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Amid Karabakh Tensions, Both Armenia And Azerbaijan View Russia Uneasily

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) hosts talks between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian(right).
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) hosts talks between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian(right).

It was a rare opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to take the world stage as a peacemaker.

The Kremlin leader scored a diplomatic coup on August 10 when he brought the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to his Sochi residence to discuss a de-escalation of recent violence between the two South Caucasus rivals.

"We need to demonstrate patience, wisdom, mutual respect in order to find a solution," Putin said as his grim-faced collocutors stood on. "Of course, any complex situations can only be resolved if there is good will. I believe there is such good will, both within the Azerbaijani people and Armenian people."

But analysts in both countries are skeptical of Russia's intentions and goals in the region -- and of Moscow's ability and even desire to mediate a lasting settlement. The one thing both Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev definitely agreed on in Sochi is that Russia should not introduce peacekeepers into the region.

"Russia wanted to take maximum advantage of the escalation [of violence in the region], and it did," said Ruben Mehrabian, an analyst with the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan. "Russia showed that it is the bear that remains the master in the Caucasus forest."

Putin summoned his counterparts to Sochi in a bid to stop a wave of violence around the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely ethnic-Armenian region that has been de facto independent since a Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh is politically, militarily, and economically supported by Armenia, and Baku considers it occupied territory.

Fighting broke out along the border between the two countries and the so-called Line of Control around Karabakh on the weekend of August 1-3, leaving at least 15 soldiers dead.

Wresting The Initiative

Baku-based political analyst Yegane Hajiyeva told RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service that Russia cannot help resolve the two-decades-old conflict over Karabakh.

"Russia has chosen its ally in the region, and that ally is not Azerbaijan," she said. "It is Armenia."

Russia is the main supplier of arms to both sides in the conflict. But Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and it has also committed to joining Moscow's Customs Union.

Former Armenian Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Yerevan should resist what appear to be efforts by Moscow to wrest the initiative from the Minsk Group, the international forum for discussing the conflict. The group is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"I think it is important that [Armenian President] Serzh Sarkisian said Armenia remains committed to the negotiations held within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group," Arzumanian said. "This is a clear message that we continue to work with our international partners and regard Russia as one of the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group."

Inside the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, observers are also suspicious of Moscow. Margarita Karamian is a blogger and long-time member of the Karabakh independence movement.

"It seems to me it is clear to everyone what this escalation [in violence] is connected with," she told RFE/RL. "A game of big players -- some geopolitical processes are taking place here."

"Perhaps some other forces created these tensions, but I am unequivocally of the opinion that it was Russia that escalated the tensions here in order to, on the one hand, make Azerbaijan obey it and do what it says in exchange for more arms supplies and, on the other hand, make Armenia beg for peacekeeping forces," she said.

'Relatively Young' Conflict

In Baku, Akif Nagi, head of the Karabakh Liberation Organization, says Aliyev is turning to Putin out of frustration with the Minsk Group process.

"It is ironic that our traditional enemy Russia now acts as our ally," Nagi told RFE/RL. "It is because Western efforts and plans to resolve the conflict are not suitable for Azerbaijan."

Both Baku and Yerevan look at the situation in Ukraine -- and Russia's role there -- with alarm.

"We haven't heard from Russia any statement supporting the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan for the last two years," says Baku-based analyst Hajiyeva.

"In addition, we see Russia occupying Ukrainian territory in the same way it did in Azerbaijan -- Karabakh was occupied the same way. I don't think expectations of a resolution of the conflict from Russia are realistic," Hajiyeva added, implying that Moscow is abetting Yerevan's control of the territory.

Yerevan analyst Mehrabian says the situation in the South Caucasus is "even more dangerous than in Ukraine, where at present…the Russians are waging a terrorist war."

"Russia is not interested in the ultimate settlement [of the Karabakh conflict]," Mehrabian says. "But at the same time it is not interested in an all-out war either."

An editorial in the pro-Kremlin Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on August 12 emphasized the long-term nature of the Karabakh problem: "A final resolution of this matter could last indefinitely. But this is not fatal. History is full of conflicts that were not resolved over the course of decades and even centuries. The Karabakh conflict is relatively young -- it is 'only' 20 years old."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague

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