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Karabakh: Ceasefire's Troubled Anniversary

A decade after war ended in Nagorny Karabakh, the peace is still as fragile as ever.
By Thomas de Waal

Appearances can be deceptive.


The 200-mile strip of land that marks the ceasefire line around Nagorny Karabakh is one of the most peaceful places on earth. In the last ten years it has become overgrown with wild vegetation and tall thistles.


The main sound is of soft birdsong. The main scourge appears to be the locusts and other insects that range freely here.


Yet no one can set foot here, because the land is heavily mined. And for ten years, two armies have faced each other across the line. The Azerbaijani and Karabakh Armenian soldiers looking at one another through binoculars do not even have telephone or radio contact.


Perhaps only the militarised border between North and South Korea is a more forbidding dividing line than this one. Although the ceasefire agreement of May 12, 1994 halted more than two years of heavy fighting – sealing a de facto Armenian victory – it did not resolve the conflict.


The ceasefire line continues to scar the southern Caucasus and prevents hundreds of thousands of refugees from returning to their homes. Peace plans have come and gone, yet nothing has shifted.


Looking back on a decade of truce, Vladimir Kazimirov, the Russian diplomat who negotiated the 1994 ceasefire agreement, told IWPR that, “it really does summon up mixed feelings. It’s good that it’s held for ten years – that the mass bloodshed has stopped in the gravest armed conflict on the territory of the former USSR, but it’s sad that in all that time the mediators have not managed to achieve a breakthrough in the political resolution of the conflict.


“Back then, I knew it could take several years – but not that it would take so long.”


Moscow’s original plan to deploy Russian peacekeepers along the ceasefire line was vetoed by Azerbaijan, with the result that the conflict effectively has a self-regulating truce with no neutral troops in between.


“There are pluses and minuses in the fact that the parties to the conflict bear all the responsibility for observing the ceasefire,” said Kazimirov. “It means no one but them is responsible for incidents along the line of contact.”


That makes for a truce that is particularly vulnerable. The last year has been one of the most difficult of the whole decade. In 2003, around 30 soldiers died in shooting incidents across the front line, a reverse in what had been a positive trend. Others continue to be killed by mines.


International mediators and analysts worry that the situation of “no war, no peace” is unsustainable in the long-term, and needs to be buttressed by a proper peace settlement. A second Karabakh war, given the weaponry that both sides have acquired since 1994, would be far more devastating than the first.


That war of 1991-94 was tragic enough, resulting in the deaths of perhaps 20,000 people, the wounding of more than three times that number, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees.


“There is a saying that once a year a gun fires itself – there is always a temptation to use it,” warned Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk in an interview to IWPR by telephone. Kasprzyk is the personal representative of the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, with responsibility for the Karabakh conflict – in other words the international official who most closely monitors the situation on the ground.


“The Armenian side likes to say that the ceasefire holds because of a balance of power; that there is no chance for either of the two parties to win,” said Kasprzyk. “But in a situation where you have two armies facing each other, there is always a temptation to start something.”


US diplomat Carey Cavanaugh – who convened talks at Key West, Florida in 2001 that came closer than ever before to a peace plan – noted that the first thing the mediators did when the talks failed was to support the ceasefire.


Some in Azerbaijan argue that the coming billion-dollar oil revenues the country is about to earn from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project will change the balance of power, especially if the price of oil remains at levels of more than 30 dollars a barrel.


In Azerbaijan, there have already been vociferous calls this year for the government to resort to the military option to reclaim its lost territories. A pro-war group, the Karabakh Liberation Organisation, is currently orchestrating a march from Baku to the ceasefire line.


The murder of Gurgen Markarian, an army officer from Armenia, by his Azerbaijani colleague Ramil Safarov at a NATO language course in Budapest in February showed how quickly passions can become inflamed around this issue. As soon as the news broke, defence groups formed for Safarov in Azerbaijan, while Markarian was given a public funeral in Armenia and his death provoked angry denunciations of Azerbaijan.


Foreign diplomats point out that Azerbaijan currently has a poorly-equipped army, which is far from ready to go back to war. It would take years for that to change – but the perception inside Azerbaijan that the power balance is shifting could in itself be enough to halt the peace process in its tracks.


The Karabakh conflict has created a strange world in the south Caucasus, in which two countries are almost hermetically sealed off from one another and from the other’s attachments and concerns. That means that the views that both societies have about each other are still basically stuck back in 1988.


Two surveys taken in parallel by the Baku and Yerevan Press Clubs in 2001, the year of the Key West talks, suggest why those talks were doomed to failure.


Asked what would be an acceptable status for Nagorny Karabakh, the disputed territory at the heart of the conflict, 45 per cent of respondents in Armenia said they wanted to see Karabakh become independent and another 42.7 per cent said it should become part of Armenia. Less than one per cent of those asked believed Karabakh should be part of Azerbaijan.


The Azerbaijani poll produced answers that were polar opposites of the Armenian ones. Fifty-six per cent of respondents said Karabakh should be “within Azerbaijan, without any autonomy”, and 33.7 per cent favoured Karabakh returning to Azerbaijan with autonomous status. Only 0.9 per cent were prepared to countenance Karabakh becoming independent or part of Armenia.


Yet the bold innovation of the document discussed at Key West was that Azerbaijan was ready to cede sovereignty over Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia, along with a land corridor through the town of Lachin connecting Karabakh to Armenia.


In return, Azerbaijan was to get back the occupied parts of seven provinces surrounding Karabakh, and a land corridor was to be built through Armenia to link the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan with the rest of the country. The town of Shusha, inside Karabakh, which formerly had a majority Azerbaijani population, was to be placed under international administration.


One problem with the scheme was that the Armenian side was unhappy about giving up Shusha. More fundamentally, Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev had not prepared even some of his top advisers for the idea of giving up sovereignty over Karabakh.


Boxed in by public opinion that they themselves had helped entrench, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia were unable to build on the relative success of Key West.


Some observers including Kazimirov argue that it is impossible to achieve a “package agreement” for Karabakh, in which everything is decided at once.


However others involved in the process resist this idea, with the Karabakh Armenians for instance opposing any deal in which their final status is not determined at the outset. Others say that nothing will be possible until Azerbaijan opens a dialogue with the Karabakh Armenians – but it still refuses to do so.


As the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers meet in Strasbourg in May 12-13, they find themselves as far from a solution as ever. The silence on the front line is becoming a little ominous.


Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor in London.


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