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Azerbaijan/Armenia: Panel Reviews Crisis In Nagorno-Karabakh

Washington's American University hosted a panel discussion Thursday on the protracted dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mainly Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is located in Azerbaijan. RFE/RL's Senior Correspondent Lisa McAdams reports that while panel participants called for fresh ideas in the long elusive search for peace, they offered little new in the way of concrete proposals.

Washington, 19 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- High-profile participants addressing Thursday's panel entitled, "The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis: A Time For Resolution," offered little in the way to actually bring that long-sought goal to fruition. But all agreed that talking remains the only way over and potentially through the territorial dispute which, for seven years now, has seen mediation by numerous countries, but no political solution.

For six years in the late 1980s an undeclared war raged in Nagorno-Karabakh causing tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of some 1.3 million refugees.

The conflict between the two parties reached a watershed in 1991. That year witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union and, in its wake, declarations of independence from Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, among others.

In 1994, after a series of mediation attempts by outside agents, a ceasefire was achieved. But efforts toward a permanent settlement remain deadlocked to this day.

Originally seeking unification with Armenia, the Karabakh Armenians now want the right to self-determination. They argue that just as Azerbaijan had the legal right to secede from the Soviet Union, so too should Karabakh Armenians they say have the right to exercise self-determination and secede from Azerbaijan.

The government of Armenia supports the claims of the Karabakh Armenians but does not consider itself a disputant in the conflict. Rouben Shugarian, deputy foreign minister of Armenia, spoke to Yerevan's perspective on the conflict at Thursday's meeting.

Shugarian noted that while today there is a 6-year long ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, he said the ceasefire is an element of a broader process and can not be seen as stable on its own. He said the region will not be stable until there is a durable peace safeguarded by international guarantees and equally accepted by all parties.

At the same time, Shugarian said he thought the negotiation process under the Minsk group, comprising Russia, the United States, and France, got a much-needed boost last year, when mediators brought forth some new ideas.

Shugarian said there is now a proposal on the table for a "common-state," accepted by Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, but rejected by Azerbaijan. It is but one idea he said, stressing that Armenia remains, "ready and open" to the negotiation process. Shugarian did, however, note that Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh may well have to play the greater future role.

"We will come to a point where Armenia, as much as it is interested in a resolution of the conflict, will not be in a position to decide for Nagorno-Karabakh and at that point, I think, the Azerbaijani government should be flexible enough to sit at the negotiation table with the elected authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh."

The government of Azerbaijan declined to participate in Thursday's panel discussion, but speaking to the Azerbaijani perspective was Jayhun Mullazade, president of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Council.

Mullazade said Azerbaijan seeks to maintain its territorial integrity and to protect its sovereignty. Alluding to the Karabakh Armenian's goal of self-determination, he pondered, "Where does one draw the line?"

He also pointed the finger of blame on further progress outside the immediate region, saying he and many other Azerbaijanis believe in "conspiracy theories." Mullazade elaborated by saying that he firmly believes there are certain outside elements who do not wish to see the parties solve the dispute, and are even less interested in seeing a westward orientation of the south Caucasus.

Sounding a more somber note than Shugarian, Mullazade said he could not envisage a day when an Azerbaijani government would sign an agreement establishing the independence, or secession, or unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

Mullazade also said the course of peace may be determined more by actions in Russia than by mediators from the West.

"The most important (thing) is how the new Putin government views the South Caucasus -- whether new Russian leadership will be more focusing on Russian economy and cooperation and stability in the Caucasus, which may help stabilize Chechnya and may stabilize North Caucasus, or they will be in opposite policy of destabilizing South Caucasus, in order to take over the Caspian region."

Mullazade says that if Russia chooses to play the role of a spoiler in the region, he does not think regional peace and security will be achievable. He said the other key determinant for the future will be the stability of the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments. Harry Gilmure, the former U.S. ambassador to Armenia, said he sees a new and invigorated Karabakh peace process driven by the quest for Caspian Oil reserves and increasing calls for regional cooperation and security. At the same time, Gilmure said he does not see much evidence of statesmanship, or vision, or even responsibility among leaders of the region.

Gilmure said he also shared the unpopular view among some that there are significant internal political obstacles to a settlement on both the Armenian and Azerbaijani side and, to a lesser extent, in Karabakh as well. Gilmure said he did, however, agree with Mullazade that Russia will play a pivotal role.

"I believe there is a sincere commitment, (as) certainly during my term, to work effectively with Russia. In an earlier period, there were times when the Russians really were not as comfortable with other mediator's efforts, but I think that is changing. But here I think when President (Bill) Clinton goes to Moscow to meet with President (Vladimir) Putin this issue will be on the agenda."

Presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin are slated to meet June 4-5 in Moscow for summit-level talks. Gilmure said such talks will be helpful. He also said he was encouraged to hear all sides express strong support for enhanced regional security cooperation, which he said could only serve to strengthen the environment for a long-sought peace.

Meanwhile, Carey Cavanaugh, the U.S. special negotiator to the Minsk process, was due to address Thursday's event but was instead reported en route to Geneva, where it is said the Minsk group negotiations will resume again soon. One panel leader said he had been asked to convey Cavanaugh's sense of "optimism" that this next round could well yield progress.