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Armenia/Azerbaijan: As Minsk Group Marks 10 Years, Karabakh Peace Appears More Elusive Than Ever

  • Richard Greene

The international community has made another push to resolve the 14-year-old dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, with little to show for it except the addition of another layer of negotiators. The latest round of shuttle diplomacy comes as the Minsk Group, the body dedicated to finding a solution to the conflict, marks its 10th anniversary. RFE/RL's correspondent in Baku, Richard Allen Greene, sampled expert opinion in Azerbaijan about the conflict. He finds that attitudes appear to have hardened and the goal of a permanent peace may be as elusive as ever.

Baku, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago this spring, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh was at its most intense. The predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Azerbaijan had declared independence, and Baku was struggling to hold on to the territory as Russian-backed Armenian troops advanced.

On 24 March 1992, the body now known as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) resolved to try to bring an end to the conflict by establishing the Minsk Group to facilitate dialogue between the parties.

Azerbaijan and Armenia eventually agreed to a cease-fire in 1994, but, with the two still officially at war and Nagorno-Karabakh having unilaterally declared independence, the Minsk Group has not yet managed to bring true and lasting peace to the region.

It's not for lack of trying. Minsk Group negotiators have advanced no less than three separate peace proposals and arranged more than a dozen face-to-face meetings between Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian.

But the lack of progress has left Azerbaijanis feeling angry and frustrated. Political scientist Leila Aliyeva tells our correspondent: "I would say that the perception is not just that nothing has been accomplished, but even that things are getting worse."

Azerbaijanis see themselves as the aggrieved party in the conflict, with some 20 percent of what they consider their country occupied by Armenian forces, and at least 600,000 Azerbaijanis who were expelled from Karabakh and its surroundings living as internally displaced persons.

Baku says that one particularly bloody incident -- the February 1992 Armenian capture of the town of Khojaly, in which it says more than 600 civilians were massacred -- should be considered an act of genocide.

The public positions of Baku and Yerevan remain far apart. While Armenia calls for self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan insists first upon its territorial integrity.

Vafa Guluzade, who served as an Azerbaijani negotiator on the Karabakh dispute and a foreign policy adviser to Aliyev and his two predecessors, blames Russia for the impasse. Like many of his compatriots, he says Moscow has actively backed separatist movements in the Caucasus in order to maintain influence in the region.

Guluzade says Moscow dominated the Minsk Group in its early days, using it as a lever to maintain its own aim -- instability in the Caucasus. He says Russia was the prime author of the three proposals advanced by the Minsk Group, none of which has proved acceptable.

"The Russian goal was to manipulate this conflict and then to reestablish its domination [in] Azerbaijan. That's why all proposals of Russia [were] completely unjust proposals," Guluzade says.

Russia, for its part, denies that it favors one party over the other in the conflict. President Vladimir Putin said recently that there should be "neither winners nor losers" in the search for a lasting solution to the conflict.

Azerbaijan's mistrust of the Minsk Group is not confined to Russia. Leila Aliyeva says that people here believe the other two Minsk co-chairs, the United States and France, are hostage to powerful domestic Armenian lobbies.

As evidence, she argues that the Minsk Group has adopted a key Armenian position as its own: that negotiators should focus on economic cooperation rather than conflict resolution.

"Then you ask the question, 'How nonpartisan is the mediator?' And you see that they are not at all. So right now, there is growing unhappiness in Azerbaijan because of this attempt to put pressure on the defeated party. That has seemed very unfair, unjust, and disrespectful to Azerbaijani needs and positions," Aliyeva says.

Indeed, when OSCE Chairman in Office Jaime Gama of Portugal passed through the region in March, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev publicly accused the body of pro-Armenian bias.

The U.S. and France say they are not biased toward one or the other side and urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to both compromise on the Karabakh issue.

On an swing through the region on 8 March, U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Rudolf Perina stated his group recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, a key starting point for Azerbaijan.

"All of us, I believe, here, recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and see that as a starting point. I think if one did not recognize that, there would not be much to negotiate, there would not be a problem here. But we, like the entire international community, support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and certainly the United States does," Perina said.

Neither Guluzade nor Aliyeva expects a breakthrough from the OSCE anytime soon. Guluzade hopes the U.S. will push for a solution favorable to Azerbaijan, while Aliyeva recommends the establishment of Armenian-Azeri expert working groups to come up with new proposals.

There is one powerful factor that could encourage a swift resolution to the conflict: the desire of 78-year-old President Aliyev to have his son Ilham succeed him. Many observers here believe that Aliyev would like to find a way to end the war soon so that Ilham does not have to deal with the matter if he becomes president after his father.

But Guluzade warns that the public will accept only what he calls a "just peace." He means one that does not surrender Baku's claim to Nagorno-Karabakh or grant significant autonomy to the enclave's Armenians.

"Giving to Armenians autonomy there, it means that we are giving to them our land.... They killed us. They 'pogrommed' us. They made ethnic cleansing in their land. They occupied our territories. And now they want us to surrender," Guluzade says.

Guluzade says Azerbaijan may have to consider "a military solution" to the problem if no diplomatic resolution can be found. After years of a stalled peace, experts say that view would find some support in the population. Yet they doubt either of the two leaders would risk a resumption of hostilities ahead of next year's presidential elections in both countries.