Toward Peace in the Caucasus

Why should the United States care about faraway Armenia and Azerbaijan? The answer is that we have important interests there.

We have long-standing ties of friendship and kinship with the Armenian people. We want to help end the nine-year-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has devastated both countries. We want them to concentrate their energies on economic and political reform. We want to limit the pressure of Russia and Iran on both countries, and help insure Western access to oil from the Caspian basin. Unfortunately, our policy is falling short. We need a better approach to protect and promote US interests.

There has been a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1994, but the war isn't over; it is only frozen. Armenia continues to control the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, as well as nearly 20 percent of that country. Military confrontation has blocked the transit of goods from Azerbaijan to Armenia, causing considerable suffering among the Armenian people.

Because of this conflict, Congress decided in 1992 to include, as part of the Freedom Support Act authorizing assistance to the former Soviet Union, a provision barring aid to the government of Azerbaijan until it "takes demonstrable steps to cease the blockade and other uses of force against the people of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh." I supported this provision. I thought it was the right course. But after five years, this decision deserves reappraisal. At the urging of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the US has now assumed the role of one of three co-chairs of the Minsk peace talks, along with Russia and France. For the first time, the US has a direct and public role in the peace process.

A problem for our diplomacy is the continuing ban on US assistance to the government of Azerbaijan. It limits our ability to be an effective intermediary. So long as this aid ban remains in place, we lack flexibility and leverage. For several reasons, achieving a peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the key to promoting US interests in the region.

First, a peace settlement is the most direct way to relieve the suffering of the Armenian people. It is also the best way to help the 780,000 displaced persons in Azerbaijan.

Second, a peace settlement will help shore up the sovereignty and independence of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and lessen the pressure on them from Russia and Iran.

Third, a peace settlement would enable both Armenia and Azerbaijan to concentrate on improving the lives of their citizens. I have supported generous US assistance to Armenia. Once there is peace, that assistance can be used more effectively in support of democratic and market reform. In Azerbaijan, we should have no illusions. Under President Heidar Aliev, Azerbaijan has an authoritarian regime with a poor human rights record. It has made little progress on reform. Yet the United States should be allowed to help it, because in the long run the development of a free, democratic, and stable Azerbaijan is in the interest of the entire region.

Fourth, peace will allow for the development of the region's energy resources. Azerbaijan's 34 billion barrels of proved and probable oil reserves are roughly equal to those of Kuwait or the United States.

Our new co-chairmanship of the Minsk peace talks gives us a unique opportunity to move the peace process forward. Congress should lift the ban on Azerbaijan to give us maximum leverage on behalf of peace. A better relationship with Azerbaijan serves the US national interest, the interest of peace, and the long-term interests of Armenia as well.

* Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

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