TOL: Time Passing Slowly

Time Passing Slowly
by Anna Hakobyan

Transitions onLine, Czech Republic
May 17 2004

The war may have hurt Armenia, but most seem happy with a status quo
that is binding Nagorno-Karabakh closer to Armenia.

YEREVAN, Armenia–In a symbolic move apparently designed to show
that peace talks are continuing, the foreign ministers of Armenia and
Azerbaijan met on 12 May, the 10th anniversary of the cease-fire that
ended the killing in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The end of hostilities in this once autonomous region of Azerbaijan
saved “the lives of many thousands of both Azeris and Armenians
and prevented the South Caucasus from turning into a region with a
humanitarian catastrophe,” according to Karen Ohanjanian, a leading
figure in Helsinki Initiative-92, a nongovernmental organization
involved in the current peace process.

By the time the shooting stopped, 20,000 people–perhaps 30,000–had
been killed in three years of fighting and an estimated 1 million
Azeris and 300,000 Armenians had become refugees.

Since then, there have also been successes, with some rebuilding, an
effective end to the troublesome issues of 500 hostages and prisoners
of war, the development of civil society and democratic institutions,
contacts between NGOs across the ethnic divide, and some integration
into the international community. The admission of both Armenia and
Azerbaijan into the Council of Europe was also a step forward for
Nagorno-Karabakh, as membership required both Yerevan and Baku to
agree to settle the Karabakh conflict peacefully.

However, the meeting on 12 May was also a symbol of failure. A
decade of talks has produced no breakthrough and cost the job of one
Armenian president, Levon Ter-Petrossian. For a time in April 2001, it
looked as if both Armenia’s president, Robert Kocharian, and his Azeri
counterpart, Heidar Aliev, would be able to reach an agreement in talks
that centered on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azeri land in
a corridor linking Armenia and Azerbaijan, a lifting of Azerbaijan’s
blockade on Armenia, the return of displaced persons and refugees,
and the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The hope was that Aliev,
the longtime leader of Azerbaijan, would be able to seal a deal before
his departure from the political scene. However, the talks collapsed.


In Ohanjanian’s opinion, the conflict has continued to be
destructive. The war and years of uncertainty have ensured that
the military remains a powerful force in Armenian politics and, in
his words, “the leading military force in the Caucasus.” The war,
he believes, has strengthened the power of the state, ensured that
the restructuring of the economy has been primarily aimed at meeting
military needs, and gradually warped Armenia’s political development,
putting the political scene increasingly under the influence of tough
figures and criminal elements.

While the cost of the war may have been a stilted economy, less
democracy, and continued relative international isolation, Armenians
continue to give broad support to the current status quo. Over the
past decade, Nagorno-Karabakh has enjoyed independence from Azerbaijan
while becoming more integrated both economically and politically
with Armenia.

However, in Azerbaijan, the anniversary highlighted just how angry
Azeris continue to feel, with President Ilham Aliev, son of Heidar,
telling Azeri soldiers on 12 May that “Azerbaijan is ready to start
a war to liberate its territories if the peace talks do not produce
any results.”

The reaction of Armenian officials was calm. The Foreign Ministry
in Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-declared and unrecognized republic,
issued a statement calling on Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as the
international mediators, “to reaffirm their commitment to maintaining
the cease-fire regime.” Kocharian downplayed Aliev’s comments, telling
Russian television on 15 May that “we have been hearing different
versions of this statement since May 1994” and suggesting that Aliev
was grandstanding to the Azeri public. Armenia would, however, be
ready to react should Azerbaijan choose the military option, he said.


Even if Aliev’s warning proves hollow, both sides continue to face
the 10-year-old problem of how to reduce tensions.

On 12 May, supporters of former president Ter-Petrossian, speaking
to Radio Liberty, urged a return to the “step-by-step” solution that
Ter-Petrossian had advocated. This would require both sides to send
important signals of intent before the final status of the disputed
region could be decided. It would, for example, require Armenia to
cede control of occupied corridors leading to Karabakh. In return,
Baku would lift its economic blockade on Armenia. That approach,
which was proposed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe (OSCE) and the international powers mediating for the OSCE
(the United States, Russia, and France), was supported by Azerbaijan.
The decision by Ter-Petrossian to throw his weight behind the formula
led to his removal by other members of his government in 1998.

Armenia and the leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh are suggesting a
“package approach” in which every issue, including the final status
of the disputed region, would be decided in a single treaty. That is
opposed by Azerbaijan.

The OSCE’s Minsk Group continues to advocate the “common state”
solution proposed in the failed talks held in 2001 at Key West,
Florida. Under this plan, Nagorno-Karabakh would join a confederation
with Azerbaijan. It would enjoy its own constitution, police, and
army and be the same size as the prewar Karabakh region of Soviet
Azerbaijan. This was ultimately rejected by Baku. Earlier this year,
Ilham Aliev denied that his father had been close to agreeing to a
deal in 2001, calling it “another lie circulated by the Armenian side.”

The current state of limbo was apparent in a statement by Armenian
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who said that the meeting with his
Azeri counterpart on 12 May had “no agenda. The parties can bring up
any idea.”

One idea that Ohanjanian believes should be explored is a proposal
that he put forward on behalf of Helsinki Initiative-92. In it, he
advocates offering Nagorno-Karabakh the possibility of independence,
but only on condition that all refugees are allowed to return and
that international standards of human rights and democracy are met.
In the open-ended probationary period, international peacekeepers
would replace ethnic Armenian troops and the region would be governed
on a rotating basis by ethnic Armenians and Azeris.

Realistically, though, he foresees further complications. Until
now, talks have been conducted through the Minsk Group or between
Armenia and Azerbaijan. He believes that Kocharian will increasingly
push for direct talks between Baku and Stepanakert, the capital of
Nagorno-Karabakh, as the Armenian president is aware that, in Key West,
he made promises that he would not be able to deliver on without the
agreement of the Karabakh authorities. However, Baku would object to
such a model.

Based on his involvement in attempts to resolve the conflict,
Ohanjanian believes that Baku might ultimately push for a radically
different approach to conflict resolution, in which talks would be
held not under the auspices of the OSCE but of the European Union or
the United Nations.


Whatever the political initiatives, formidable obstacles remain in the
form of public attitudes. In Armenia, the notion of Nagorno-Karabakh as
historical Armenian territory “remains a national idea” that Ohanjanian
believes Armenians would be unwilling to concede, while the anger
felt by Azeris was recently highlighted when an Azeri military officer
killed an Armenian officer in Hungary over a dispute about Karabakh.

Other, geopolitical reasons suggest there will be little change in
the status quo. While Aliev might hint at war, to resume fighting
would jeopardize foreign investment into Azerbaijan’s huge oilfields,
and oil and geopolitical interests would force the great powers to
exert heavy pressure on Azerbaijan to halt any fighting.

In early 2004, Aliev said that Azerbaijan was in no hurry to settle
the conflict. The likeliest scenario continues to be that the conflict
over Nagorno-Karabakh will remain frozen when the foreign ministers
next meet, in June–and for a long time after that.