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Caucasus: Analysis From Washington -- Attention And Agreements

Washington, 8 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ever more Azerbaijanis view the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Armenia as the most important problem facing their country, a trend that may make it more difficult for Baku to reach an agreement on that issue with Armenia.

According to a poll conducted in Azerbaijan for the U.S. State Department's Office of Research, 55 percent of Azerbaijanis say that the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is the single most serious problem Azerbaijan faces. That figure is up from 41 percent in a poll the same office carried out a year ago. In addition, an additional 19 percent this year said that other aspects of that conflict -- including refugees and territorial integrity -- are the next most serious problem. These figures are striking for three reasons:

First, Nagorno-Karabakh dwarfs all other issues in Azerbaijan. Fewer than one-third as many in the sample named any other issue with 18 percent saying that unemployment was the most serious problem and 14 percent reporting that economic problems are the most significant issue.

On the one hand, that means that Azerbaijanis care more about what their government does on this issue than even on the bread-and-butter concerns that drive the politics of most countries most of the time. That pattern may allow Baku to devote less attention to those matters than would otherwise be the case.

And on the other hand, the overwhelming importance of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijanis means that the government's ability to pursue new departures in negotiations over the future of that region are limited. To put it simply, too many Azerbaijanis care about the outcome for the Azerbaijani government to ignore their views.

Second, increasing concern about Nagorno-Karabakh, an area within Azerbaijan's borders with an ethnic Armenian majority that is now under the control of Armenians, does not appear to reflect changes on the ground. Rather, it appears to be the product of increased public attention to efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group led by France, Russia, and the United States to promote an accord between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Azerbaijanis have become more sensitive to this issue precisely because it has become the subject of more intense discussion. And that points to one of the paradoxes of negotiations by governments that must rely on the support of the people: If outside powers seek to promote a settlement by highly publicized meetings such as the Key West summit earlier this year, these countries may unintentionally make it more difficult for the parties to reach a settlement.

In short, dictatorships may be able to ignore the views of their own people, but the governments of democracies and of countries that aspire to become democracies cannot do so except at the risk of massive instability or even collapse. And the leaders of such countries are very aware of these dangers.

And third, at least some Azerbaijani politicians may exploit increasing popular concern about Nagorno-Karabakh to promote their own agenda or even to advance their own positions in the future. The likelihood of such actions also acts as a constraint on the government's maneuvering room. Indeed, it is worth noting that many Azerbaijani opposition parties have staked out far less flexible positions than has President Heidar Aliev.

But in addition, the exploitation by such groups of these popular attitudes will only intensify the concerns of the Azerbaijani population, thus further reducing the possibility of any movement in negotiations and creating the specter of possible violence should conditions on the ground in and around Nagorno-Karabakh take a turn for the worse.

Unless these possibilities are taken into account by the negotiators, little progress appears to be likely in the short term, and enormous dangers appear to be possible over the longer term.