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New push to resolve after-effects of USSR's forgotten war

The Minsk Group meets in Brussels Tuesday in a fresh attempt to break the deadlock over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2006



SABIRABAD, AZERBAIJAN

Since being driven from her family's comfortable farmhouse in eastern Azerbaijan by Armenian forces 14 years ago, Salbeh Suleimanova has raised four children in a canvas-roofed mud hut , making do with state assistance worth about $40 per month in this squalid refugee camp of 10,000 people.

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But she has never stopped yearning for her home, now occupied by Armenians, 100 miles down the road.

"Not a day goes by that we don't dream of liberation, going back to our own place," she says. "I don't feel any hatred, but I'm always angry. No one should have to live like this."

Ms. Suleimanova is among the nearly 1 million Azeris and 400,000 Armenians uprooted from their homes in the Soviet Union's longest, bloodiest, and – in the West – most widely forgotten war.

As the USSR was crumbling in 1998, brutal ethnic cleansing erupted between this region's Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians, and the subsequent war left 30,000 dead.

The trigger: Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave claimed by Azerbaijan but populated mainly by Armenians, which had enjoyed autonomous status under the USSR.

The Minsk Group – co-chaired by Russia, France, and the US – meets Tuesday in a fresh attempt to break the deadlock over Nagorno-Karabakh, after a dozen years of fruitless international diplomatic efforts.

But with a region-wide military buildup in full swing, and impatience with the flagging peace talks mounting, some experts fear renewed warfare is growing more possible.

"The negotiating process is in a serious crisis," says Sergei Markedonov, a regional expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "There is absolutely no confidence between any of the parties to this war."

Mutual recrimination persists

Tuesday's meeting brings the Azeri and Armenian foreign ministers together in Brussels, but there is a new complication: Nagorno-Karabakh last month adopted a local constitution that declares the tiny statelet a "sovereign, democratic and independent" nation.

Similar to Monday's independence referendum in Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, which passed with 99 percent support, the move is largely symbolic – but fiercely contested.

"The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is not a subject for negotiation," says Azeribaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, in a meeting with visiting journalists.

"The Armenian position is based on dreams and desires," he says. "They think their temporary military advantage gives them the right to think that Nagorno-Karabakh can be separated from Azerbaijan and joined to Armenia. This will not happen."

Mr. Aliyev says he's willing to grant the region's Armenians "autonomy" under Azerbaijani rule, but only if all Azeri refugees are allowed to return to their former homes.

Azeri officials refuse to even discuss, however, any possible return for the nearly half-million ethnic Armenians who were expelled from the capital, Baku, and other Azeri cities amid the USSR collapse.

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