War-mongers Blight Peace Talks

Opposition leaders in Baku believe that Azerbaijan's lost territories can only be recovered by force

War-mongers Blight Peace Talks

Opposition leaders in Baku believe that Azerbaijan's lost territories can only be recovered by force

While the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan prepare for another round of Nagorny Karabakh peace talks, a new mood of pessimism is creeping over the South Caucasus.

President Robert Kocharian and his Azeri counterpart, Heidar Aliev, are to meet in Florida's Key West this week to discuss a lasting solution to the conflict.

In the West, observers are hoping for the long awaited breakthrough but, in Armenia and Azerbaijan, there is gloomy talk of another war.

The April 3 summit will mark the 16th meeting between Kocharian and Aliev in the seven years since a ceasefire was called in Nagorny Karabakh, suspending the armed conflict which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.

America, Russia and France - all co-chairs of the OSCE's Minsk Group -- have taken an active role in brokering a peace deal but, despite their efforts, a signed agreement has remained elusive.

Armenian analyst Gagik Avakian commented, "The two presidents met in Paris and now they are to meet in the USA. All the political indicators point towards a third meeting in Moscow where we can expect some serious results, under the aegis of Vladimir Putin."

However, the past two months have seen significant developments. On the eve of the Paris meeting on February 21, several state newspapers in Azerbaijan published details of the three peace proposals currently being discussed by the Minsk Group.

Despite claims by Armenian foreign minister Vardan Oskanian that these proposals had already been abandoned, they became the subject of fierce debate in the Azeri parliament. In fact, during one speech, President Aliev called on all political parties and social organisations to present their proposals for a peace settlement in Nagorny Karabakh.

It was the first time in eight years that Aliev had sought a second opinion, prompting speculation that he was attempting to share responsibility for a potentially unpopular decision.

But the proposals flooded in, most notably a radical peace plan devised by two well-known political figures -- Tofik Zulfugarov, the ex-foreign minister, and Eldar Namazov, formerly head of the president's secretariat.

They argued that the conflict could not be resolved by negotiations alone. It was essential, they said, that the peace process went hand in hand with an anti-corruption campaign, economic reforms and increased defence spending.

The plan also called for a "humanitarian initiative" to return Azeri refugees to the occupied territories. This operation, said the authors, should be conducted by the police and military "outside the administrative borders of Nagorny Karabakh".

The Zulfugarov-Namazov plan enjoyed widespread support amongst the opposition parties as well as some pro-government factions and newspapers.

The most active champions of a military solution are Araz Alizade, co-chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and Lala Shovkat Gadzhieva, chairman of the Liberal Party. Back in 1994, it was Alizade who urged Aliev to declare a "Patriotic War", imposing martial law on the former Soviet republic and uniting the people in an all-out drive for victory.

And Etibar Mamedov, chairman of the National Independence Party, has called on the Azeri leader to follow the example of former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian who resigned over his failure to solve the Nagorny Karabakh problem.

Mamedov has proposed an "anti-terrorist operation" in the breakaway Armenian enclave. "This is our internal affair," he said. "There is no need to even have it discussed by parliament."

Most opposition politicians consider that any negotiations with Armenia should be "frozen" until Azerbaijan is in a stronger bargaining position. Popular Front chairman Ali Kerimov said, "A fair peace is only possible if Azerbaijan is much stronger than it is today."

Surveys of the Azeri population show that most people still believe the Nagorny Karabakh conflict can only be solved by military action.

An old man selling sunflower seeds in Baku's central market said, "My son was killed. Now at least I hear people saying that we should go and win back the lands we lost. Before that there were only empty calls for peace."

But others fear the authorities could use a war as an excuse for repression. A girl on Baku's Fountain Square said, "I don't want there to be a war whatever happens. I can't believe that people are calling for war, saying this is the only way to get our lands back. Where were they during the last war? What stopped them from fighting for their country back then?"

She added, "I'm certain that these same people will never go and fight themselves. Neither will their children."

Meanwhile, in Armenia, the Zulfugarov-Namazov plan has been interpreted as a call to arms. Defence minister Serzh Sarkisian told the Golos Armenii newspaper that the Armenian armed forces were well prepared for a renewal of hostilities, adding that the Azeri war-mongers were not members of the ruling party.

"It's easy for them," commented Sarkisian. "They won't have to take responsibility for a war. And fresh fighting could mean victories for Azerbaijan as well as defeat."

President Kocharian's reaction was unequivocal. He said Armenia had no intention of throwing down the gauntlet, adding, "Whoever starts a war will lose."

And David Shakhnazarian, leader of the 21st Century opposition party, warned that the Key West meeting could become a Camp David for the South Caucasus. When the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in Camp David collapsed, he said, there was a sharp escalation of tension in the near East.

Certainly, there is little sign of sabre-rattling amongst the Armenian population at large.

Aram, 30, a resident of Yerevan, said, "I don't want war. I hope they sign a peace agreement as soon as possible so that we can freely mix with the Azeris once again. Then the roads will open up and life will get better." But Aram added that if Armenia were under threat, then he would not hesitate to defend his homeland.

Anait, a waitress in a Yerevan cafe, commented, "I hope there won't be a war. We've already lived through one and it was terrible. I don't know if this is right from the political point of view but I want Kocharian to do everything he can to ensure there won't be another conflict."

There can be little doubt that the peace-makers are faced with a monumental task - and one that is well illustrated by two recent comments from the Armenian and Azeri camps.

In Baku, the president's son, Ilkham Aliev, commented, "Heider Aliev will never sign a peace treaty that is not in the interests of Azerbaijan because such a peace will destabilise the country and it will be the regime first and foremost which suffers the consequences. We should all prepare ourselves for war."

And, in Yerevan, President Kocharian said, "Since 1987, the Karabakh conflict has become the most important issue in my life. It has never given me a moment's peace. I have lived with one idea, one dream - to do all I can to secure independence for Nagorny Karabakh. I have no intention of rejecting everything that has been gained by the blood of our people."

Mark Grigorian and Shahin Rzaev are regular IWPR contributors

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