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Armenia/Azerbaijan: Nagorno-Karabakh's New President And The Peace Process

Prague, 8 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Eight days ago, the overwhelmingly Armenian population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic elected the enclave's foreign minister, Arkadii Ghukasyan, as president with an overwhelming 89.3 percent of the vote. The poll was unanimously pronounced free of procedural violations by some 40 international observers. Predictably, it was denounced as illegal and therefore void not only by the Azerbaijani government and parliament, but also by the U.S., Russia, Germany and Italy. But far from being a non-event, its repercussions are likely to be felt far beyond the region's borders.

Ghukasyan was born in Stepanakert, capital of what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, in June 1957. After graduating from the philological faculty of Yerevan State University in 1979, he returned to Stepanakert to work as deputy editor of the newspaper "Sovetakan Gharabagh." Ghukasyan was an active participant in the 1987-88 campaign for the unification of Karabakh and Armenia. In 1990 he was jailed for 30 days for his coverage of the belated Soviet military intervention that followed the January pogroms against Armenians in Baku.

When fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces escalated in late1991, Ghukasyan concentrated on covering the war for local TV and press. A year later, in September 1992, he was chosen as political advisor by Robert Kocharyan, then head of the government and subsequently Karabakh's first president until his appointment in March 1997 as Armenian Prime Minister. As political adviser, and since July 1993 as foreign minister, Ghukasyan headed the Karabakh representation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict. He is therefore not only well known on the diplomatic circuit, but in the course of numerous foreign trips has won the respect of the various political factions within the Armenian omigro community.

Ghukasyan's election platform was virtually identical with that of Kocharyan in the November 1996 Karabakh presidential elections. Ghukasyan pledged to consolidate Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto independence, among other things by strengthening the enclave's armed forces, which are already acknowledged to be among the most efficient and battle-hardened within the CIS. He also promised to broaden ties and work for economic integration with Armenia, as well as to engage in direct talks with Azerbaijan on a political settlement of the conflict that encompasses a role for Armenia as guarantor of Karabakh's security. On the key issue, Ghukasyan remains adamant: He told supporters in Stepanakert shortly after the election results were declared that "any status for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan is impossible."

Even before the poll, Ghukasyan had disclosed that the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership had rejected the draft peace plan proposed three months ago by the three Minsk Group co-chairmen -- the U.S., Russia and France. That plan envisaged autonomy for Karabakh within Azerbaijan, the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory beyond the formal boundaries of the enclave, the demilitarization of the Karabakh town of Shusha -- which is strategically located overlooking Stepanakert -- the deployment of international peacekeeping forces in the so-called Lachin corridor (the sole overland link between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia) and the downgrading of the Karabakh army to a local militia.

Azerbaijan, however, appears to be unfazed by Ghukasyan's intransigence: State foreign-policy advisor Vafa Gulu-Zade said he believes that "sooner or later" the Armenian side will agree to the peace plan proposed by the Minsk Group in late May. Armenian presidential press secretary Levon Zurabian told journalists last week, however, that Armenia, too, has rejected certain unspecified aspects of the latest draft peace plan. Zurabian said that the Minsk Group may offer new proposals when talks resume later this month. In an interview with the Armenian opposition newspaper "Azg" (Nation) four days ago, Ashot Voskanyan, Armenia's Ambassador to Austria and representative to the OSCE, predicted that if the parties to the conflict hammer out a compromise settlement among themselves, the OSCE will ultimately endorse it.

But the role of the Minsk Group may be called into question. Several Armenian politicians have reasoned that it is unrealistic, even naive, to assume that the interests of the U.S., Russia and France coincide in the Transcaucasus. Moreover, Baku has questioned Russia's ability to act as honest broker in the conflict after the signing late last month in Moscow by the Russian and Armenian presidents of a treaty on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance. Under the terms of this treaty, each party pledges military support should the other be attacked.

Given that Armenia is hardly in a position to defend Russia, this provision is being interpreted in Baku as an implicit threat that Russia will side with Armenia and Karabakh should Azerbaijan attempt to regain control of the enclave by force. This perception, together with Ghukasyan's intransigence, could deadlock the entire peace process.