Call to Avert a Second Yugoslavia

While Armenian leaders call for international help, talks on Karabakh crisis have failed and both sides seek advantage on battlefield

WHILE the West belatedly attempts to end the savage war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the weary participants in a five-year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan hope that the attentions of the world will turn to them as well.

"We need this war to be stopped," says Ruben Shugarian, press secretary to the Armenian president and ambassador-designate to the United States. "The West should be in time here, not as in Yugoslavia."

The struggle over the status of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has claimed several thousand lives and turned an estimated 700,000 Armenians and Azeris into refugees.

Until last summer, the fighting had been largely confined to the Karabakh region, formed under Soviet rule as an autonomous area within Azerbaijan. But direct clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have grown in intensity, including Azeri air attacks on towns within Armenia beginning in early December. An economic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan has crippled Armenia, cutting off almost all energy and creating serious food shortages.

The Caucasus conflict has many times threatened to widen to involve neighboring Turkey and Iran, as well as Russia. Turkey has generally supported its Turkic brethren in Azerbaijan, while Iran has offered to play the role of mediator. Russia, the traditional protector of Christian Armenia, has also attempted to mediate, but it is reluctant to resume a dominant role.

Diplomatic efforts to begin negotiations under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) have been largely ineffective, unable even to establish a cease-fire. On Jan. 3, during then-President Bush's visit to Moscow, a joint US-Russian statement called for an end to the fighting and expressed concern that it could destabilize the entire region. The countries pledged a joint effort to revive the CSCE talks.

While the Armenian officials welcomed that statement, it met with skepticism in Azerbaijan. The nationalist Azerbaijan Popular Front has been in power since last summer, vowing to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, most of which was lost to Armenian irregulars last spring.

"The Karabakh question ... will be resolved not in Moscow or Washington but most likely on the battlefield," Azerbaijan State Secretary Panakh Guseinov told reporters Jan. 4. A settlement depends also on pressure from Turkey and Iran to force Armenia to "abandon its aggressive policy," he said.

The Armenian government, led by moderate nationalist President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, reiterates its readiness to enter talks. "We are ready for peace but Azerbaijan is not ready," Mr. Ter-Petrosyan told reporters here.

While Armenian officials talk peace, they argue that it will come only through successful prosecution of the war. "The Azeri side has to realize they can't have victory in the war," Armenian Defense Minister Vazgen Manukyan said. "Only after this can negotiations yield any serious results."

Such a strategy, however, offers only interminable hardship, as both nations seem capable of sustaining this war but incapable of delivering a knockout blow. Moreover, it threatens the deterioration of internal political stability in both countries and the rise of more radical forces. Opposition at home

In Armenia, a war-weary populace has taken to the streets, airing anger at the government for horrendous living conditions. Last week rumors swept Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, that the hard-line defense minister was plotting a coup against the moderate government of President Abulfaz Elchibei. Under these circumstances, there is a growing perception that only a US or United Nations attempt to find a solution can halt the fighting.

"It is almost a tailor-made situation that requires an international authority such as the UN ... to move in and impose some terms," Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts told reporters during a visit here last week.

In private talks with Mr. Kennedy, Ter-Petrosyan suggested that the UN-European approach to the Bosnian conflict, in which outside mediators designed and negotiated a settlement plan, be replicated here. Ter-Petrosyan has resisted pressure from the opposition to recognize the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, as the Armenian government in the region calls itself.

Moreover, though Armenia officially supports self-determination for Karabakh, it has hinted a readiness to accept a restoration of Karabakh's Soviet-era status as a politically autonomous region, but with international guarantees. The Azerbaijan government refuses even that, offering only a vague "cultural autonomy."

Ter-Petrosyan has also taken a more pragmatic approach toward relations with Armenia's historic foe, Turkey. Senior Armenian officials have visited Turkey in recent weeks, holding talks with Turkish Premier Suleyman Demirel on normalization of relations. Western governments, including the US, have supported such moves. Turkey has responded by allowing the limited shipment of grain and other relief supplies across a railway line.

But the government's political base is eroding and such moderation is not reflected elsewhere in Armenian politics. By most accounts, the strongest party is the Dashnaktsutyun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, founded in the last century, which survived during the Soviet era in the communities of the Armenian diaspora in the Mideast, Europe, and the US.

"Armenia has no right not to recognize the independence of Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh]," says Gagik Mkrtchian, a Dashnak official. This view is widely shared in the opposition, as well as the accusation that the government should more fully carry on the war.

"Right now the Armenian people are in limbo," says a prominent Armenian politician on condition of anonymity. "They don't know if they're in war or in peace. There isn't an effort to rally the people around the cause."

Dashnak's position is enhanced by its control of the Karabakh government led by Georgy Petrosyan, the former head of the party in Karabakh. The Karabakh government has refused to enter the CSCE talks unless it is recognized as a full participant while the Azeris insist that they be present only as representatives of the "Armenian community" in Karabakh.

"Diplomatically, we see eye to eye with the Karabakh people now," says Mr. Shugarian, the Armenian official, adding that both agree that discussion of Karabakh's status will come only after a cease-fire. "The president has taken a 100 percent turn to Turkey without balancing relations with other neighborhood partners," he says, adding that the policy could lead to imposing a solution not based on the "desires or rights" of the people.

The government is sensitive to these charges.

"We are not going to sell out the Armenians in Karabakh for the sake of our relations with Turkey," Shugarian says. Loyalty to Karabakh

As the war continues to take its toll on the home front, many here anticipate a rise of antigovernment activity. And despite their suffering, the Armenian people show few signs of abandoning Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, their will may be stiffening.

At an orphanage, women caring for the children urge their charges to sing a song for visitors.

As they huddle around a kerosene stove against the chill, the voices of the 4- and 5-year-olds ring out with a popular tune:

"We have to fight together against the enemy. Armenians unite! Artsakh is calling for our help."

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