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Analysis From Washington - Karabakh Accord Within Reach?

Washington, March 15 (RFE/RL) - After eight years of war, Armenia and Azerbaijan appear more ready than ever before to come to an agreement ending the conflict between the Azeri government and secessionist ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno Karabakh enclave of Azerbaijan.

But neither side has yet signed on the dotted line, and there are many in all camps who will seek to shoot down any accord that might be announced in the coming days.

This qualifiedly optimistic conclusion reflects the intense and obviously coordinated diplomatic activity there over the last several days by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov and Special Envoy Vladimir Kazimirov and by American Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and a group of senior American officials. And it reflects the public statements -- both cautious and optimistic -- of officials in both Baku and Erevan.

But it also reflects several underlying realities that recently appear to have become more salient.

Weary of a conflict that has left tens of thousands dead and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes and eager for the economic benefits of peace and the free flow of oil, Armenia and Azerbaijan appear set to agree to restore all pre-war borders in the region, grant expanded autonomy within Azerbaijan to the largely ethnically Armenian enclave of Karabakh, and allow for the unimpeded flow of people, goods, and especially oil across the region.

To make this agreement stick -- and none of the parties will be entirely satisfied -- the international community as represented by the U.S. and Russia seems to be prepared to provide both carrots and sticks. The carrots will include the lifting of U.S. imposed restrictions on aid to Azerbaijan, money from the sale and transport of oil, and expanded access to international markets and financial sources. The sticks will include an internationally-blessed peacekeeping force composed exclusively or almost exclusively of Russian troops.

War-weariness has not increased dramatically in recent months, and the benefits to both Armenia and Azerbaijan of the free flow of oil have long been obvious. What is new is the increased coordination of the American and Russian negotiating positions. In the past, the two had sparred with each other over the role of international peacekeepers and even over what a peace in the region ought to look like. Now, the positions of Moscow and Washington appear to have converged largely because their respective immediate interests have.

Moscow's shift reflects three new factors:

First, Yeltsin clearly believes that the signing of a peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan at a Kremlin version of the White House Rose Garden ceremony bringing together Israel and the Palestinians will bring him important domestic political dividiends.

Second, Yeltsin undoubtedly hopes that posing as a peacemaker in Karabakh will help him win additional international support for his campaign against Chechnya.

And third, the Russian oil and gas concerns -- Rossneft and Lukoil --appear to have concluded that it is better to have a partial share of real oil revenues -- something an accord on Karabakh might permit -- rather than total control of only potential profits when oil is not flowing at all.

Washington's move toward a common position arises from three parallel calculations:

First, like Yeltsin, President Clinton is facing a reelection campaign and the votes of the Armenian community in the U.S. are significant.

Second, a peace settlement announced during the Clinton-Yeltsin summit next month would go a long way to defuse criticism of the Administration's policy toward Russia.

And third, American oil and gas concerns have applied pressure for a settlement, pressure that has apparently led the U.S. to drop its earlier objections to the return of Russian forces to the region. While Russian troops may look like peacekeepers to some of the participants in this conflict, their return to an area of intense Russian strategic interest is likely to look very different to many on the ground. But the voice of the oil companies seems to have been decisive in the U.S. as well.

From the point of view of many in Moscow and Washington as well as many in Erevan and Baku, such an agreement has a great deal to recommend it. But to some in the region, any such accord will be infuriating.

On the one hand, such an agreement would seem to restore the status quo ante for Karabakh, despite the enormous losses on both sides and the current victories by the ethnic Armenians in the field. As a result, nationalists on both sides will do what they can to prevent any agreement reached from coming into force unless the peacekeepers are truly numerous and vigorous.

On the other, the enforcement provisions will bring Russian forces back south. While there may be some fig leaf about an international force, in fact, it is almost certainly going to be Russian. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have reasons to be concerned about such a development, one that also will have broader geopolitical consequences.

Consequently, even if an accord is announced and is signed in Moscow next month with Yeltsin and Clinton looking on, such an agreement might unfortunately prove to be an armistice rather than a peace.