Those include the regions of Kalbacar, Lacin, Qubadli, Fuzuli, Cebrayil, Zangilan, and Agdam.
This is the first time since these territories fell into the hands of ethnic Armenian forces in 1992-93 that the OSCE was authorized to conduct a fact-finding mission there.
The eight-member mission was placed under the supervision of the so-called Minsk Group of nations that has been mediating the Karabakh conflict for the past 13 years on behalf of the OSCE. Since 1996, the Minsk Group has been co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States.
France’s co-chair, Bernard Fassier, toured Azerbaijan’s occupied territories with the OSCE experts. He told RFE/RL that the mission, which had long been demanded by Azerbaijan, was made possible only after arduous talks between Baku and Yerevan.
“The determinant factor that made this mission possible -- despite Armenia’s earlier objections -- was a compromise reached recently by the two countries under the aegis of the Minsk Group co-chairs. The main provision of the compromise was that Azerbaijan would suspend its action at the United Nations in return for -- among other things -- Armenia’s consent to that mission, the technicalities of which were agreed to by both parties,” Fassier said.
In early 1993, ethnic Armenian forces were in full control of Nagorno-Karabakh and had already secured the strategic southern corridor of Lacin that links the separatist exclave to Armenia.
In March 1993, ethnic Armenian forces launched a two-pronged offensive that drove Azerbaijan’s rag-tag army farther east and expelled hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis and Kurds from their homes.
Kalbacar fell on 3 April 1993. Agdam, Fuzuli, Cebrayil, and other cities and towns followed soon thereafter.
The Armenian victory, achieved in just four months, precipitated the collapse of Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey’s regime. Recalled from Moscow in the wake of a military coup, Soviet Politburo member Heidar Aliyev soon took power in Baku and precipitately negotiated a truce that came into effect in May 1994.
As a prerequisite to any negotiations on the status of Karabakh, Azerbaijan demands that ethnic Armenian troops leave all occupied territories in line with a string of resolutions approved by the UN Security Council. But Armenia, which also represents Karabakh at the peace talks, wants the future of the enclave to be negotiated in parallel with the troop withdrawal.
Azerbaijan claims the Armenian and Karabakh authorities have already sent some 23,000 settlers to the areas and demands that an end be put to what it says is a deliberate policy of colonization.
But French Ambassador Fassier told RFE/RL that, with one noticeable exception, Armenian migration into the occupied territories seems to be largely spontaneous and improvised.
“Contrary to what many people thought, there doesn’t seem to be a deliberate, large-scale plan to settle those areas. One exception, however, is the Lacin district. In Lacin, one can say that the [Armenian] settlement is being encouraged and sponsored. But with regard to the six remaining districts, its seems that up to 80 to 90 percent of settlers have gone there either on their own or with the support of local nongovernmental organizations or the [Armenian] diaspora. Except for Lacin, there is no large-scale involvement from [the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of] Stepanakert, even less so from Yerevan,” Fassier said.
Although the OSCE mission had no mandate to conduct a census, Fassier believes the number of Armenian settlers populating the occupied territories roughly matches the estimates given by Azerbaijani authorities.
The French diplomat said the largest group of settlers is made up of Armenian refugees who fled Azerbaijan before the Karabakh war broke out in 1988 and in the early months of the conflict. The second-largest group is composed of victims of the December 1988 earthquake that leveled the Armenian city of Spitak and partially destroyed Leninakan, Stepanavan, and Kirovakan.
“Finally, there is a third and much smaller group that consists of people who have fled Armenia for economic reasons, or who live in mountainous areas of Armenia and come on a seasonal basis to these more temperate areas for cattle-breeding purposes. During the winter season, these families come down from their mountains to graze their few cows or sheep in these more temperate zones,” Fassier said.
Fassier noted that most Armenian settlers are apparently receiving no assistance whatsoever from Yerevan or Stepanakert. He said the precarious Armenian settlements, generally made up of a few families, remain isolated from each other because there are neither roads nor any means of communication.
With the exception of Lacin, no organized effort has been made to restore infrastructure destroyed during the war. Also, Fassier said, no reconstruction program has been initiated and many settlers continue to live in appalling conditions more than 10 years into the cease-fire.
“In many areas there is no electricity and poverty predominates. I wouldn’t say people live. Rather, they are surviving in half-destroyed walls topped by a tin roof. To survive, these families rely on small gardens or plots of land that offer only limited agricultural possibilities. Sometimes, they also rely on what a few fruit orchards that have been in a state of neglect for the past 10 years are still able to produce. In the most extreme situations there is no electricity and just a hole in the ground, a fountain or a well to draw water from. In areas where conditions are slightly better, accumulators allow for just enough electricity to supply a single bulb. In other areas there are small generators. Sometimes electricity is either imported from Karabakh or supplied by an Armenian military base nearby,” Fassier said.
Due to its key strategic importance as a land bridge between Karabakh and Armenia, Yerevan insists that the notion of returning the Lacin corridor to Azerbaijan is a nonnegotiable issue.
In Lacin, Fassier said, migrants live in much better conditions then in other occupied lands. The reconstruction rate is nearing 50 percent. Schools have been built with government support, water and electricity supplies progressively restored, and local administrations set up -- all things that would sustain Baku’s claims of an organized settlement policy.
The OSCE experts are due to present their final report to the Minsk Group co-chairs. The latter will then add their own recommendations and political conclusions before passing on the report to the other Minsk Group members and the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna -- tentatively scheduled for the second half of March.