spoke of "a real possibility of a rapprochement" with the Azeri side, Baku now may prefer to hold out.

Since neither side would want to resume the debilitating fighting, Azerbaijan's rising clout as a supplier of oil and gas in the Caucasus gives it the option of waiting until it would be guaranteed control over Nagorno Karabakh.

"Negotiations haven't led to anything, and they won't lead to anything," Felgenhauer says.

By Dan Shea, dpa German Press Agency



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