TOL: The Ticking Time Bomb?

The Ticking Time Bomb?

Transitions onLine, Czech Republic
May 17 2004

BAKU, Azerbaijan–The Azeri president’s words were far from reassuring.

“Azerbaijan is ready to start a war to liberate its territories if the
peace talks do not produce any results,” Ilham Aliev said on 12 May,
adding that he would do his best to further strengthen the national
army and improve the economy in the country in order to sustain the
army’s capacity.

The timing of his comments–made on his arrival in the Nakhchivan
Autonomous Republic–was significant, coming on the 10th anniversary
of the 1994 Russian-brokered cease-fire that ended the conflict
between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the largely ethnic Armenian
Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan.

By the time the agreement had been signed, 30,000 people had been
killed and many more injured in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the
post-Soviet space. More than a million Azeris and 300,000 Armenians
had been driven from their homes, and nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s
land had come under Armenian control.

In the intervening 10 years, both nations have benefited from the
economic development that the end of hostilities allowed, but few in
either Azerbaijan or Armenia are satisfied with the status quo. For
many Azeris, the past 10 years symbolize time that has been wasted
in solving the conflict through peaceful negotiations and continued
hardship for the displaced people.

The majority of people who talked to TOL on the street said that the
anniversary only reawakened in them a sense of having been tricked
and feelings of humiliation.

“These 10 years showed that it is impossible to liberate the lands
by peaceful means. The only way to do it is to fight now,” said Rufat
Askerov, a graduate student at Western University in Baku.


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk
group–created in 1992 and charged with finding a peaceful solution to
the conflict–offered a number of proposals in the 1990s to end the
standoff, but either Baku or Yerevan rejected each one. Since 1998,
no new proposals have been made, and the majority of Azeris have lost
faith in the international efforts.

“They only come, talk, and go. No real progress. They are useless.
The international community does not care about us [refugees and
displaced people],” says Fatima Gulieva, a 43-year-old displaced person
from the Agdam region, which is currently under Armenian control.

Two days prior to the anniversary, the Karabakh Liberation
Organization (KLO)–a radical group that unites a number of opposition
activists–staged a march to the Karabakh town of Shusha to mark the
12-year anniversary of its occupation. Considered the cradle of Azeri
music and art, Shusha is an especially painful loss for many Azeris.

“We want to go back to our homes in Shusha,” said Akif Nagi, the
chair of KLO.

The Azeri authorities have so far been successful in keeping radical
groups and refugees out of the negotiation process, but as time goes
on and the peace talks languish, calls for a military solution have
become louder.

Although frustration with the deadlock has hardened the hearts of
most Azeris toward the peace process, many also believe that fighting
would produce no better results.

“Russia is behind Armenia, and it would be hard to fight the two of
them,” Nureddin, a local barber, said in a reflection of the general
attitude in Azeri society. Others believe that the Azeri army is still
not strong enough to overcome the Armenian defense, even though in
the past 10 years it has become more united and strong, often with
the help of Turkish instructors.


Still, despite the recent radical statements by the Azeri leadership,
few believe there could be war again soon. During their recent meeting
in France, both the Azeri and Armenian presidents confirmed their
commitment to the peace talks, and the foreign ministers of the two
countries met in Strasburg on May 13 to revitalize the peace process.

Ilham Aliev seems content to continue the policy of his late father,
former President Heidar Aliev, and it is unlikely that he will change
it any time soon, despite his words to the local audience in the
Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Aliev does, however, insist that the
peace talks focus on the liberation of the seven regions of Azerbaijan
adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of internally displaced
Azeris to their homes, and the opening of trade and communications
links with Armenia, followed by further negotiations on the legal
status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia has previously rejected this proposal, known as a
“step-by-step” process. Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian
called it “absurd” in an interview with Radio Liberty, insisting that
all of the above-mentioned issues must be resolved at the same time.

So another year goes by with both sides marking a bitter “no war,
no peace” stalemate. The majority of local experts believe that a war
is unlikely to erupt again in the next few years, but the situation
remains a time bomb, ticking down year by year.