Baku, 4 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One in every seven residents in Azerbaijan -- nearly one million people in all -- is now a refugee. And this demographic fact is likely to have growing political consequences for that country and for the Caucuses as a whole.
Driven from their homes, by the fighting in the Karabakh war, many have been living in camps of one kind or another for more than five years. But even that description does not begin to capture the full extent of this human tragedy.
In the camps -- and these are located in every region of the country -- a lucky few now live in houses constructed with funds from European nations. Another small group lives in tents supplied by a variety of international relief programs. But most exist in huts made of mud, sticks, and whatever other materials the refugees can find.
Other refugees live in boxcars parked on rail lines. And still others live in caves they have hollowed out for themselves or, in perhaps the worst cases, survive in the open along roads.
For most, electricity, running water, medicines and adequate food are distant dreams. Unemployment in many areas approaches 100 percent. Educational facilities are minimal.
Such a human tragedy inevitably attracts sympathy from, if not action by, outside observers. But there are three reasons that the international community is likely to be compelled to address this human problem lest it becomes an even larger political one.
First, the presence of so many refugees in Azerbaijan represents a kind of break on the possibility of social and political change in that country. Not only are the refugees a major direct burden on the Azerbaijani state budget, but their existence places constraints on what Baku can do.
On the one hand, certain policies such as a dramatic shift toward participatory politics and massive privatization could exacerbate existing differences between the refugees and the remainder of the population. That in turn could spark serious social conflict.
On the other, the general sense of responsibility that many Azerbaijanis feel for the refugees means that the central government in Baku simply cannot address many other pressing issues.
Second, the refugee camps in Azerbaijan are a kind of political tinderbox, one in which residents may become radicalized either spontaneously, as a result of political competition for their votes, or because of the actions of outsiders interested in destabilizing Azerbaijan and the Caucuses.
Where such radicalization of the Azerbaijani refugees has not happened -- indeed, even the crime rate among them is microscopically small -- experience with refugee camps elsewhere suggests that radicalization could happen at some point in Azerbaijan as well.
And even that possibility serves as both a goad and a restraint on the policies of Baku.
Third, the existence of such an enormous number of refugees, one far too large for Azerbaijani society to absorb, limits the ability of Baku to take steps to resolve the Karabakh conflict.
A million people driven from their homes inevitably represents a powerful argument for those who say Azerbaijan should not agree to anything less than a complete restitution of the status quo ante.
To date, the Azerbaijni government has been able to hold such impulses in check. But the existence of such a large number of refugees may make it less and less able to do so in the future.
But in addition to these political challenges, the refugees and their current suffering present another more immediate challenge to the international community. They have a claim on the world for assistance to help them overcome what former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has described as one of the worst situations for refugees anywhere in the world.