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South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan Call On UN To Step Up Role In Resolving Karabakh Conflict

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

As presidential elections approach in Azerbaijan and Armenia, both South Caucasus states are still squabbling over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute. The United Nations, which is currently holding its 57th General Assembly in New York, yesterday saw top envoys from both countries trading fresh accusations over who was to blame for the lack of progress in the peace negotiations. Both countries appear to be looking to hold the international community responsible for the failure as well.

Prague, 16 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The South Caucasus states of Azerbaijan and Armenia crossed swords over the weekend, blaming each other for hindering the search for a peaceful solution to their 14-year conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Azerbaijan also reproached international mediators mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, for adopting what it said amounted to a prejudiced approach to the territorial dispute.

Addressing the United Nations' 57th General Assembly yesterday, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev blamed the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group of countries, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States, for failing in its good-offices mission. "If at the early steps of the mediation, the Minsk Group was putting forward proposals for the elimination of the consequences of the conflict, at present, its activities can be characterized as upholding a wait-and-see policy against the background of the negotiations until the moment when the victim party accepts the conditions of the aggressor. Such [a] position of the mediators cannot be regarded [other than as] a passive support for the fait accompli policy conducted by Armenia, which is unacceptable for us, for Azerbaijan," Guliev said.

The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute broke out in 1988, when the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave effectively seceded from Soviet Azerbaijan. As a result of the ensuing military conflict, Armenian troops succeeded not only in taking control over the entire breakaway region, but also in seizing half a dozen neighboring Azerbaijani districts.

Despite a cease-fire agreement signed in 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia are still formally at war and OSCE-mediated peace negotiations have so far yielded no substantial results.

Direct talks initiated about two years ago by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian have also failed to reach any breakthrough and the peace process apparently remains in a stalemate.

Both presidents have repeatedly pledged to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, but nationalist opposition leaders in both countries regularly call for a resumption of hostilities. This is particularly true in Azerbaijan, where the absence of a political settlement is fueling resentment among the country's estimated 800,000 Karabakh refugees and internally displaced persons.

Employing a carrot-and-stick approach, Aliyev on 13 September told a crowd of residents in the central city of Geranboi he remains committed to a peaceful solution of the conflict, but warned he has other means at his disposal. "The absence of results does not mean that the negotiation process is exhausted," Aliyev said, before promising that occupied territories would be returned to Azerbaijan "at any cost," including by force.

As both Armenia and Azerbaijan gear up for next year's presidential polls, the Karabakh issue is likely to become one of the main themes of the upcoming electoral campaigns.

The clock is ticking for both presidents, and chances that they will be able to fulfill an earlier pledge to settle the Karabakh conflict before their respective mandates expire in a few months look dim. Neither leader can afford to show any sign of compromising on what Guliev yesterday described as an "explosive" issue.

In what sounded like a reflection of U.S. President George W. Bush's appeal to the United Nations last week, in which the American leader urged the international organization to face its responsibilities regarding Iraq or let Washington act unilaterally, Guliev yesterday urged the world community to see that Armenia complies with earlier UN resolutions on Karabakh. "In 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolutions 822, 853, 874, and 884 on [the] Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. These resolutions were adopted after every new stage of [the] Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan. The [Security] Council unambiguously supported [the] sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, confirmed its recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and resolutely demanded [the] immediate, full, and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, and the creation of conditions for the return of refugees and displaced persons. However, these demands of the Security Council have not been implemented so far," Guliev said.

Echoing Bush's remarks regarding Iraq, Guliev went on to say that the UN Security Council must face its responsibilities, lest its authority be undermined. "[The] nonimplementation of the United Nations Security Council's resolutions undermines its authority and the people's belief in justice and the possibility of [a] peaceful political settlement," Guliev said.

Passed in the course of eight months -- between April 1993 and November 1993 -- the UN resolutions mentioned by Guliev indeed demand the "immediate" liberation of Kelbajar, Agdam, Zangelan, and Goradiz. All four districts had been previously seized by Armenian troops from the depleted and poorly led Azerbaijani armed forces.

In a clear reference to Russia, which was already suspected at the time of providing support to Armenia, one of the resolutions mentioned by Guliev (Resolution 853) urged states to refrain from the supply of any weapons and munitions that might lead to an intensification of the conflict, or the continued occupation of [territories]."

Unlike President Aliev, yesterday Guliev stopped short of openly mentioning a possible resumption of hostilities between the two South Caucasus states.

Azerbaijan's foreign minister, however, warned that his country, which he said would "never agree to the legalization of the territorial seizures" or "the loss of a single inch of its territory," "reserves the right to undertake all necessary measures stipulated by the UN Charter to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Addressing the UN General Assembly hours later, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian bluntly dismissed Azerbaijan's territorial claims, saying that Karabakh and its 145,000-strong population were "de facto" independent and will remain so.

As his Azerbaijani counterpart did earlier, the Armenian envoy appealed to the UN Security Council, this time to urge the international community, which officially supports Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, to adopt the same approach toward Karabakh separatism as it did toward self-determination in East Timor, which is set to gain a seat at the UN later this month. "Different self-determination conflicts have evolved in decidedly different ways. Each self-determination movement needs to be treated differently. The international community's challenge continues to be to adopt policies that will contribute to the peaceful solution [to] each conflict. In order to adopt correct policies, criteria must be adopted by which to characterize and judge each case on its own merit, realistically taking into account the real situation on the ground in order to reach lasting peace," Oskanian said.

Oskanian also criticized Guliev for calling on the Security Council to urge Armenia to comply with UN resolutions. "Today, since the international community speaks of countries' responsibilities toward [UN] Security Council resolutions, Azerbaijan frivolously makes the same accusations about Armenia, without considering that, indeed, Armenia has done exactly what the international community expected: use its good offices with the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh to help find a peaceful resolution [to] this conflict," Oskanian said.

Armenia's top diplomat also expressed his "dismay" at Guliev's remarks, saying they ran counter to recent progress reportedly reached on the Karabakh issue. But Oskanian fell short of defending the OSCE Minsk Group from the attacks of his Azerbaijani counterpart, crediting instead direct bilateral talks for what achievements he said had been made so far. "Based of the very hopeful meetings that taken place between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, we have reasons to be positive. However, having followed the comments of my colleague from Azerbaijan made from this very podium this morning, I am not just shocked, I am also dismayed that he is not keeping pace with the progress being made in the region by his and my presidents," Oskanian said.

The last meeting between the South Caucasus leaders took place on 14 August in Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan exclave. This first summit in more than a year apparently produced few results, with Kocharian describing the talks as "tough."

Be that as it may, Oskanian's mention of progress in the talks put a positive gloss on the peace process ahead of a planned Aliev-Kocharian meeting on the sidelines of a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States to be held next month in the Moldovan capital Chisinau.

(RFE/RL's New York correspondent, Nikola Krastev, contributed to this report)