Solve the Caucasus Crisis

An effort by the Western powers to mend the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will help defuse old ethnic, religious, and regional forces

By , Shireen T. Hunter is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.

MILITARY confrontation between the newly independent republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia now risks degenerating into a much broader regional conflict.

Should this happen, the long-term consequences will not be limited to the warring factions or to their immediate neighbors. Its destabilizing effects will extend far beyond the immediate neighborhood. Moreover, coming shortly after the Yugoslav debacle, the handling of this crisis by the international community, most notably the great powers, will say much about the future order or disorder we can expect.

The crisis is due to two factors. The first was the rapid, disorderly disintegration of the Soviet Union. This led Azerbaijan and Armenia to create facts on the ground as they sensed the emerging military and political vacuum. The second, more important factor was the fragmented nature of Azerbaijan leadership and the fierce competition for power between existing leaders and the Azerbaijani Popular Front.

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The APF, in particular its extremist ultra-nationalist and pan-Turkic branch, used and abused the Karabakh issue and the conflict with Armenia both to arouse nationalist passions and to discredit and eliminate rivals. Some observers feel the APF encouraged the Azerbaijani forces' defeats in order to get rid of Ayaz Mutalibov, the republic's president. This may be far-fetched. Still, the fact remains that Mr. Mutalibov was a victim of defeats in the village of Khodjali. Later, he tried the same tactics ag ainst APF rivals by blaming them for the fall of Shusha.

Some observers now suspect that the APF, whose pan-Turkic leanings are clear, of wanting to create a situation in the Nakichevan area, in order to force Turkey to intervene on its behalf.

Rivalries for influence in the region complicate the situation. This has been reflected in the approaches of different parties to various mediation efforts which have been undertaken in the last few months. Turkey, for example, favored mediation by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), where it would play a leading part.

Beyond the inherent value of this approach, invoking CSCE would exclude Iran and thus a chance that it would gain influence from mediation. For that reason, Iran welcomes United Nations efforts - which Turkey can also accept - but Teheran is not a member of CSCE and is suspicious of it.

This rivalry has been reflected in Azerbaijani attitudes. Moderate elements in both the APF and existing elites were receptive to the Iranian efforts. But the APF's ultra-nationalist, pan-Turkic elements opposed them. In fact, however, Iran has deep historic, cultural, and religious ties with Azerbaijan, as well as a long history of friendly coexistence with Armenians. So Teheran has credibility both with Armenia and segments of the Azerbaijani groups.

COMPLICATING the picture further is the attitude of the West, especially an aversion to any Iranian role, even one promoting reconciliation. It is natural that the West favors a role for Turkey more prominent than Iran's. Indeed, because of geography, history, and culture, Turkey should and will be important in this region and in other Muslim republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. But both the West and Turkey can benefit from calling on the services of any party that can help resolve the co nflict, including Iran, if it can play a positive role.

To their credit, the Turkish government and key officials have behaved in exemplary fashion. But there are forces in Turkey pulling in the opposite direction.

One example was the behavior of the leader of the ultranationalist party in Turkey, Alpaslan Turkes, during Prime Minister Demirel's recent visit to Baku. According to the Turkish press, Mr. Turkes attended a pan-Turkic rally in support of the ultra-nationalist wing of the APF and gave "the traditional gray wolf pan-Turkist salute."

In a recent interview with the Turkish Times, an APF leader not only repeated irredentist claims to Iranian territory, but talked about a total disintegration of Iran and the creation of five states out of its current territory. Such acts create the impression, correct or not, that Turkey supports these extremist views, which generate deep fears in Armenia, among non-Turkic people in Azerbaijan, and in Iran.

Needless to say, those who feel threatened are unlikely to remain passive. They will try to manipulate the ethnic and sectarian vulnerabilities of others, notably Turkey, and will resurrect old territorial and other claims. The result can be chaos, conflict, and even war, which would leave no one, including Turkey, unscathed. Given this somber picture, the great powers need to act.

First, the period of complacency must come to an end. Concerted efforts should be made, preferably through the UN, to obtain and enforce a cease-fire. While these efforts are underway, neighboring states should foreswear any unilateral military action. Second, negotiations, again preferably under UN auspices, should be started in order to find a realistic solution to the Karabakh problem which would meet the basic security and economic needs of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Third, in the long term, instea d of a policy of favoritism which only polarizes the region, the great powers should encourage regional cooperation, while stressing their commitment to democratic values.

What is done or not done in regard to the current crisis in the Transcaucasus will set the pattern for the handling of future crises. A firm, fair, and unbiased international response will be an important step toward world order. Its lack will send a signal of apathy toward approaching chaos. It will encourage everyone to grab what he can, potentially with disastrous consequences for all concerned for many years to come.

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