Armenians, Azeris Agree to Russian-Brokered Cease-Fire

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Russian government claimed a limited diplomatic victory yesterday in gaining the agreement of all parties to a shaky cease-fire in the six-year-long Armenian-Azerbaijani war.

But according to officials in Baku, Azerbaijan President Gaidar Aliyev apparently resisted strong Russian pressure in talks held yesterday and refused to sign a broader agreement on the withdrawal of troops, creation of a security zone between the warring sides, and deployment of a Russian military force to enforce the pact.

``There is still no consensus that there will be a withdrawal,'' a Russian Foreign Ministry official admitted to the Monitor yesterday. At most, the present deal amounts to a cease-fire in place, a situation that Azerbaijan, which has lost considerable ground to its Armenian foes, has previously refused to accept.

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The cease-fire agreement is the product of an initiative of the Russian military, which has already formed units prepared to move into the conflict area around the disputed Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev met with his counterparts from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Armenian administration of Nagorno-Karabakh in Moscow on Feb. 18, emerging with a deal to begin a cease-fire on March 1.

Russian defense officials claim that they also agreed on a detailed protocol on where to withdraw troops, heavy guns, and aircraft, and the formation of a joint staff, consisting of officers from Russia and the three sides, to police the cease-fire. Col. Gen. Georgi Kondratyev, the senior Russian military official in charge of peacekeeping operations, went to the area early this week, along with presidential envoy Amb. Vladimir Kazimirov, supposedly to gain final assent to this agreement.

While the Armenian governments in Yerevan and in Nagorno-Karabakh apparently gave the go-ahead, the Azeris have balked, insisting that a cease-fire can only follow a full Armenian withdrawal from the huge chunk of Azeri territory held outside the boundaries of the Karabakh enclave. The Azeris have launched a series of military offensives beginning on Dec. 6 in an attempt, so far with limited success, to regain some territory.

``Aliyev needs some kind of face-saving military victory that will allow him to say they've acquitted themselves on the battlefield,'' a Western diplomat comments.

Chief Russian negotiator Kazimirov acknowledges that an agreement on the basis of current lines is not viable. ``Now with lots of Azeri territory seized, the halting of military activity has to be linked to Armenian withdrawal from Azeri territory,'' he told the Monitor recently. But he does not support Baku's insistence on a full return of its land.

``These issues cannot be resolved on the basis of propaganda slogans,'' Mr. Kazimirov said. ``They need a realistic vision of what is going on.''

Moscow has placed considerable pressure on Azerbaijan on a number of fronts, according to Western and Russian sources. Along with the Karabakh cease-fire, Moscow is looking for Azeri agreement to return Russian troops to the border with Iran and Turkey to restore a key air defense base and gain critical control over a massive oil development project in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan has offered a Western consortium control over the oil project, but Moscow is seeking both a major share of the deal and control over the pipeline to bring the oil out.

While acknowledging that these issues are on the table, ``none of them are present in the negotiating process'' for a Karabakh settlement, Kazimirov says.

Still, President Aliyev, in an apparent attempt to resist Moscow's pressures, embarked on visits last month to Turkey, with whom Azerbaijan shares a common ethnic and linguistic heritage, and to Britain, whose firms are major players in the oil deal. ``He's out there shopping around to see what kind of deals he can get,'' the Western diplomat says.

Aliyev also suggested a revival of the US-Turkish-Russian trilateral mediation effort, as well as that of the so-called Minsk Group of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. A new CSCE mediator, veteran Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, has recently returned to the scene, but it is unlikely Aliyev can get the kind of Western intervention he seeks to supplant Moscow's effort. ``Once the Russians find the solution, everyone will sign,'' an informed Turkish source predicts.

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