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Armenia: Growing Disagreement On Nagorno-Karabakh?

Yerevan, 8 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are apparently drifting apart in their positions on the resolution of their conflict. The hints of growing discord between Yerevan and Stepanakert may have significant repercussions on the mediation process sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group.

Arkadii Ghukasyan, the president of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, said yesterday that Karabakh will continue to demand a "package" solution to the conflict that resolves all contentious issues within one framework document. He rejected Armenia's preference for the so-called "step-by-step" approach, whereby a decision on Nagorno-Karabakh's status, the main sticking point, is postponed to the last phase of the peace process. Ghukasyan said that a "step-by-step" solution would endanger Karabakh's security. But Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossyan at his September 26 news conference had expressed his support for the most recent OSCE Minsk group's peace proposal which is based on the step-by-step approach.

According to Ter-Petrossyan, this proposal envisages that the release of the occupied Azerbaijani territories, the lifting of Azerbaijan's blockade of Armenia, the repatriation of displaced persons and refugees and other confidence building measures should precede a decision on Nagorno-Karabakh's status. Ter-Petrossyan said the OSCE Minsk Group's new approach should be adopted as a basis for further negotiations, given that the "package" peace plan proposed several months ago by the group's three co-chairmen, Russia, France and the United States, was "rejected by Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan."

The Karabakh Armenians, for their part, say their rejection of that plan does not mean that a package approach leads to a deadlock. They contend that the phased solution is dangerous because it obliges them to withdraw from six districts of Azerbaijan adjacent to Karabakh which are currently controlled by Armenian troops (Stepanakert's main bargaining chip), but does not guarantee that Baku will not attack Nagorno-Karabakh after the first stage of the peace process. Having regained its lost territories, they argue, oil-rich Azerbaijan will be tempted to solve the dispute by force.

Ter-Petrossyan also made other comments that might exacerbate Yerevan's differences with its Karabakh brethren. He said "unilateral demands" for Nagorno-Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan are unrealistic and will not be tolerated by the international community. Ter-Petrossyan said the Armenian side must be ready for serious concessions if it is to have a "normal country" and if it is not to lose more in the long run, drawing parallels with the intransigent Croatian Serbs who lost their self-proclaimed republic in 1995.

Ter-Petrossyan's statements have been welcomed in Baku, strongly condemned by the Armenian opposition and have reportedly caused covert discontent in Nagorno-Karabakh, although Ghukasyan has avoided directly commenting on them. Much will depend on the reaction of the influential Nagorno-Karabakh military. The commander of the powerful Karabakh armed forces, Defense Minister Samvel Babayan, predicted last month that if the deadlock drags on for a year or two, another war will be inevitable, in which case he threatened Baku with complete military defeat. The Karabakh military have been reluctant to release the occupied Azerbaijani territories, let alone to return under Baku's sovereignty.

In Armenia itself, Ter-Petrossyan risks providing the currently divided opposition with a cause for reunification against the "capitulation and surrender" of Nagorno-Karabakh. But, more importantly, securing his own government's support for his ideas on Nagorno-Karabakh will not be an easy task. Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisyan are former war-time leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh and are therefore unlikely to be too conciliatory vis-a-vis Azerbaijan. Moreover, some Armenian media reports suggest that hard-line Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisyan, one of the closest figures to Ter-Petrossyan, is also vigorously opposed to concessions.

Some Armenian observers have speculated that Ter-Petrossyan's September 26 statements are a diplomatic trick aimed at preempting possible international pressure over the Armenians' refusal to recognize Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. By shifting the blame for this refusal to the Karabakh Armenians, these observers argue, Ter-Petrossyan wants to acquire the image of a "realist" leader grappling with "intransigent nationalists."

How the OSCE Minsk Group will react to Stepanakert's rejection of the latest peace plan, and whether Yerevan will side with the co-chairmen to exert pressure on Karabakh, will become clear when the co-chairmen visit the region later this month.

(Emil Danielyan is a freelance contributor working for the RFE/RL Armenian Service in Yerevan.)