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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Quiet Diplomacy About A Hidden Conflict

Helsinki, 27 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A flurry of quiet diplomacy is concentrating this month on developing a formula for stabilizing a shaky truce in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russian mediators won a ceasefire two years ago last May between the ethnic Armenians of the Karabakh Mountain enclave and Azerbaijani government forces seeking to prevent its out-and-out secession from Azerbaijan.

But the agreement to cease active hostilities did not include a solution of the question of Nagorno-Karabakah's demand for independence or annexation by neighboring Armenia. Meanwhile, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have increased ominously their military strength. A group of concerned European nations, led by Finland, has so far failed to find a prescription to cure the fever.

A diplomat in the Finnish Foreign Ministry agrees to speak only on background about the delicate discussions. He confirms that a group of European experts who have been working for their governments on the issue met privately and unofficially a week ago in Helsinki.

Russian, U.S., French, Swedish and Swiss representatives attended. Germany was not represented even though early reports indicated that Germany's Franz Lambach would attend, fresh from discussions with Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Hassan Hassanov. All the participants were members of the Minsk group, an 11-nation negotiating team set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to try to find a Nagorno-Karabakh accommodation.

No product of these latest discussions has been made public nor is it likely to surface until after the Armenian elections next month. The ultimate aim is to have a set of proposals ready for discussion at the OSCE biennial summit scheduled for December 2 and 3 in Lisbon. An OSCE spokesperson in Vienna says that Nagorno-Karabakh absolutely is set to be on the agenda in Lisbon, regardless of whether it is an independent topic or grouped with others. The Lisbon agenda has been developed but not yet published.

Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Persia until Russia took it over in 1813. Despite its majority Armenian population, the Soviet Union grouped it as an autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians began in 1987 to push for transfer of the oblast from Azerbaijan to Armenia. Their campaign created tensions that found outlets in persecution official and semi-official of the Armenians in Azerbaijan and Azeris in Armenia. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh in an internationally-monitored referendum declared themselves independent of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani government forces responded by shelling Stepanakert, the Nagorno-Karabakh capital. Hostilities grew into a mini-war, which Russian-brokered negotiations managed to suspend in May, 1994.

In the time since, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have stitched together a compact, but muscular military force. In the endeavor, they have tapped support in Armenia and among substantial Armenian populations in the United States, France and Germany.

This strong and fast-developing military, combined with a no-compromise attitude among Nagorno-Karabakh leaders, creates a volatile situation despite the durable ceasefire.

"We are certain that at some stage, there will be. . . a final stage of the war" with Azerbaijan, Samvel Babayan, commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's Army of Defense said in an interview last March:

That seems to light a sputtering fuze and to give the peacemakers a limited time to extinguish it.