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March 1992


Editors Note:

As distant as the Karabakh dispute might have appeared to Western eyes a few months ago, this simmering regional conflict has since intensified dramatically, to the point now where grisly details of the violence headline the daily news.

Fuelled by a history of ethnic, religious and nationalist differences, the dispute, similar in many respects to others in the former Soviet Bloc—notably Yugoslavia—carries the potential for much wider international involvement. In this case, the Russian Republic, Turkey, Iran and Iraq are, as the author concludes, "vitally interested" in the outcome.

Dr. Allan Kagedan is a Strategic Analyst with the Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.

Mass killing has engulfed the conflict between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of (Nagorno) Karabakh, located near the border of the two republics. The battle resembles many other intractable inter-ethnic fights: it features historically-rooted intergroup hatred, a disputed territory and culturally distinct nationalities. Because similar political conditions obtain throughout Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Karabakh problem, the first, post-Soviet version of the Yugoslav conflict, is attracting international attention.

Yet, despite the intensity of the Karabakh conflict, neither side has thus far conquered territory claimed by the other, and talk about the peaceful resolution of the conflict recurs regularly. Indeed, in September 1991, the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents signed a peace agreement and pledged to cease hostilities; but by March, the Azerbaijani leader, Ayaz Mutalibov, had been forced to resign and the killing had intensified.

From Armenia's perspective, the Karabakh imbroglio is a uniquely ill-timed, if predictable, side-effect of achieving sovereignty. For centuries, Armenians have aspired to independence from domineering and sometimes violent neighbours (British historian Christopher Walker estimates that the Turks killed one million Armenians between 1915 and 1920). Just now, when independence has finally been achieved, the nation finds itself embroiled in a bitter conflict. This has provided renewed legitimacy for hardline groups, primarily the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), which since 1891 has considered itself the protector of Armenian interests. The ARF is well established among diaspora Armenians, and some ARF members have expressed sympathy for attacks on Turkish officials in the West, carried out by the Armenian Revolutionary Army (ARA) and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA).

How has the Karabakh dispute developed?

Map of Azerbaijan and Armenia

The Karabakh dispute grew out of the early Soviet policy of granting a political status to territories, based on ethnic criteria, but then executing the policy in a high-handed and haphazard manner. In the early 1920s, the Armenians, and less so the Azerbaijanis, aspired to control two territories, separated from the main body of their republics, but containing majorities of their ethnic brethren. Karabakh, located within the administrative boundaries of Azerbaijan, was 95% Armenian; Nakhichevan, located on the Turkish-Armenian border, was 60% Azeri. Judging the numerically-superior Turks to be more useful political allies than the Armenians, the Soviets, having promised these regions to Armenia in June 1921, reversed themselves the next month and ceded them to Azerbaijan, outraging Armenians. Worse, the Bolsheviks temporized and conferred the status of autonomous regions on Karabakh and Nakhichevan, enshrining the two as symbols, in Armenian eyes, of Bolshevik duplicity.

For the next 70 years, the highly restricted Soviet environment permitted no direct dialogue between the aggrieved Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. Instead, as might be predicted, Armenians began to leave the two regions, reducing the Armenian percentage of Nakhichevan's population to near zero and Karabakh's population to 75% by 1979, deepening Armenian anger. From an Armenian perspective, the Soviets had robbed their nation of Nakhichevan and was slowly fleecing it of Karabakh, too.

Soviet political thaws in the 1920s, 1960s and 1970s yielded loud but futile Armenian demands for reunion with its brothers and sisters in Karabakh (which Armenians refer to as Artsakh) lest it follow the de-Armenianized path of Nakhichevan. Protests that sprung up during the post-1985 Gorbachev-inspired thaw initially were no different. Karabakh Armenians and several of their brethren in Armenia, Moscow and elsewhere sensed in late 1987 that the moment was ripe to secure the Kremlin's acquiescence in the reunification of Karabakh with Armenia. For one thing, reunion was what the people of Karabakh wanted and Gorbachev was loudly proclaiming support for democracy; for another, Armenians, such as economic adviser Abel Aganbeyan, had better access to the Kremlin than did the Azerbaijanis (who were not identified with the pro-perestroika camp).

From November 1987 to February 1988, hundreds of thousands of pro-unification Armenians demonstrated and signed petitions in support of the Karabakh cause; media reports of violence against Azerbaijanis surfaced. On February 22, 1988, everything changed: on that day 30 people, nearly all Armenians, were killed in the Karabakh town of Sumgait. Overnight, violence replaced protest; killings Fuelled the engine of vengeance and fear. In 1989, Soviet internal security troops arrived, ostensibly to guarantee law and order, but they proved to be ineffective. Since then killings, interspersed with unsuccessful peace efforts, have become the norm.

Who are the key Armenian players?

The key actors on the Armenian side are the Armenian government, headed by Levon Ter Petrosian; the Armenian population of Karabakh; and, to a lesser degree, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and Armenian militias operating in Karabakh.

Among them, the best hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict appears to lie with the administration of President Ter Petrosian. A native of Syria, Ter Petrosian rose to political prominence as a leader of the Karabakh Committee which pressed Moscow for reunification. Seen in Moscow as a trouble-maker, Ter Petrosian was incarcerated in 1987-88; his jail term earned him political capital at home as a nationalist, and thus helped him rise in August 1990 to the republic's presidency. Ter Petrosian was reconfirmed as president in a free election on October 18, 1991.

Ter Petrosian, a pragmatist who understands that in dreams begin responsibilities, believes that although Armenian reunification with Karabakh is justified, it is unattainable for now. Given dire economic conditions (exacerbated by the 1988 earthquake) Armenia was in no position to reclaim Karabakh. For that matter, Ter Petrosian realizes (as did his predecessors in the short-lived Armenia republic that existed between 1918 and 1920) that Armenia is surrounded by more powerful and numerous Turks and that it is therefore essential to foster good relations even with them.

Writing in October 1990, in the midst of heavy conflict over Karabakh, Ter-Petrosian advised his countrymen that "...instead of an audacious, romantic nation, we must become ... a cold, realistic and pragmatic nation; whose each step must be circumspect, based on concrete and faultless calculation." He asked his people "to avoid...grave confrontations..." and instead embrace calm and leave to the next generations "the task of realizing our other national dreams." In short, Ter-Petrosyan would demand an end to anti-Armenian violence in Azerbaijan and respect for the human rights of Karabakh Armenians; he is not in favour of fighting a war for Karabakh territory and would be satisfied with keeping the borders of Armenia peaceful.

Ter-Petrosian's message is not shared by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a political movement which, since at least 1891, has favoured reclaiming lost territory as well as avenging the Turkish massacre of Armenians through attacks on Turkish officials. The ARF re-established itself in Armenia in the summer of 1991, only months before Ter Petrosian sailed to victory in the presidential vote, far ahead of Sos Sarkisian, his ARF competitor, who garnered only 4% of the vote.

The ARF fashions itself as Ter Petrosian's legitimate political opposition and supports guerrilla fighters in Karabakh. One guerrilla group, called the "Freedom Commandos of Karabakh," has stated in an advertisement in an Armenian periodical that "The liberation of Karabakh...is the purpose of our lives...." The ARF, which governed Armenia during its brief encounter with independence (1918-20), aspires to govern the country again. It sees Ter Petrosian as an opportunist who used the Karabakh cause to win the presidency, only to abandon it thereafter.

While Ter Petrosian and the ARF vie for political supremacy in Armenia, the strongest support for reunification comes from the Karabakh Armenians. One of them, ecological activist Zori Balayan, who initiated the reunification movement in 1987, believes that Azeri attacks on Karabakh Armenians fit into a broader pattern of centuries-old Turkic imperialism, also called "Pan-Turanism." According to Balayan's theory, Turan is the large, potential Turkic homeland, which would unite all Turks from Azerbaijan to Turkey and the Central Asians republics. This alleged Turkic dream, warns Balayan, threatens Armenians and Russians alike and is gaining support among the former Soviet Union's Turkic populations. In his view, Karabakh is just one battle in the wider future struggle between Turks and non-Turks.

Whether or not they share Balayan's fears, the mass of the Karabakh Armenians have always felt separated from and neglected by the Azerbaijani government. After the 1988 Sumgait massacre, the Karabakh Armenians suffered repeated attacks alternatively from the Azeris and from the Soviet Internal Security Forces; they have responded by establishing self-defence units and importing weapons from outside Karabakh to defend themselves. There is some evidence that the Karbakh Armenians support the ARF. A journalist has reported seeing the ARF banner flying from the flagpole at a municipal office in Shahumian, a region within Azerbaijan adjacent to Karabakh. Given the amount of blood that has already spilled, quelling these volunteer forces will not be easy. Indeed, it is the well-armed militias that are waging war in Karabakh, thus driving the political agenda as much as, if not more than, the elected Armenian government.

On the other side, the Azerbaijanis.

In their view, to defend Karabakh is to protect their homeland. Mirror-imaging Zori Balayan, Azerbaijanis believe the Armenians are engaged in a guerrilla war against them, and are determined to defend themselves. Not surprisingly, as the Soviet Union disintegrated and Azerbaijani nationalism rose, the Azerbaijani National Front seized on the defence of Karabakh as a key point in their program. And it can be expected that nationally-conscious Azerbaijanis will keep Karabakh on the agenda, despite the inclinations of the more conservative, traditional élite.

A natural historical development, in addition to nationalism, that complicates the Karabakh problem is the return of Turkish influence to the region. Azerbaijanis, a Muslim Turkic people, are assiduously cultivating close cultural and economic relations with Turkey; most significant, in November 1991 the Turkish defence minister visited Baku and heard requests for weapons and ammunition. Any evidence of a Turkish-Azerbaijani security alliance would be a red flag for Armenians generally, and a prod to Armenian militants who have sought for decades to avenge the Turkish massacre of Armenians.

Indeed, the warming Azeri-Turkish relationship may explain the December 20, 1991 assassination attempt on the Turkish ambassador to Budapest. A media report claimed that the attack was the work of ASALA, in co-operation with Iraq, which used the Armenians as a way to repay the Turks for supporting the United States in the Gulf War. Another report, from Karabakh itself, claimed that several dozen Iranians (who, like the Azeris, are Shiite Muslims) were fighting on the Azerbaijani side. Willy-nilly, regional actors may be drawn into the Armenian-Azeri clash.

What are the peace prospects?

The intensification of fighting since the collapse of the USSR in December 1991 has darkened the prospects of peace. A ray of hope amid an otherwise gloomy situation rests in the pragmatism of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. The most promising (if unconsummated) peace agreement to date has been the negotiation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis chaired by Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. The choice of the two guarantors of the peace related to historically good relations between Russia and Armenia and Yeltsin's pre-eminent position in the former USSR; and Nazarbayev's role as the leading Turkic politician in the region.

In its preamble, the document criticized the actions of the central Soviet authorities regarding Karabakh over the past three years; it stated that the parties agree to non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states and the observance of civil rights of citizens. The agreement called for a cease-fire, the repeal, before 1992, of all unconstitutional acts by Armenia and Azerbaijan, the "recognition of authority of legitimate bodies of power" and the withdrawal of all armed forces, except for Soviet (now Commonwealth) forces. In the context of a disintegrating central military force, who is to monitor the cease-fire? Who is to determine which acts are constitutional? And who is to decide which bodies are legitimate?

In addition to these crucial clarifications, for a peace agreement to work, the parties themselves must agree to exercise self-restraint and enforce such restraint on militants in their own camp. This assumes that the Karabakah Armenians compromise their independence demands, and that the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments possess sufficient authority (and stability) to control their own populations, to ensure observance of cease-fire terms. Furthermore, regional powers such as Turkey and Russia would have to endorse the settlement and, ideally, contribute to peace-keeping forces. For now, the cash-strapped and beleaguered Russian troops are not in a position to do much more than protect themselves until their withdrawal is arranged.

Beyond this, the principles of a peace accord should include:

  1. no immediate altering of the current Armenian and Azerbaijani borders;
  2. security and human rights guarantees for the Karabakh Armenians, monitored by independent outside observers, as well as cultural autonomy and improved standards of living;
  3. unimpeded access to Karabakh by Armenians.

Once these minimum conditions are met and assuming peace holds, regional autonomy for Nagorno Karabakh could be put back on the bargaining table. The situation is too inflamed to permit a helpful discussion of this issue at the moment.

If peace represents the best-case scenario, since December events have been moving in the opposite direction. Fighting has escalated and the February peace initiative mounted by Iranian Foreign Minister Velayati has not borne fruit. The key question is whether the Armenian government can resist being dragged into direct conflict with Azeri Forces. If all-out conflict erupts, Armenia would try to secure control of Karabakh by conquering the Azerbaijani territory that separates it from this region. Azerbaijan would counter-attack with all the forces at its disposal. Though regional actors will be reluctant to get involved, Iran and Iraq could move in to settle old scores, and Russia and Turkey are vitally interested bystanders.

Thus far, the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments have been acting with restraint, wary of the pitfalls of escalation. The resignation of Azerbaijani president Mutalibov in early March amid calls by Azerbaijani legislators for a tougher stand on Karabakh, however, signal a reversal of this trend. With luck, fighting will diminish until each side reaches the conclusion that an untidy peace is preferable to an unambiguous war. But in the interim, the conflict is claiming more Armenian and Azerbaijani lives on the battle-front and may prompt more attacks on Turkish diplomats abroad.

The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

P.O.Box 9732
Postal Station T 
Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G4 
FAX: (613) 842-1312

ISSN 1192-277X
Catalogue JS73-1/18

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