Karabakh Extremists Take Lead

Prospects for Azeri-Armenian peace talks hang on UN troops, Karabakh representation

FOR the first time in their four-year conflict with Azerbaijan, the Armenians have won a series of decisive battlefield victories. But they are finding that military success does not necessarily bring peace.

Armenian militia now control virtually all the disputed Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Armenians broke a strangling Azerbaijani blockade of Karabakh by seizing a vital land corridor to the Republic of Armenia.

The battle over Karabakh in early May, followed by fighting along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border, prompted charges of Armenian aggression and threats of intervention by neighboring Turkey in support of its ethnic brothers in Azerbaijan. (View from Ankara, Page 6.)

International organizations, including NATO, have expressed concerns that the conflict between the two former Soviet republics could engage neighbors such as Turkey, Iran, and Russia.

With a lull in the fighting has come a hardening of positions. Armenian militants in Karabakh increasingly ignore Armenia's calls for flexibility toward peace talks. In Baku, in the run-up to yesterday's presidential elections, Azerbaijani nationalists vowed to take back Karabakh after their expected electoral victory. A chance for solutions

In an exclusive Monitor interview, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan said the battle victories are a two-edged sword.

"On one hand, it makes it more difficult to solve the problem because it just deepens the confrontation between Karabakh and Azerbaijan," Mr. Ter-Petrosyan said. "But on the other hand, a definite chance has been created to bring a solution to the Karabakh issue because the international community starts to take the issue more seriously than before. The solution to the problem depends on how rapid international mediation will be."

The Armenian leader admitted that international sympathy for Armenia's cause had suffered from the new perception of it as a military aggressor. But he also argued that the world community paid little attention during the months that Armenians were on the receiving end of Azeri attacks.

The prospects for international mitigation have brightened in recent days. Stalled peace talks under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a 52-nation group that includes the United States, European nations, and the former republics of the Soviet Union, are to open June 23.

At an 11-nation preliminary meeting in Rome last week, the CSCE agreed to send civilian observers to the region. NATO foreign ministers, meeting with the former Soviet republics Friday, offered to assist to the CSCE effort.

According to press reports, Azeri Foreign Minister Tofik Gasymov refused at the NATO meeting to agree to international observers until Armenia withdraws from Azeri territory.

The disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region was created by the Bolsheviks as an autonomous Armenian-populated region within Azeri territory in 1923. Azerbaijan has consistently refused Armenian proposals to bring international forces into Karabakh on the grounds that this is an internal affair.

The Armenian government denies any direct involvement in the fighting, or in taking control of the narrow six-mile corridor between Armenia and Karabakh, saying Karabakh militia are doing it on their own. That corridor is essential to ensure the flow of food and medical assistance to the Karabakh population.

"We officially said we have no territorial claims to the corridor that links Armenia and Karabakh," President Ter-Petrosyan said. "But without this route, Karabakh would be subject to obliteration. If the world community and peacekeeping forces can guarantee the functioning of this route, Karabakh would relinquish its control over it."

Armenian officials also deny charges that they opened a new battle front with the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan near the border with Turkey. Turkey has charged the Armenians with aggression. Armenians say Turkey is distorting what they call minor exchanges of fire. Turkey has abandoned its neutrality, the Armenian President said, and hopes "to fill the political vacuum created by Russia's withdrawal from Central Asia and Azerbaijan."

Armenia and Turkey are historic enemies, dating back at least to the killing of more than 1 million Armenians in Turkey during World War I, an event Turkish leaders still deny. But Armenia is "ready today" for full and normal ties with Turkey, Ter-Petrosyan said, an offer delivered by an Armenian delegation Friday. Hopes rest on talks

Hopes for cooling the conflict now rest on the CSCE talks. Plans for the peace conference, first agreed to at a meeting in February, immediately stalled over who would represent the Karabakh government. The Karabakh parliament is seeking recognition of the region as an independent and equal party to the negotiations. Baku insists that Karabakh be included in the Azeri delegation.

The Karabakh parliament is effectively controlled by the radical Dashnak (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) which accuses Ter-Petrosyan's Armenian National Movement of being prepared to sacrifice Karabakh for the sake of the survival of the Armenian republic.

Positions meanwhile are hardening in Azerbaijan, where the candidate of the radical Azerbiajan Popular Front, Abdulfaz Elchibey, was widely favored to win yesterday's vote for a new president. The Front, which does not rule out negotiations, insists on the restoration of Azerbaijani control of Karabakh.

The hardening of "extremism" on both sides means the question of Karabakh's status should be avoided in early talks, says Ter-Petrosyan. First the parties should halt the war and set up international peacekeeping forces. Then "it will be easier for us and the Azeris to compromise."

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