The Fate of Small Nations

The Karabaugh Conflict Ten Years Later

by Graham Usher
published in MER213

Glinting off the black Caucasus Mountains, the morning sun gives Stephanakert the gleam of a town freshly scrubbed. Everywhere roads are being laid and houses restored. Women wrapped in blue nylon overcoats and woolen leggings sweep away litter from the town square. And on Stephanakert's main Azatamartikneri (Partisans) Street, stores display fresh fruit and cheeses alongside refurbished restaurants and a new discotheque.

The tranquillity is a veneer. Stephanakert is the capital of Nagorno Karabagh, an area in the Caucasus measuring 4,388 square kilometers that is home to around 120,000 Armenians. For the last decade, it has also been one of the most fiercely contested places on earth. Formerly an "autonomous region" within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, Karabagh declared its independence following Baku's secession from the Soviet Union in October 1991. Azerbaijan responded by annulling Karabagh's autonomous status.

Over the next three years, an utterly ruthless war for the enclave raged between Karabagh, aided by Armenia from the west, and Azerbaijan, aided by Turkey, which blockaded both Armenia and Karabagh to its east. By the time a cease-fire was declared in May 1994, an estimated 35,000 people (including 4,000 civilians) had lost their lives and a colossal 750,000 had been displaced, as Armenians in Azerbaijan and Azeris in Armenia fled the other's territory after atrocities were inflicted on and by both sides.

Yet the Karabaghcis preserved their de facto independence -- in fact, they extended it. By the close of hostilities, Armenian forces held a further 12,000 square kilometers in southwest Azerbaijan, or 20 percent of the former Soviet Republic's national territory. But this conquest has exacted a toll on Armenia, both regionally and domestically.

In 1997, Armenia's then-President, Levon Ter-Petrossian, warned his people not to become drunk on their military successes. They had not "won the war" for Karabagh, he said, "but only a battle." He urged them rather to accept a phased solution to the conflict based on a proposal from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in which demilitarization of the enclave would be followed by negotiations with Azerbaijan on its final status. Ter-Petrossian's reasoning was as prescient as it was unpalatable. The world "will not tolerate for long the situation created by the Karabagh because it threatens regional cooperation and security as well as the interests of the Western oil consortia," he said. And unless the Karabaghcis face this fact, "tomorrow we will strive to achieve what we today reject, but without success, as has often been the case throughout our history."

Nor was Ter-Petrossian's only concern the diplomatic damage that would accrue to Armenia from an uncompromising stance on the Karabagh. Even more threatening were the domestic demons the Karabagh war had unleashed within Armenia proper. One was the resurgence of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or the Dashnaks, an ultra-nationalist movement whose territorial ambitions include not only the Karabagh but also those parts of "Greater Armenia" currently within the borders of Turkey and Georgia. Not surprisingly, such belligerence ran afoul of the increasingly moderate turn of Ter-Petrossian's foreign policy. In 1994, he banned the Dashnaks from political activity inside Armenia and imprisoned their leader, Vahan Hovanissian, for alleged links with underground movements accused of subversion and assassination.

But Ter-Petrossian was also under pressure from those sectors of Armenian society -- such as the intelligentsia, the industrial working class and pensioners -- who yearned more for the stability of the old Soviet era than for the Karabagh. The ongoing blockades imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan and increasing military expenditures had tipped an already shaky economic situation into free-fall. By 1998, the Armenian economy remained aid-dependent, with over $700 million received in the last decade, yet beset by low wages and high prices due to blockade-induced shortages. Armenia also exhibited a growing disparity between a new political-military elite (centered around the Defense Ministries in Armenia and the Karabagh and comprising many of Armenia's old Communist nomenklatura), who have profited by controlling scarce trade routes, and the increasingly impoverished majority of Armenians, saddled with an unemployment rate unofficially estimated at over 20 percent.

Charged with defeatism over the Karabagh by the Dashnaks and "corruption" by the intelligentsia, Ter-Petrossian resigned in February 1998 in a velvet coup engineered by Prime Minister Robert Korcharian and hard-line Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkissian. But the presidential election a month later merely exposed the fractures in Armenian society that Ter-Petrossian had sought to address.

Armenia's last Soviet Communist Party leader, Karen Demirchian, garnered 40 percent support in the first ballot in March 1998, a protest vote that most Armenian analysts read as nostalgia for the days when Demirchian's power was autocratic but "everybody had jobs." Indeed, some believed that Demirchian would have won the presidency outright if not for a judicious mix of ballot-rigging and the political support given to Ter-Petrossian's anointed successor, Korcharian, by the Dashnaks and Sarkissian's similarly chauvinist Yerkrepah movement. Such support had a price, however. The first was Korcharian's aggressive reassertion of the nationalist consensus that all the Azerbaijan territories would be held until Baku "conceded" on Karabagh's political status. The second -- made two days after Ter-Petrossian's resignation -- was Korcharian's decision to lift the ban on the Dashnaks as a political movement.

Despite his nationalist rhetoric, Korcharian was forced to plough the same political furrow as his predecessor. In fact, he dug even deeper, meeting no less than four times with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Haider Aliyev, to resume negotiations on the Karabagh crisis and press ahead with the same, deeply unpopular "market" reforms of the economy. Nor had Korcharian healed Armenia's internal divisions, though the fault-line was now less with the Dashnaks (who remain Korcharian's main support base) than with his erstwhile ally, Sarkissian.

In August 1998, Armenia's prosecutor-general (and confidant to the new president) was killed in his office in murky circumstances. In December, Sarkissian's deputy defense minister was murdered for equally mysterious motives. Although investigations of these murders were quickly smothered by Armenia's press, rumors abounded in Yerevan that relations were "not normal" between the president and the defense minister. In Yerevan, a refrain not heard since the Soviet era suddenly returned: "The first thing a president must do," said one Armenian commentator, "is neutralize his defense minister."

But Sarkissian refused to be "neutralized." In the run-up to the May 1999 parliamentary elections, he forged a pact with Demirchian by forming a new parliamentary bloc, the Union Alliance (UA). It was a profitable gambit: the UA won 61 seats of the 131-member parliament, Demirchian became parliamentary speaker and Sarkissian was named Armenia's latest prime minister. At the time, opinion was divided as to whether Sarkissian had co-opted Demirchian's challenge at the behest of his president, or whether the new coalition augured a future opposition to Korcharian.

The true motives behind this political marriage will probably remain a mystery. On October 27, 1999, five gunmen stormed Armenia's parliamentary building and killed Sarkissian, Demirchian and six others. In return for the safe evacuation of those held hostage in the building, Korcharian promised the assassins a "fair trial" and the right to broadcast a statement on national television. The gunmen's leader, Nairi Unanian, a former member of the Dashnaks and editor of the ultra-nationalist magazine, Dashnik, read the following statement: "We wanted to save the Armenian people from perishing and to restore their rights," he said. "Those responsible for robbing the country must face trial along with us." The Dashnak "national consensus" on Karabagh was neither addressed nor mentioned. As for the government's increasingly Ter-Petrossian-like policies on the enclave, these would remain "unaffected," said Korcharian.

Armenia's Common State

It is easy to understand the weight of the consensus, if not yet its relation to Sarkissian and Demirchian's assassinations. For a people whose modern national identity was forged in the 20th century's first genocide, the loss of Karabagh could indeed be seen as "turning the last page of Armenian history" (as expressed by the martyr Monty Malconian, a Lebanese-Armenian who fought and died in the Karabagh in 1993). Beyond this, all Armenians view the struggle for the Karabagh as that of a people striving to determine their own national status and to right an old political wrong. Claimed as Armenian by both history and demography, Karabagh was illegally ceded to Azerbaijan by the Russian Communist Party in 1921, partly to curb secessionist ambitions within Armenia and partly to reward Baku for its support of the Bolshevik Revolution during the civil war that forged the Soviet Union. The author of that decision was the Bolshevik Commissar of Nationalities: Joseph Stalin.

Whatever its provenance, Karabagh was an integral part of Azerbaijan's territory for 70 years. If the Armenians can claim the right of self-determination, Azerbaijan can claim the right of the territorial integrity of its internationally recognized borders. Is there any potential settlement that can reconcile these two rights? Seeking regional rehabilitation, Armenia's leaders are desperately groping for one.

In November 1998, the OSCE proposed "a common state" as a new basis for negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Naira Melkoumian, foreign minister of Karabagh's self-declared Republic, explains its rationale: "We want to create a common state on the former territory of Soviet Azerbaijan, in which relations between Karabagh and Baku are horizontal rather than subordinate." Accepting that such an entity would enjoy "something between autonomy and independence," she continued, "the world need not recognize Karabagh as a state. But Azerbaijan must recognize our right to determine our own laws, political system and, above all, our own defense."

This might facilitate a mutual repatriation of refugees to Armenia and Azerbaijan. As for the Azeri territories Karabagh now occupies, these, too, can be returned, except for those linking the enclave to Armenia proper, says Melkoumian. Political leaders in Yerevan are even more accommodating. Aside from the issue of security for Karabagh's Armenians, "everything is negotiable," says Anahit Mirzoyan, an aide to President Korcharian.

Everything in the Caucasus is being "negotiated," though the "Independent Republic of Karabagh" is unlikely to play much of a role in the eventual denouement. At a December 1998 Council of Europe meeting convened to discuss the "common state" proposal, Azerbaijan refused to countenance any solution to the conflict other than "broad autonomy" for the people of Karabagh. With the first Caspian Sea oil coming onstream in November 1997, Azerbaijan clearly believes (as did Ter-Petrossian) that "the Western oil consortia" will press for a solution based on a return to the status quo ante -- even if, as many now predict, the Caspian field yields less a "new Kuwait" than another "North Sea." Even without the boon of oil, Azerbaijan has grounds for wanting to play the long game on the Karabagh.

After seceding from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan initially turned its back on the newly established Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in favor of "defense alliances" with Turkey and the US. Motivated by the pan-Turkic visions of former Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, both postures turned out to be enormous follies. Although sympathizing with the plight of their Azeri brethren in the Transcaucasus -- and imposing the blockade on Armenia -- Ankara was reluctant to send troops to the Karabagh and risk what President Yeltsin threatened could be "a third world war." Russia was outraged by Baku's perfidy and quietly but effectively supplied Armenia and the Karabaghcis with enough hardware to give them the military edge.

Weakened by losses and a looming civil war, President Elchibey fled Baku in 1993. He was replaced by Azerbaijan's ex-Soviet Politburo member, Haidar Aliyev, who steered Azerbaijan back into the CIS and extracted the country's troops from the morass of Karabagh by signing the 1994 cease-fire. Veteran Azerbaijan-watcher Dilip Hiro says Aliyev was wise enough to understand that "no matter how fondly" Azeris may "entertain the vision of a pan-Turkic entity stretching from the Mediterranean to China while excitedly calculating their oil fortunes (as urged by Elchibey), they cannot escape the constraints of geography and history (as explained by Aliyev)." But Aliyev also realized that the geo-political alignments of the post-Cold War era would -- once their essential axes crystallized -- strengthen Azerbaijan's claim to Karabagh.

The first new alignment was Turkey's burgeoning alliance with Israel. Consecrated by a series of military agreements signed between Ankara and Tel Aviv in February 1996, Aliyev strove to enlist the Israeli lobby behind Azerbaijan's claims in the US Congress, a forum where the small but powerful Armenian-American lobby had historically punched above its weight. After years of quiet cooperation with Armenians in America -- grounded in a common experience of genocide and the perception that both Israel and Armenia were isolated states threatened by hostile neighbors -- Israel's leading advocates in the US began urging Congress to lift the sanctions imposed on Azerbaijan after it blockaded Armenia in 1991. And although the Armenians have so far resisted this pressure, few expect their hold on Congress to endure indefinitely, especially during a US presidential election year.

Furthermore, Turkey now occupies a key position in the "new strategic concept" the US ordained for NATO at the alliance's 50th anniversary meeting in Washington last April. Modeled on military interventions in Iraq and Kosovo, this new concept envisages NATO as a pro-active organization primed to fight for its members' geographically undefined "common interests." (See El-Gawhary's article in this issue.)

NATO's sphere of influence now covers "the Caucasus and Central Asia," says Dan Plesch of the British-American Security Information Council. It certainly covers Azerbaijan. In March 1999, Charles Wax, head of the US European Command, held talks with Aliyev about Azerbaijan's readiness to host a NATO military base. Aliyev has yet to comment publicly on these overtures, but he has not denied them.

Against these realignments, Karabaghcis posit a countervailing coalition comprised of Armenia, Russia and Iran. But the "strategic partner" here is Russia, says Armenian political analyst Mark Gregorian. This is not due simply to Yerevan's utter dependence on Moscow for energy and military needs, but also stems from "shared national and cultural values" resulting from 70 years of Soviet rule.

Armenia's relationship with Iran is less ideological than pragmatic. Wary of Turkish and NATO ambitions in the Caucasus (and sobered by the impact resurgent Azeri nationalism might have on its own Azeri citizens), Iran effectively sided with Yerevan in the war over the Karabagh by keeping its border with Armenia open while Turkey and Azerbaijan closed theirs.

Gregorian fully expects this "balancing" axis to endure, despite Russia and Iran's current domestic crises. "In terms of foreign orientation, Georgia is pro-American and Azerbaijan is pro-Turkish. The only reliable ally Russia has in the region is Armenia. Were Russia to lose us, it would lose the Transcaucasus and perhaps even the Black Sea," he says. Tehran seems to agree, given the "effective collaboration" Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has offered Russia not only on Armenia but also during Moscow's 1994 and 1999 offensives on the virtual and actual North Caucasus states of Chechnya and Dagestan.

Naira Melkoumian also endorses Armenia's alliance with Russia and Iran, although she views it less as an end than a means. "For us, Russia is the road to Europe because Russia's future is with Europe," she says. This explains why Armenia has courted such bodies as the OSCE and Council of Europe as mediators of a diplomatic resolution of the Karabagh conflict. It is also why -- "as a secularist and a woman" -- Melkoumian supports President Mohammed Khatami's efforts to mend the rifts between Iran and the European Union. Yet set against Turkey's military assets and Azerbaijan's real or potential oil reserves, what can resource-starved Armenia and Karabagh offer Europe in the Caucasus? "Stability", says Melkoumian.

Which is another of saying that Armenia -- and only Armenia -- can deliver a deal on the Karabagh. Melkoumian also knows the price. For whatever the political form of the conflict's resolution, any settlement will require the return of the Karabagh to its pre-1991 borders. This has been made clear to Yerevan not only by Azerbaijan and the US, but also by Russia, Iran and the European Union. And it has been made plain to the Karabaghcis: not one country -- not even Armenia -- has recognized their self-declared Republic. Ter-Petrossian's warnings and the "common state" idea are meant to prepare Armenian public opinion to bite hard on the Karabagh bullet. The severance may even arrive during the watch of the "nationalist" Korcharian. "As long as the Karabaghcis have control over their own security, ‘it doesn't matter whether Karabagh is inside or outside Azerbaijan'. Korcharian said this before he became president. I don't think he has changed his mind," says Gregorian.

The Road Into (and Out of) Karabagh

It is a scenario few in Karabagh are likely to accept. "We will not be ruled again by Baku -- forget it," says one local in Stephanakert. A young Armenian woman insists that "while the people of the Karabagh are weary of war, they would fight again to prevent their land returning to Azerbaijan." And it is perhaps this impending sense of unfinished business -- along with the skirmishes that flare up sporadically along the cease-fire lines -- that accounts for most Karabaghcis' pessimism about the myriad building sites sprouting up all around them.

The road out of Stephanakert is freshly paved. It climbs out of the Karabagh Mountains before descending into Armenia. The entire stretch is technically within Azerbaijan, though no Azeris have lived there since the war. The road, built during the last two years of Ter-Petrossian's administration, reportedly cost millions of dollars. "That's a lot of money in Armenia," muses Max Sivaslian, a French-Armenian journalist based in Yerevan. In a war zone like Karabagh, who would risk such an investment? That depends, Sivaslian observes, on "whether the road is intended to keep Karabagh in Armenia or take the Armenians out of the Karabagh."

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