ANKARA: Uncomfortable neighborhood — the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh

August 22, 2007



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Uncomfortab le neighborhood — the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh

In Turkey’s difficult neighborhood Azerbaijan has always been a friend
and Ankara continues to support Baku in its ongoing conflict with
Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) — a
region recognized by nobody but NK’s government. The word "Karabakh"
has Turkic and Persian roots and means "black garden" — a good
description for this mountainous area of 4,400 square kilometers of
striking beauty, scarred by a violent history.

It’s a long journey from the outside world to this putative nation —
a winding road from Armenia, six hours from that country’s capital of
Yerevan, built with money from the Armenian diaspora after the 1988 to
1994 war between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijan.

The Southern Caucasus is home to three frozen conflicts, one of the
most intractable being NK. With the start of perestroika in the Soviet
Union in 1988, the local assembly in the capital of NK, Stepanakert,
passed a resolution calling for unification with Armenia. Violence
against local Azeris was reported, triggering massacres of Armenians
in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. Legally speaking, NK is part of
Azerbaijan but the majority of inhabitants are ethnic Armenians (75
percent). The region’s attempt at secession was rejected by Azerbaijan
and sparked a period of violence which resulted in hundreds of
thousands of refugees. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, NK’s
governance declared outright independence and now enjoys a de facto
independence, though neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan recognize the
republic’s territorial sovereignty. In 1992 a full-scale conflict
broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia and by the middle of the year
Armenia had taken control over the majority of NK, pushed further into
Azerbaijani territory and established the so-called Lachin Corridor —
an umbilical cord linking the breakaway republic with Armenia. By 1993
Armenian forces occupied almost 20 percent of the Azeri territory
surrounding NK and expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris. In
1994 Russia brokered a cease-fire and that is how the situation has
remained for more than a decade. Nowadays NK and the surrounding
region remain under Armenian control and nearly 20 percent of
Azerbaijan is under Armenian occupation. Around 700,000 Azeri refugees
— just under 10 percent of Azerbaijan’s entire population — remain
displaced in the region, living in tents. NK boasts a standing army of
25,000 — nearly a quarter of its population.

When war broke out Turkey closed its 268-kilometer border with Armenia
and Azerbaijan did the same. Neither border has opened since. All
three countries have suffered, but it has been Armenia that has
suffered the most.

Armenia remains something of a black hole, is hopelessly poor and its
only realistic avenue for trade with the West is through a small
border with Georgia, hundreds of kilometers north of the capital. It
has missed out on the massive oil and gas projects that have taken
place in the region recently, frustrated its efforts to integrate
closer with the West and continue to be a country with one of the
highest immigration levels in the Western world.

A solution looks as distant as ever. International talks carried out
under the auspices of the MÝNSK Group — an arm of the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chaired by Russia, the
United States and France — have gone nowhere and bilateral talks
between the two foreign ministers and presidents always seem to end in
stalemates. All three sides — Armenia, Azerbaijan and
Nagorno-Karabakh — refuse to budge until the others make a
concession. Azerbaijan wants Armenia to end its occupation first and
withdraw its forces before discussing the republic’s final status,
which it clearly sees as NK remaining part of Azerbaijan but with the
highest level of autonomy. Armenia is seeking a resolution first on
the status question before pulling out its forces and Nagorno-Karabakh
wants its independence officially recognized prior to all other

Azerbaijan continues to refuse to talk with NK officials.

In my opinion, Russia is a big obstacle. Russia has an unhealthy and
dominating role in Armenia. Armenia is dependent on Russia for most of
its energy and trade, and Russia keeps a significant military force in
Armenia — even the Turkey-Armenia border is manned by Russian
soldiers. Russia sees Armenia as its backyard and the last thing
Russia wants is stability in the Southern Caucasus. Russia is
determined to keep its claws into as many as its former republics as
possible and the key to this is maintaining instability. If Russia
wanted, it could easily persuade Armenia to do the right thing and
remove itself from Azeri territory. Azerbaijan also sees France as
being pro-Armenian due to the massive diaspora community that France
is home to. The United States, even though it too has a large Armenian
diaspora community, has become more impartial due to Azerbaijan’s
massive energy potential which it wants to tap. Indeed the composition
of the MINSK group is questionable and as a result it has a very weak

With frustration growing and defense spending in the region
skyrocketing, fear has been expressed over a possible new military
conflict taking place.

The massive flow of petrol dollars Azerbaijan has received has meant
that it has been able to significantly increase its military
capabilities. But even if they were to take military action, Baku
would have to consider that the Russians may help out Armenia since
that the two states have a military alliance and more than $1.5
billion worth of Russian military capabilities sit on Armenian soil.

There is also some hope that the European Union could have a greater
role to play in the region now that the Southern Caucasus is part of
the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and the EU has appointed a
special representative. So far the EU has tried to take a neutral
stance on the conflict, which is not necessarily useful. It would be
far better for the EU — in line with declarations made by the United
Nations — to call on Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territories.

The whole region would benefit from a resolution. With a little bit
of compromise and vision, years of hatred and fear could be turned
into something positive. Once the upcoming presidential elections set
to take place in Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008 are over, a new window
of opportunity will come about and Armenia should take the first steps
by pulling out of Azeri territories.