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Caucasus: Analysis From Washington -- Seedbeds Of Nationalism

Washington, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ongoing negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh continue to be complicated by the fact that the leaders on both sides come from the territories most likely to be affected by any agreement.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian springs from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-dominated enclave inside Azerbaijan. And Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is from Nakhichevan, the non-contiguous portion of Azerbaijan.

But it is not just the two presidents. In both Yerevan and Baku, many members of the two political elites spring from these same locations, areas where nationalism is often the most intense because people living there are on the front lines of conflicts between the two groups.

The situation in Azerbaijan in this regard is especially striking. As Baku journalist Elmar Gusseinov points out in the current issue of London's IWPR Caucasus Reporting Service, virtually the entire leadership of Azerbaijan springs from Nakhichevan, a region with only 5 percent of the country's population.

Among the most prominent in addition to Aliyev are his ousted predecessor Abulfaz Elchibey, former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev, National Independence Party chief Etibar Mamedov, the current prime minister, and the current chairman of the parliament.

Gusseinov suggests that this pattern in Azerbaijan reflects tribal loyalties which "still prevail over national ties" there, the universal tendency of leaders to promote those they know, and the continued influence of the Soviet-era nomenklatura system on political life in Baku.

All of these factors obviously play a role, but they do not explain the analogous situation in Armenia or address the impact this pattern inevitably has on both countries and their ability of the two countries to cooperate with each other.

A more comprehensive explanation can be found in the history of nationalism around the world. Nationalism and hence nationalist leaders tend to emerge precisely where various groups come into contact with each other.

Nowhere is that more likely than on the periphery of a core ethnic territory or even more so in a place where members of one group find themselves entirely surrounded by members of another as is the case in Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan.

Many analysts have pointed out that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin drew the borders in the southern Caucasus to institutionalize conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by giving each a portion of the territory claimed by the other.

But fewer have noted that by creating such enclaves, Stalin was also creating a self-sustaining source of ethnic hostility, one that would almost inevitably give rise to nationalist leaders who could be counted on to oppose one another.

Within the Soviet context, of course, such a strategy was little more than the typical divide and rule policy of an imperial center. But with the collapse of the USSR, these arrangements have continued to cast a shadow both within and between those countries.

Within both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the rise and dominance of leaders from such regions has complicated the transition to democracy, by elevating the importance of nationalist ideology and by restricting the formation of political parties with broader agendas.

But the impact of this pattern on relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been even greater: It has made it far more difficult for either national elite to reach a compromise settlement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

That is why some analysts have suggested at various times that the most hopeful path to permanent peace in the region would involve a redrawing of borders so that neither country would be left a non-contiguous region that could serve as a seedbed of nationalism.

The international community appears to have ruled that out, leaving both Yerevan and Baku to struggle toward a settlement that does not appear likely to address this underlying source of tension.

For their own very different reasons, both Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev are committed to reaching an agreement, but the opposition each faces within his own political entourage highlights just how difficult a task they face.

And that points to a troubled future, one in which the seedbeds of nationalism established by Stalin may yet produce poisonous weeds that will choke off current hopes for peace.