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Azerbaijan: Distrustful Karabakh Armenians Prefer Status Quo

Hardened by years of conflict, ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave remain deeply distrustful of their Azerbaijani neighbors. Most prefer the existing "no war/no peace" situation to what they think would be an unreliable peace. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from the enclave that continuing economic hardship does not seem to have altered this view, and that painful memories of the war still exert a powerful grip on people's minds.

STEPANAKERT, 6 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The fruits of victory must have tasted particularly sweet for the Balayan family as it picked mulberries and figs in the gardens of Agdam on a recent hot Sunday afternoon. Completely devastated since its capture by Armenian forces eight years ago, this Azerbaijani ghost town just outside Nagorno-Karabakh illustrates the scale of Armenian gains in the bitter secessionist war of 1991 to 1994.

Standing amid the town's ruins with his wife, daughter, and two grandchildren, Serob Balayan -- a 66-year-old pensioner from Stepanakert -- has an uncompromising message for Armenian leaders and international mediators trying to exchange Agdam and other occupied Azerbaijani lands for de facto independence for Karabakh:

"We defeated them with their weapons. We took Agdam, we took [nearby] Fizuli and Kelbajar."

His wife Bella joins the conversation:

"After sustaining so many casualties, why should we give them any land? Never. What about our dead and our blood?"

The Balayan couple's attitude seems to be the dominant one in the Armenian-populated disputed region, which broke away from Soviet Azerbaijani rule in the late 1980s. After years of conflict, the Karabakh Armenians remain deeply distrustful of their Azerbaijani neighbors, preferring the existing "no war/no peace" situation to prospects of what they believe will an unreliable peace. Continuing economic hardships don't seem to have altered this attitude, with painful memories of the war still exerting a powerful grip on people's minds.

The views of the Armenian population in the disputed territories constitute a factor that the mediators from the OSCE's Minsk Group will have to deal with, as they press on with their peace initiatives, which earlier this year seemed to be moving the conflicting parties toward a settlement. The mediators will also have to take account of the views of an estimated more than three-quarters of a million Azerbaijani displaced persons.

The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairs of the Minsk Group will launch another round of shuttle diplomacy next week when they visit Armenia, Karabakh, and Azerbaijan. For them, as for Azerbaijan itself, the return to Baku of six out of the seven Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh is not negotiable.

Armenian troops currently occupy Karabakh and six neighboring Azerbaijani districts, which altogether make up at least 15 percent of the country's territory. Azerbaijan estimates that some 800,000 of its citizens were displaced because of the war and are now scattered across the country, many of them living in primitive conditions.

The Baku government insists that the return of the six occupied territories be the basis of any peace accord. Until now, it has seemed willing to accord a high degree of autonomy -- but not formal independence -- to Nagorno-Karabakh.

But our correspondent's talks with ordinary Karabakh residents suggest that, for them, the return of the territories is not acceptable

Robert Stepanian is a Karabakh army officer and, like virtually the region's entire male population, a war veteran. He is adamantly opposed to any transfer of territory. Stepanian asks:

"How can we return territories taken in a battle? Why did people pay for them with their lives?" The same argument is cited by other Armenians in the area, who say they are undaunted by the constant threat of renewed fighting. They consider continued control of the occupied lands as vital to Karabakh's security.

One Stepanakert-based journalist suggests another explanation for this reluctance to give up the occupied territories in return for a hard-won independence. As time goes by, he says, there is an increasing "proprietary attitude" among the Karabakh Armenians toward the most tangible result of their military victory over Azerbaijan. Some of them have an economic interest in maintaining the occupation, because they cultivate the land profitably. The Azerbaijani owners, who fled in the face of advancing Armenian troops, still live in refugee camps in Azerbaijan.

This hard-line public opinion is a major challenge to the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which says it is ready to withdraw from most of the occupied territories. But the republic's president, Arkady Ghukasian, says he is not worried about a possible domestic backlash against the compromise peace deal on which the Minsk Group negotiators have been working. Ghukasian argues that concessions must not be unilateral, and says he will be able to convince his distrustful people to accept such an accord.

Still, healing the wounds left by the conflict will not be easy. The ruins of Agdam testify to how deep mutual Armenian-Azerbaijani antagonism runs. A ramshackle mosque flanked by two minarets is all that is left of a once-bustling town of 40,000, which was reputed to have had the richest bazaar in the former Soviet Union.

The town of Agdam, and the surrounding district of the same name, was a major outpost of the Azerbaijani army, which wreaked havoc on nearby Armenian-populated villages at the start of the war. Even the capital Stepanakert was not spared relentless shelling. Several Karabakh villages adjacent to Agdam were overrun and burned down by Azerbaijani forces during a 1992 offensive.

A year later, it was the Armenians' turn to strike hard. The fall of Agdam was the most spectacular in a string of Armenian military victories during 1993. Stones from the town's looted and devastated houses have since been used in the rebuilding of Karabakh villages damaged by the fierce fighting.

It is this grim reality that makes Silva Balayan, the adult daughter of Serob and Bella Balayan, skeptical about the chances for peace.

"Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived in peace and traded with each other after the massacres of 1915 to 1918. Over time, this will again become possible. But not at this moment, because nothing has been decided yet." Younger residents of Karabakh sound even more uncompromising. The former "children of the war" remember the horrors of the conflict much better than they do the days when Karabakh was under Azerbaijani rule.

Lira is an 18-year-old history student at Karabakh State University. She spent part of her childhood hiding in bomb shelters.

"There is an old saying that lands taken with blood are never handed back. And if we are real patriots we must not allow the state, our leadership, to take such a step."

Asked about reconciliation with the Azerbaijanis, Lira was equally categorical. "That won't happen, I don't believe in it," she said. "No matter how long a peace lasts, we will end up in the same situation in 20 or 50 years."