A Caspian Conflict

Authorities in the Azeri breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (NKAO) Friday rebuffed earlier accusations by Azerbaijan that Armenian troops had initiated the most recent violation of a 1994 cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh stands at the center of a conflict between the two countries dating from 1988 when the province attempted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The latest flare-up on Wednesday followed an earlier skirmish on Monday that represented the largest outbreak of violence since the cease-fire was signed five years ago, according to AFP. Although details remain unclear as to who actually initiated the recent conflicts--with no independent confirmation and both sides blaming each other--the renewed tensions reveal a complex web of hostilities dating to the eighteenth century.

At first glance, the conflict appears to be an ethnic in nature with mainly Christian Armenians in the 93 percent Muslim Azerbaijan exerting their right of self-determination to rejoin their motherland. But Azerbaijan alleges that Armenians did not exist in the area until the Russian Czar, Peter I, attacked the Muslim Safavid empire and permitted Armenians to settle in modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan as a reward for military service. As noted by the Azeri publication Virtual Azerbaijan, a Russian writer of the time, A.S.Griboyedov, observed that the Armenians "have settled on the lands of Muslim landholders" and "are forcing out the Muslims." In the period from 1828 to 1920, 560,000 Armenians were settled in land taken from Azeri peoples, according to information cited by Virtual Azerbaijan from American scholar Justin McCarthy in his book Armenian Terrorism.

During the Soviet era, Armenia's statehood was reinforced and Nagorno-Karabakh became a disputed province, with the Soviets creating an autonomous government while recognizing Azerbaijan's control over the province. The Soviet Union refused to grant autonomy to Azeri dominated provinces in Armenia but stood by Nagorno-Karabakh even though the province did not share a border with Armenia. In 1991, the 75 percent Armenian majority in NKAO declared complete independence and its desire to join Armenia amidst an ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenia dating from 1988. While NKAO today remains an autonomous province of Azerbaijan, Armenia gained control of 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, resulting in the exodus of 1.1 million Azeris. Despite a 1993 U.N. call for Armenia to withdraw from occupied Azerbaijan territory, a 1994 Russian-brokered cease-fire ended the conflict with Armenia retaining possession of the territory. The six-year war resulted in some 30,000 deaths.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow has continued to complicate the feud in its bid to maintain control over the strategically and economically important Caspian Sea and Caucus regions. In a 1996 issue of Helsinki Monitor, Michael Mihalka notes that Russia has been successful in the redeployment of troops in the area in order to "restore political and military control over the Caucasus and secure the border of the former Soviet Union." According to Mihalka, "Some commentators view that some parts of the Russian government, particularly the military, have exacerbated the conflicts in this region in order that Russian troops could remain there while ... operating under CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] auspices."

Russia also stands to gain by having economic hegemony over the region, especially in view of the vast oil reserves in the Caspian Sea of which Azerbaijan controls a large percentage. Amidst the renewed international interest in the Caspian reserves, Russia has demonstrated its resolve to at least gain a significant share of the benefit from increased oil production at the expense of the newly independent states. According to a report by Stephen Blank of the US Army War College, "Russia sees control over energy exploitation in the CIS as an East-West issue in which Azerbaijan's sovereignty is to be disregarded."

The issue is further complicated by Western -- particularly U.S. -- efforts to mediate the crisis. A stable environment is necessary for exploitation of the region's oil. The Caspian Sea Ventures Corporation (CSVC), a consortium of 63 international oil and gas companies including U.S. giants such as Unocal, has expressed keen interest in exploiting Azerbaijan's oil reserves. The CSVC proposes to build an overland pipeline from Azerbaijan either through Armenia and Turkey or through Iran. The U.S. government is currently opposed to the pipeline through Iran, even though it would cost half as much, because of political differences with Iran. As Emil Danielyan remarked recently on Radio Free Europe: "The prospect of renewed hostilities cannot be encouraging for Western nations mindful of the future of multi-billion-dollar oil contracts signed with Azerbaijan and other Caspian nations. What is projected to be the main pipeline transporting Azerbaijani oil to world markets passes less than 50 kilometers from the Karabakh frontline."

Azerbaijan and Armenia require a more comprehensive, demilitarized peace plan in order to provide both inter-national and domestic stability. The uncertain peace established in 1994 has lead to the inflammation of nationalist sentiment in both countries. Armenia witnessed the forced resignation of President Ter-Petrossian in 1998 in favor of the present leader, Robert Kocharian. According to a May 29 AFP report, Kocharian is a former Karabakh war hero and replaced Petrossian because of the old leader's "softer stand in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks."

Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev is also threatened by rising popular frustration at his role in the conflict with Armenia. According to a May 13 report of Radio Free Europe, two main opposition groups, the Azerbaijan Popular Front and the Musavat Party, have publicly criticized Aliyev's stance towards Armenia and his pledges to honor the cease-fire with Armenia. A movement founded by displaced residents of NKAO, the All-Azerbaijani Movement for Karabakh, has recently proposed an alternative basis for peace with Armenia. The movement demands the implementation of the 1993 U.N. resolutions demanding Armenia's withdrawal from occupied territory, the recognition of Azerbaijan's borders at the time of its admittance to the United Nation in 1992, the demilitarization of the NKAO rebels and the granting of autonomy of Azeri populations in Armenia to mirror that granted to Armenians in NKAO. According to Liz Fuller in Radio Free Europe report, such demands hope to "narrow the room for maneuver, and thus exert pressure on the present Azerbaijani leadership" to pursue a more hard-line against Armenia.

Prospects for peace are increased by Aliyev's recently expressed desire to join NATO (Aliyev has called for NATO troops to patrol the disputed territory) and the leverage this gives Western governments in negotiating a resolution. But the most serious threat to peace remains the nationalist pride within both countries. It remains to be seen whether or not observer countries can rise above their own interests and broker a lasting peace that will respect the territorial and ethnic boundaries of the two countries.

Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com

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