Russia Vies to Halt Lengthy Karabakh War

Europe's bid to mediate a war called more dangerous than that in former Yugoslavia is foundering, with Moscow's intentions in question

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS the bitter war rages around this mountainous Armenian enclave, Russia and the West find themselves at odds about how to bring peace.

Working on their own, Russian envoys are trying to mediate direct talks between the warring sides to bring about a Russian-enforced cease-fire. But Western partners in an almost two-year-long effort by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) accuse Moscow of pursuing its own goal of reasserting Russian influence throughout the Transcaucasus.

``Until Russia and the international community come in with a single plan, there won't be any peace,'' Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan told the Monitor in Yerevan last week. He argues that both sides in the conflict are able to use this confusion to manipulate the peacemakers and avoid serious talks.

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In September, there were some prospects for a breakthrough in the five-year-long conflict between Armenians and Azeris over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian mediation had managed to bring the Karabakh Armenians and the Azeris into direct talks for the first time in mid-September. A month-long cease-fire was extended following a secret meeting early in October between Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev and Karabakh leader Robert Kocharian, Armenian government sources say.

But all this collapsed with the resumption of fighting on Oct. 21. In response to an Azeri attack, spearheaded by Afghan mujahideen fighters, the Karabakh Armenians captured the entire southwest corner of Azerbaijan, sending tens of thousands of refugees across the Iranian border. On top of land taken earlier this year, the Karabakh forces now control almost a fifth of the country's territory and have displaced 500,000 people from their homes.

A week-long meeting of the nine-nation Minsk Group of the CSCE, of which Russia is a member, attended by representatives of the warring parties - Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh - ended on Nov. 9 with no visible progress.

The Minsk Group has pinned its hopes on gaining agreement to an elaborate time-table of mutual steps, pairing Armenian withdrawal from specific pieces of occupied territory to Azeri concessions. But since September, various participants say, the Azeris have rejected this approach.

The Russian special envoy, Ambassador Vladimir Kazimirov, left the meeting early to resume his own diplomacy. In a telephone interview from the Azeri capital of Baku on Wednesday, the Russian diplomat argued that none of the complex issues in the conflict can be solved without first establishing a durable cease-fire.

``If the fighting isn't stopped, then there will be continued spasms - every time; a new battle in a new place,'' Ambassador Kazimirov says.

Kazimirov warns that two factors compel the focus on a cease-fire: the huge number of refugees and the ``threat of internationalization of the conflict.'' He specifically rules out the involvement of nearby Iran and Turkey, a fear in Moscow. But, he adds, ``it is possible to find quite a few extremists, including religious ones, who are ready to participate on this or that side.''

Kazimirov insists there is no competition between the Minsk Group and Russia. ``But we feel very little support from the other governments for our efforts to end the fighting. There is a jealous attitude - why is Russia doing it and not the Minsk Group.... Russia has unique possibilities to conduct dialogue with Baku, with Yerevan, and with Stepanakert. We hope the Minsk Group will utilize the unique possibilities of Russia in this settlement and not speak out in opposition to one another.''

But the sentiment among the Minsk Group toward the Russian efforts is mixed. The CSCE has refused to endorse the Russian-sponsored cease-fire talks, as well as the proposal for Russian troops to act as separation forces.

``The Russians would like to do this on their own, with an international imprimatur and funding,'' says a Western diplomat. ``They don't want the Turks in there and they don't want the Iranians in there.''

The strongest voice of opposition to the Russians comes from Turkey, which has been a key backer of Azerbaijan, with whom it shares ethnic ties. ``The Turks really believe the Russians are trying to take over the Transcaucasus,'' the Western diplomat says.

Suspicions regarding Russia's aims have grown since last summer when pro-Turkish Azeri President Abulfaz Elchibey was ousted in a military coup that many believed was Moscow-backed. He was replaced by Heider Aliyev, the former Azeri Communist Party boss, who quickly repaired ties with Moscow, and rejoined in early September the Commonwealth of Independent States, the 12-nation grouping of former Soviet republics.

Such dark views of Russian actions are even shared by some in Armenia, which regards Moscow as its ally. ``They used Karabakh to topple Elchibey,'' an Armenian official says, referring to the defeats that weakened the pro-Turkish leader. ``And I'm not sure they've got Aliyev in the corner yet.... The Russians have their own agenda. They want to reintroduce forces into Azerbaijan.''

At the time of an Oct. 8 summit in Moscow with the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, according to informed Western sources, the Russians also proposed that Azerbaijan accept return of a Russian paratroop division and Russian border guards on the frontier with Iran. But according to those sources, while the Azeris agreed to the border troops, they refused a return of the Russian Army until Moscow forced the Karabakh Armenians to withdraw first from captured territory.

``Aliyev faces a dilemna,'' Mr. Ter-Petrosyan says. ``On one side, he wouldn't like the return of Russian troops and the restoration of Russian influence in Azerbaijan. On the other hand, he realizes he cannot regain the lost territory without Russian involvement. He will have to make a choice between the two.''

Karabakh leader Robert Kocharian, who met secretly with Aliyev, suggests that the Azeri leader was under the ill-founded illusion that Moscow could deliver a Karabakh retreat. ``He was thinking Russia is fighting here and not Karabakh,'' Kocharian told the Monitor.

Moscow has tried to deliver some goods. ``We are feeling the pressure of Russia around the negotiating table,'' Kocharian says. Indeed, Kazimirov is now seeking a first Armenian step, in the form of partial withdrawal from territories taken after Oct. 21, to induce Azeri cooperation.

``Azerbaijan now has very narrow possibilities for political maneuver,'' says Kazimirov, who admitted he was leaving Baku after six days with little progress to show for his efforts.

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