STEPANAKERT, 4 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The president of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arkady Ghukasian, says he is ready to return Azerbaijani towns currently occupied by the Nagorno-Karabakh army in exchange for the return of Azerbaijani-occupied Armenian towns in Nagorno-Karabakh itself.
Ghukasian, who was elected president last September at the age of 39, was interviewed two days ago (March 2) by RFE/RL in his office in Stepanakert.
He noted that the republic was formed in 1991. But its current effective borders go along front lines set by the 1994 ceasefire and include the Azeri towns of Agdam, Fizuli, and Dzhebrail. These towns, having suffered heavy destruction during the hostilities, are currently uninhabited and off-limits to visitors.
Some 850,000 Azeris, or 12 percent of Azerbaijan's population, fled districts currently administered or occupied by Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku claims this constitutes 20 percent of its territory. Azerbaijan is making virtually no effort to integrate the refugees, in the apparent hope that they will eventually be able to return to their homes.
Ghukasian says the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh's borders is subject to negotiations.
"Hardly anyone today could consider that the current front lines could become the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh," Ghukasian says, adding that he is convinced that agreement can be reached on all issues, provided a normal dialogue and process of negotiations are conducted with Azerbaijan.
"Nagorno-Karabakh's leaders have never declared their intention to hold on to these cities forever -- these are Azerbaijani towns which sooner or later should be returned to Azerbaijan and the population should be able to return there," Ghukasian says.
However, he added that several Armenian towns in Nagorno-Karabakh in the Shaumian district and parts of the Magdakert and Martuni districts are currently occupied by Azerbaijani forces.
"All occupied territories must be the subject of negotiations -- an exchange of territories is possible," Ghukasian says.
He said he was not optimistic that significant progress could be made this year in OSCE-sponsored negotiations of the Minsk Group (U.S., Russia, France, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh), owing in large part to presidential elections in Armenia on March 16 and in Azerbaijan in early October.
"I don't exclude the possibility that negotiations could resume soon, but considering that they are in such a deep rut, it is difficult to agree on resolving broad issues," Ghukasian says, adding that work should start on resolving small problems through confidence building measures, thus establishing a basis for resolving the big issues. He says such measures could include, for example, ending the snipers' war on the front-lines through separate meetings of the commanders and representatives of individual ministries.
As for the presidential elections in Armenia, Ghukasian says: "The presidential elections (in Armenia) should change a great deal in Armenia's plans and calculations on the Karabakh question," adding that if his predecessor, Armenia's current Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian, wins the presidential contest the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh's independence will certainly be left unaffected.
"The further along the regulation of the conflict proceeds, the greater the degree of de facto unification of Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, beginning with the economy," Ghukasian says, also noting that Karabakh citizens traveling abroad use Armenian passports since Nagorno Karabakh lacks international recognition.
Ghukasian says Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia constitute two parts of a single nation and Nagorno-Karabakh should clearly become a part of Armenia. But he concedes the world is not ready to accept that.
"We also have to take into consideration Azerbaijan's position when we talk of compromise, we of course have to be ready to make necessary concessions, and thus putting off unification with Armenia could also play a positive role in the negotiating process," Ghukasian says.
Ghukasian said that Nagorno-Karabakh could gain international recognition in relatively near future. He claimed that several countries have already given their de facto recognition, mentioning the OSCE's Minsk Group members as well as Switzerland and Germany. Ghukasian was quick to add, however, that recognition is not the main goal. In his words, "the most important thing is to ensure peace, eliminate the possibility of a renewal opportunity to live normal lives."
"One thing is already clear today, Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be subordinated to Azerbaijan since that is not the road to peace but to war," Ghukasian says, adding that the international community should understand this and recognize what he terms the "existing realities." He said that the international community should help both sides find a compromise in the course of the negotiating process without any preconditions, and should reject Baku's claim that Nagorno-Karabakh is a constituent part of Azerbaijan.
"The lack of diplomatic recognition is not significantly affecting life in Nagorno-Karabakh," Ghukasian says, claiming that the republic is developing democracy, building up market relations and resolving socio-economic problems.
But he also added that the Karabakh military occupation of the Lachin district of Azerbaijan means that the republic is physically linked with Armenia. As a result, he says, "Karabakh constitutes a single economic area with Armenia. The goal now he says is to raise the standard of living, maximize economic effectiveness, develop small and medium sized businesses and, most importantly, build up a democratic state."
"Today it is difficult to imagine any region in the Transcaucasus with a completely developed democracy but I think we are closer to that goal today than for example Azerbaijan," Ghukasian says.
Asked if seceding from Azerbaijan and fighting a protracted war was worth the heavy loss of life and property, Ghukasian responded that ten years ago Nagorno-Karabakh's leadership had appealed to the supreme soviets of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Soviet Union to examine autonomous region's status as a part of Azerbaijan. But, he said that Azerbaijan had subsequently unleashed aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh, first through a blockade, then by artillery shelling and finally by war. In his words, "we were not the ones who chose the path to war -- we were forced to defend ourselves."
Ghukasian said that when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 it became clear that "the only way to save Nagorno-Karabakh as an Armenian nation state was to declare independence from Azerbaijan." He said that the war was an attempt by Azerbaijan to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh militarily.
"War is always terrible, it is always blood, it is always hatred, of course it is a pity that this all happened but now is not the time to think of the past but about the future about how to ensure there will not be more wars." He added that there was no alternative -- not to fight would have meant "either white genocide or black genocide," that is either mass deportation or mass murder of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh.
He insisted that there was no other way out. "Had Azerbaijan been a democratic state with normal, thinking politicians, war would not have broken out and everyone would have been spared a tragedy," he said.