Make a Bitter Tale Better in the Caucasus

Make a Bitter Tale Better in the Caucasus

Wall Street Journal
May 11, 2004

Ten years ago tomorrow a cease-fire halted a conflict that most of
the world has now forgotten. But the decade of quiet emanating from
the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline around Nagorno-Karabakh should
not deceive us that there is lasting peace there. Rather the reverse:
Over the last year the truce has been under strain and the threat of
a new war in the South Caucasus cannot be ignored.

It was right back in 1988 that the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh,
an Armenian-majority province inside Soviet Azerbaijan, became the
first slithering stone in the avalanche of nationalist quarrels that
ended up destroying the USSR. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis claimed
the fertile, mountainous territory as their own, entirely rejecting
the other side’s attachment to it. In 1992, with nothing resolved,
two well-armed independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged
out of the two Soviet republics and pitched into full-scale war with
one another.

When exhaustion caused both sides to sign a cease-fire on May 12,
1994, the Armenians had won a costly victory. More than a million
people had been displaced, most of them Azerbaijanis. Both countries
had thoroughly cleansed themselves of the nationals of the other. The
Armenians were left in occupation of a vast swath of land, including
Karabakh itself, that comprises around 14% of the internationally
recognized territory of Azerbaijan. Perhaps 20,000 people were dead.

The unresolved conflict still exerts a dread influence over a wide
area between the Black and Caspian Seas. Armenia is economically
stunted by the decade-long closure of its two longest borders, with
Azerbaijan and Turkey. Azerbaijan is a wounded nation, still living
with the cost of hundreds of thousands of refugees. More insidiously,
the political culture of both countries has been poisoned by the
nationalist myths the war created.

The international negotiators from the U.S., France and Russia
cannot be faulted for creativity and have come up with a series of
different peace-plans that try to bridge the conflict. The one that
went the furthest was also the most daring: In Key West, Florida,
in the spring of 2001 a framework document was discussed by the
two presidents that envisaged Armenia allowing the return of 95%
of all Azerbaijani refugees to their homes and having a road built
across Armenian territory to the isolated Azerbaijani exclave
of Nakhichevan. In return, however, Azerbaijan would have had to
surrender Nagorno-Karabakh itself, with the exception of the town
of Shusha. Under Article Two of that document, Nagorno-Karabakh was
“transferred to the sovereignty of Armenia.” The human benefits of
that agreement would have been immense — but so were the political
risks for Azerbaijan.

The rest of the world still has reason to be concerned about
what happens in these mountains. Next door is the fragile state
of Georgia. A few dozen kilometers north of the cease-fire line,
construction has begun on the $3 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil
pipeline, the first big conduit for Caspian oil to pass to Europe. A
new conflict would blight the region and its prospects for another
generation — and unfortunately this cannot be entirely ruled out. In
the last six months, Azerbaijan has been gripped by an outbreak
of bellicose rhetoric toward the Armenians and calls to “liberate”
the lost territories.

What is to be done? In Azerbaijan, the new president Ilham Aliev,
a cultivated man, faces the difficult challenge of rejecting the
rhetoric of war in favor of compromise. The human cost of a new
war would be devastating: in even a limited conflict, Azerbaijan
would lose thousands of young men just in the thick minefields along
the front line; while the small beautiful province in the middle,
Nagorno-Karabakh, badly scarred by the relatively low-tech war of the
early ’90s, would likely be annihilated. On a purely practical level
Aliev will know — but needs reminding – that the $20 billion or so
Azerbaijan may yet earn from oil revenues in the next decade are far
better spent on social programs and business growth than on armaments.

The task facing the Armenians is less easily defined but just as
historic. It is to break out of a dangerously introspective predicament
and reach out to their neighbor in the Caucasus. To do this, they must
show far greater flexibility toward plans to repatriate hundreds of
thousands of displaced Azerbajanis to their former homes.

This sad conflict is actually soluble, if only the two sides can be
rescued from their isolation. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have far
more in common than, say, Israelis and Palestinians. Intermarriage
between the two communities used to be very high. The problem is
that for more than a decade now the two sides have barely engaged in
dialogue. Most astonishing to an outsider is that in all this time
Azerbaijan has not sat down and talked to the Karabakh Armenians —
whom after all it claims to be its own citizens.

This puts the international negotiators in a funny position. Of course
they must continue to work to maintain the cease-fire regime and work
on peace proposals. But their main job is somehow to be storytellers,
contradicting the bellicose and rejectionist language that issues from
the two ex-combatants, walled up in their prison-fortresses, with a
patiently told tale of how things could be different and Armenia and
Azerbaijan can still jointly come back to the community of nations.

Mr. de Waal, author of “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through
Peace and War” (NYU Press, 2003), is Caucasus editor with the Institute
for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR.