Prague, 25 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For more than two hours, Armenian and Azerbaijani delegates to the PACE crossed swords over who should claim historical rights over the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist region.
But British parliamentarian David Atkinson, who drafted the recommendation on behalf of the Strasbourg-based assembly's political affairs committee, urged his South Caucasus colleagues not to engage in sterile discussions.
"We cannot go down this route," Atkinson said. "Those who hark back to history are condemned to live in the past. We have to move forward. We must recognize the realities of today."
In Atkinson's words, the "realities of today" are that -- 11 years after the 1994 truce that formally ended the Karabakh war -- Azerbaijan remains technically at war with its secessionist region.
A predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Soviet Azerbaijan, Karabakh seceded in 1988 with Yerevan's help. Armenian forces gradually took control of the mountainous region before seizing a number of adjacent Azerbaijani administrative districts, which they continue to occupy.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has claimed an estimated 35,000 lives and driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
The conflict has claimed an estimated 35,000 lives and driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Atkinson especially drew the assembly's attention to the plight of those civilians who, despite the end of the war, were still denied the right to return to their home regions.
"I was the [PACE] assembly's first rapporteur on the refugee situation, when my report described the temporary shelters in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, [including] dilapidated railway trucks outside [the Armenian capital of] Yerevan, and appalling tent cities outside [the Azerbaijani capital of] Baku, housing hundreds of thousands of displaced families," Atkinson said. "Since then, a time-bomb generation of young refugees has grown up, as in Palestine, with nothing much to lose."
The Armenian government was able to take care of nearly all of the refugees from Azerbaijan. By contrast, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Karabakh and Azerbaijan continue to live in makeshift camps, abandoned railway cars and dugouts near Baku and other Azerbaijani cities and towns.
International aid agencies believe up to one-third of children of Azerbaijani IDPs suffer from malnutrition.
When Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in January 2001, they both committed to seek a quick solution to their dispute. But no breakthrough has been reached, despite the mediation extended by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe through a small gathering of nations co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States -- known as the Minsk Group.
Azerbaijan has demanded that all ethnic Armenian forces withdraw from its territory as a prerequisite to any discussion on the status of its secessionist enclave. Armenia, which represents Karabakh in the peace talks, has opposed Baku's "step-by-step" approach and insisted the fate of the breakaway region be settled simultaneously with all other issues.
Ignoring protests raised by Armenia's representatives, the majority of PACE delegates today supported a demand made by Bulgarian parliamentarian Evgeni Kirilov that Azerbaijan be free of any occupying troops.
"We should be clear once and for all, and I think we are all behind this idea -- there cannot be territories occupied by force, or there cannot be any prospect of joining any territories by force to [any] country," Kirilov said. "If we agree on this, then we can build a way for a lasting peace."
The resolution adopted today calls on Azerbaijani authorities to establish contacts with Karabakh leaders -- which they have persistently refused to do -- and to refrain from any attempts to retake lost territory by force. Nevertheless, some Armenian delegates have blamed Atkinson for the resolution's alleged bias.
This was notably the case of Armen Rustamian, the deputy chair of the Armenian delegation and a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a nationalist political grouping also known as Dashnaktsutyun.
Addressing the Assembly in French, Rustamian said he believes Atkinson's resolution would not only hinder the peace process, but will also would serve as an incentive for Azerbaijan to forcefully restore its territorial integrity.
"Azerbaijan is expecting to use this document as a justification to issue an ultimatum it has been preparing for a long time," Rustamian said. "Azerbaijan wants to solve the [Karabakh] issue according to its own scenario -- that is, through war."
Of all non-Armenian delegates who attended today's debate, only French parliamentarian Francois Rochebloine publicly questioned the impartiality of Atkinson's report.
"It seems to me that, for the sake of objectivity, this report should have given a more balanced view of the position of the Armenian side and its readiness to negotiate," Rochebloine said.
Of particular concern to Armenia's representatives is a sentence in the resolution that refers to the "large-scale ethnic expulsions" that resulted from the Karabakh conflict and "the creation of mono-ethnic areas which resemble the terrible concept of ethnic cleansing."
Although the document does not explicitly mention the massive exodus of Azerbaijani civilians during the years 1993 and 1994, some Armenian diaspora groupings have protested the wording of the resolution.
In a statement released on 23 January, the Brussels-based European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy -- formerly known as the Armenian National Committee of Europe -- described the draft document as "the report of Azerbaijan." It also called on European citizens to act through their Strasbourg-based representatives so that the text would be either withdrawn or rejected.
The Armenian government has so far not reacted to the Atkinson report.
Media reports quoted Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying Yerevan would make its position public only after the document was voted upon.