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Caucasus: Karabakh A Quasi-Independent State; South Ossetia's Status Unclear

Prague, 27 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In February, 1998, the oblast soviet of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic appealed to the Soviet leadership to place the region under Armenian jurisdiction. That appeal met with jubilant support in Armenia, and embittered opposition in Azerbaijan; those emotions in turn sparked spontaneous reprisals against Armenians in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis in Armenia.

In September, 1991, shortly after the abortive Moscow putsch against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament proclaimed the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) a separate entity. In a referendum held three months later under the Soviet legislation that still obtained at that time, the population of Karabakh voted unanimously in favor of declaring the enclave's independence from Azerbaijan.

Since then, the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, with a population of some 120,000 -- 130,000, has acquired most of the attributes of, and now functions effectively as, an independent state. It has a president, a government, a parliament, an efficient army, and secure transportation links with the outside world. Its automobiles have their own distinctive number plates, even if the NKR does not have its own currency (it uses the Armenian dram.)

The two keys to Karabakh's survival as a quasi-independent state were the militarization of society in 1992 and the financial and logistical assistance provided by the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.

The priority given to creating an effective army paid off in terms of the successful occupation in 1993-4 of swathes of Azerbaijani territory surrounding the enclave, which form an effective security zone and protect Karabakh's sole overland link with the outside world via Armenia. The Armenian diaspora subsequently provided funding to upgrade the mountain road linking the NKR with Armenia into a two-lane highway.

The Karabakh army, which former Russian Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed assesses as probably the most professional in the entire CIS, has also deterred Azerbaijan, whose armed forces are far weaker, from attempting to restore control over the enclave by force.

A further factor that contributed to the cohesiveness of the Karabakh population was its mono-ethnicity -- the Azerbaijanis who in the 1980s had accounted for almost 25 per cent of the population were driven out by mid-1992.

In May 1994, Russia mediated a ceasefire agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and the NKR which has remained in force, apart from occasional exchanges of cross-border fire, ever since. The end of hostilities enabled the Karabakh leadership to concentrate its energies on economic reconstruction, although the army is still kept in a high state of combat readiness. Over the past four years, cooperation between Armenia and the NKR has been expanded.

In May, the parliaments of the NKR and Armenia signed a cooperation agreement which Armenian parliament speaker Khosrov Harutiunian described as de-facto recognition of the former by the latter.

In 1989, the Ossetian population of the then South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast of the Georgian SSR launched a campaign for upgrading the region's status to an autonomous republic, with the ultimate aim of unification with the North Ossetian ASSR within the RSFSR. One year later, the newly-elected nationalist-dominated Georgian parliament voted to abolish completely the region's autonomous status with Georgia. This vote sparked fighting between informal paramilitary groups of Georgians and Ossetians in South Ossetia, and the exodus of many Ossetians from South Ossetia to the North Ossetian ASSR, and from other regions of Georgia to South Ossetia.

In July, 1992, Georgian State Council chairman Eduard Shevardnadze and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement intended to defuse tensions and expedite the repatriation of the Ossetians who had fled. As part of that agreement, a peacekeeping force comprising Russia, Georgian and Ossetian troops was deployed in South Ossetia. Those troops have prevented a resumption of hostilities, but little progress has been made towards a political settlement that would clarify South Ossetia's status within Georgia.

Since 1992, the central Georgian government in Tbilisi has had only minimal contact with the would-be secessionist leadership of South Ossetia. Nor has Tbilisi provided any funding for the region from the national budget. Consequently, South Ossetia's only financial support comes from the central Russian government. The economy of neighboring North Ossetia has been badly hit in recent years by the drastic reduction of funding for the Russian military-industrial complex, formerly the main employer, so that North Ossetia cannot provide material aid to South Ossetia.

The economic stranglehold is exacerbated by the fact that South Ossetia's only two neighbors are Georgia and Russia: even if it identified an alternative source of financial aid, importing any commodities would depend on Russia's goodwill in securing transit arrangements.

Although Moscow provides economic aid to South Ossetia, it refuses outright to condone the region's secession from Georgia, fearing that any such violation of the OSCE's commitment to the inviolability of the existing borders of member states would create a precedent that could be adduced in support of Chechnya's demands for independence from the Russian Federation.

(This is the fourth story in a five-part series on autonomy conflicts)