NO one was able to do much to quell the conflict between Armenians and Azeris when it first erupted into international view four years ago. Following major outbreaks of violence against Armenians in the Azeri capital of Baku, Soviet troops were sent in to keep the peace. They only marginally succeeded.
Now tensions have again escalated. The center of controversy remains the largely Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The government in Baku maintains, as it has right along, that this formerly autonomous region is an integral part of Azerbaijan. Azeri forces surround the region's capital, Stepanakert, and appear to be preparing for a final push.
The goal of an Azeri offensive, and indeed the only "solution" some observers see to the conflict, is a final expulsion of ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijan. That outcome would fly in the face of international law and human rights.
What's critically needed is effective mediation, but mediators willing to tackle this highly charged conflict are hard to find. Russian President Boris Yeltsin traveled to Karabakh a few months ago to initiate a peace process, but his attention is so riveted to his own country's problems that the chances of effective Russian mediation, representing the Commonwealth of Independent States, are slight. And now Russian troops are being withdrawn, which could intensify the fighting.
Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan has called for United Nations involvement. But Azeris may not trust the UN and the Western powers that dominate it. They resent, for example, the United States decision to withhold recognition from their country while recognizing Armenia.
It ought to be possible to preserve the rights of an ethnic minority while honoring the sovereignty of the country that includes that ethnic enclave. But will the nationalist emotions of Azeris and Karabakh Armenians allow such a compromise?
International influence should be mustered behind a peaceful solution. Though the Armenian-Azeri clash is the longest-running such conflict in the former Soviet Union, it's not the only one, and a positive precedent is needed.