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Caucasus Report: June 8, 2000

8 June 2000, Volume 3, Number 23

How The 'Goble Plan' Was Born... Because I was "present at the creation" of an idea that has taken on a life of its own, I welcome this opportunity to describe how this "plan" was born as well as to discuss what role I think it might play in the future. Like most parents, I have been both pleased and disappointed with my offspring.

In January 1992, shortly after I had resigned from my position as special advisor on Soviet nationality problems and Baltic affairs at the U.S. Department of State, I prepared a background paper on the Karabakh conflict for former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who was planning to visit the south Caucasus. In that paper, I both described the history of that conflict and offered some thoughts on how it might be resolved.

At the end of that 3,300 word essay, subsequently published in the "Fletcher Forum"(1992), I wrote the following lines:

"In principle, there are three ways to "solve" the Nagorno-Karabakh problem: driving out or killing all Armenians now there, reimposing enormous outside force to keep the two sides apart, or transferring the NKAO to Armenian control. The first of these is morally impossible, the second is probably physically impossible, and the third is politically impossible if it is done alone because it would leave Azerbaijan the loser both territorially and in terms of the water supply to Baku.

"Consequently, the various participants need to begin to consider the possibility of a territorial swap including the following concessions: sending part of the NKAO to Armenia, with the area controlling the headwaters of the river flowing to Baku and areas of Azerbaijani population remaining in Azerbaijani hands; and transferring the Armenian-controlled landbridge between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan to Azerbaijani control.

"Both sides would have difficulties with this, Armenia because it would lose its tie to Iran and Azerbaijan because it would lose something it said it would never give up. But both sides would also gain something that they have long wanted. Moreover, by focusing on the transfer of land, this type of settlement would minimize the need for any shift in population. In any case, no ceasefire or settlement will hold for very long unless both sides feel that they were not the latest victims in this long-running conflict. And perhaps most important, any "solution" which takes as its point of departure the preservation of the work of Stalin and his successors is doomed to failure and will insure that this region will remain unstable long into the 21st century."

Secretary Vance found that argument persuasive and mentioned the idea at a press conference in Stepanakert. Subsequently, several other American officials, either out of politeness or interest, said that they were intrigued by this argument. And because Vance and several others referred to my authorship of this idea, some officials and analysts in the Caucasus and elsewhere viewed my presentation of this idea as a testing of the waters by then-Secretary of State James Baker. Given that I had just resigned from the department he headed, I found that amusing at the time.

But because of this concatenation of events, the Goble Plan rapidly acquired a life of its own, sometimes serving as the occasion for criticizing one or another parties to the conflict and sometimes serving as the basis for further discussions. When it has been the former, I have been most unhappy, but when it has served as the latter, I have been pleased because my goal in 1992 and subsequently has been to prompt everyone involved in this conflict to think more broadly than they generally have been willing to do.

Here I would like to address three other issues: what I was trying to do at the time, where I was wrong, and what role I see this "plan" having in the future.

No author can be sure of just what his readers will pick up on or how they will make use of his ideas. I certainly was surprised by the reaction to my essay. I actually thought that its most controversial feature was a suggestion, hardly ever noted in discussions of the Goble Plan, that Iran, as a regional power, would have to be involved for any settlement to work. The collapse of the Soviet Union created several fracture zones, including in the south Caucasus, and I believed then and believe now that peace as opposed to an armistice requires the restoration of a new balance of power, something unlikely if one of the major powers in the region is simply ignored.

Anyone who reads the passage I've quoted above will see that it is less a specific "plan" than a discussion of the logic of the conflict. I was and remain interested in seeing a peaceful outcome in the Caucasus, and I believed then and believe now that all the parties will be better off if they acknowledge the underlying structural functions of that conflict and that they will eventually have to acknowledge that any settlement will have to come about via a comprehensive approach rather than a step-by-step process.

But what happened in early 1992 and since that time has been that the Goble Plan has usually been reduced to the notion of a territorial swap, with all of the qualifications ignored including about the window during which this was possible and the countries which would have to be involved.

That misunderstanding was compounded by two mistakes I made in the article, mistakes for which I have been taken to task on a regular basis. The first and smaller one concerns the flow of water from Karabakh to lowland Azerbaijan: Such flows were not and are not as important as I had thought at that time. And they did not deserve the prominence I gave them.

The second and more significant one concerns the importance of the border with Iran to Armenia and Armenians. In 1992, there was very little commerce or communication over this border, and I viewed it as something Armenians might be willing to sacrifice in the name of peace. But I underestimated its psychological meaning. Not only is this border increasingly significant for trade, but it is a key outlet for Armenia to the non-Turkic world.

I underestimated that factor, and I acknowledge my mistake here. Were I asked to update the Goble Plan now, I would modify it by calling for Azerbaijan to cede a small portion of western Nakhichevan so that Armenia could have a border with Iran and by urging that the international community put pressure on Turkey to open its borders with Armenia as part of the package deal to end this conflict.

Every time I see a reference to the Goble Plan in the press, I smile to myself because I know how this plan was created and even where: at a word processor in the basement of my house! As I wrote almost a decade ago, I thought there was a moment when the ideas contained in my article and my "plan" could have become part of a peace settlement. As months and years have passed, I have become ever less sure that those ideas can play such a role.

But as I have pointed out many times to critics of the Goble Plan in the past, they have to answer--as I do not--for failing to come up with an idea that could have saved thousands of lives and brought peace to a region that has known too little of it in the past. (Paul Goble)

...And How It Remains A Political Factor. Armenian President Robert Kocharian disclosed in February that international mediators had resurrected the prospect of a territorial exchange to resolve the Karabakh conflict, and that Kocharian discussed that possibility during one of his meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliev. But both Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian have said repeatedly that the Armenian side rejected such a territorial exchange out of hand. Oskanian stated in a TV interview on 4 June that "this issue is closed." He added that the international community cannot coerce any state to cede part of its territory, and that Armenia therefore "has nothing to worry about," according to Snark.

Azerbaijani officials, however, seem to have been more ambivalent: "Izvestiya" on 24 February quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliev as saying "Azerbaijan would consider as a great success the reaching of an agreement on resolving the Karabakh conflict that would grant the country a corridor to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic in exchange for the corridor uniting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh." Given that the latter corridor is already under Armenian control, that formula would constitute a unilateral concession on the part of Yerevan--a concession that the Azerbaijani authorities could try to present as a tactical victory on their part, and thus mitigate the feared outrage by radical groups who oppose ceding any Azerbaijani territory to Armenia.

Azerbaijani leaders' collective ambivalence has, in turn, given rise to some truly fanciful hypotheses. "525-gazeti" for example on 27 May quoted the Russian news agency APN as reporting that President Aliyev is prepared to agree to a territorial swap (Nagorno-Karabakh for the district of Meghri in southern Armenia) in exchange for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But despite repeated official Armenian denials, opposition politicians have seized on the possibility of territorial concessions on the part of Armenia as a way to discredit and to exert pressure on the present leadership. For example, addressing a congress of his nationalist National Unity Party late last month, chairman Artashes Geghamian accused Kocharian of remaining silent rather than unequivocally distancing himself from rumors that a territorial exchange will be part of a Karabakh settlement, according to Snark as cited by Groong.

Geghamian cited what he claims are details of the revised proposal, which, he said, envisages the creation of five separate corridors, each 15 km wide, linking the Azerbaijani town of Fizuli with the Armenian-occupied town of Zangelan; the Armenian-occupied district of Nuvadi with the Armenian town of Meghri; and the Armenian town of Agarak with Ordubad in Nakhichevan. Geghamian further claimed that military observers would be deployed in those corridors. He argued that the creation of a landbridge between Turkey and Azerbaijan would result in the formation of a union between those two states within 5-10 years.

The Union of Rightist Forces (AUM), for its part, has acted even more aggressively in seeking to extract political mileage from the specter of the loss of part of Armenia's territory. Leaders of that alliance, whose four member parties all split from the then ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement in the mid- to late 1990s, traveled to Meghri in May where they told a meeting of some 400 alarmed local residents that the reason for the 27 October shooting in the Armenian parliament of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian was their collective opposition to a territorial swap. Then on 31 May, former National Security Minister David Shahnazarian told fellow AUM members that Yerevan had been offered $3 billion to agree to cede Meghri as part of a territorial exchange. International mediators have suggested that financial incentives, in the form of funds for reconstruction, could be part of an eventual Karabakh peace agreement.

As Paul Goble indicates above, one of the gravest drawbacks of a territorial exchange from the Armenian standpoint would be the loss of its border with Iran. Visiting Yerevan last month, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi was assured by Armenian leaders that Yerevan will never agree to cede Meghri. The loss of all or part of that region would jeopardize ambitious bilateral cooperation projects such as those discussed below. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Ambassador To Tehran Optimistic Over Cooperation Prospects. A number of ambitious economic projects between Iran and Armenia, including the construction of a gas pipeline and hydroelectric power station, will get off the ground by the end of this year, Armenian ambassador in Tehran Gegham Gharibjanian told RFE/RL on 6 June.

The implementation of those agreements, signed several years ago, is held up by a host of reasons, notably problems with funding of the pipeline to transport Iranian natural gas to Armenia and possibly Georgia. That pipeline would significantly reduce the two ex-Soviet republics' dependence on Russia for energy resources. Some foreign companies and governments have shown interest in the $150 million project, but progress has been hampered by differences over gas tariffs. An Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week that the price offered by the Iranians is far too high. But he added that Yerevan still hopes to reach a mutually acceptable deal with Tehran. Some analysts have suggested that recent disputes with Russia's Gazprom monopoly will make the Armenian authorities even more eager to have the pipeline built.

Senior energy officials from Armenia, Greece and Iran will meet in Yerevan later this month for talks that will be dominated by the pipeline issue. Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Dmytro Tkach, who visited Yerevan last week, was quoted as saying that his country, which is also dependent on Russian gas, takes an interest in the project and is even willing to participate in the construction work.

According to Gharibjanian, the gas pipeline from Iran is also beneficial because it could transform Armenia into a major transit state. "Iran is now actively seeking conduits to Georgia, Ukraine and Europe," he argued. Another project which he said would "bring us serious benefits" is the joint construction of a hydroelectric station on the Arax River which marks the border between Iran and Armenia.

The United States, Armenia's leading foreign donor, is thought to oppose Armenian-Iranian cooperation in the energy sector. A senior U.S. energy official said in Yerevan earlier this year that Armenia should instead try to tap the vast hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Sea.

Gharibjanian said he thinks that America's relations with Iran are slowly but steadily improving and that Armenia could serve as a bridge linking the two bitter foes. "We must not act like a neutral observer. We must work in that direction because we are interested in peace and stability in the region," he said. The Armenian diplomat also expressed optimism about the success of the reform policy pursued by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. "Change in Iran is evident day by day," he said. (Armen Zakarian)

Quotation Of The Week. "Do we really have the moral right to speak about sewage systems while people are being burned alive in Chechnya?" Russian State Duma Deputy Fandas Saifullin (Russia's Regions) commenting on a plea for funds for reconstruction by Russian government representative in Chechnya Nikolai Koshman (quoted in "Kommersant-Daily," 3 June).