Respite in Karabakh's See-Saw War

War-weariness, stalemate push Armenia and Azerbaijan toward mediated peace process

ARMENIA and Azerbaijan intend to implement a cease-fire tomorrow, as war weariness pushes the Caucasian nations to probe for a peaceful settlement to the four-year conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

But continued fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh casts doubts on the cease-fire's ability to calm the situation.

Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, a signatory of the cease-fire agreement, says he is only cautiously optimistic about the chances for success.

"It's one thing to put a signature on a document. It's another to guarantee implementation of the agreement," he says. "There are a lack of guarantees that may lead to a break in the agreement."

At least 2,000 people have been killed in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region governed by Muslim Azerbaijan that is inhabited mainly by Christian Armenians.

The undeclared war has followed a see-saw pattern in recent months. In May, Armenian fighters, taking advantage of domestic political turmoil in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, seized control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh. But after the election of nationalist leader Abdulfaz Elchibey as president in June, Azerbaijan regrouped and counterattacked. Azerbaijan retaliates

Relying heavily on aerial bombing and artillery barrages, Azerbaijan now appears to have the upper hand in the fighting. Over the last two months, Azerbaijan has recaptured about 25 percent of Karabakh's territory, Mr. Hovannisian says.

Azerbaijan's success on the battlefield also has had a destabilizing effect on Armenia's political leadership. Protests have swept the Armenian capital Yerevan recently, as Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan has been battered by ultra-nationalists demanding his resignation.

News of the cease-fire agreement Thursday, achieved with the mediation of officials from the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, came as a surprise to many. Recent talks held in Rome under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) had made little progress in convening a Karabakh peace conference in Minsk, the nominal capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Previous cease-fire attempts in Nagorno-Karabakh have failed. But some experts say the latest agreement may have a better chance for success than earlier efforts to halt hostilities.

War weariness appears to be growing on both sides, as the fighting has taken a severe toll on the two nations' economies. And despite Azerbaijan's apparent advantage, neither side has the force necessary to defeat its opponent militarily, experts say, adding that the prospect of years of ongoing carnage is pressuring both sides to seek peace.

"Both sides have tried a military approach, but no one has won," said Richard Ovinnikov, a senior adviser at the Foreign Policy Association, a Moscow think tank. "Maybe the two sides are more ready now to begin negotiating in earnest." Hovannisian told journalists in Moscow on Friday that the Sept. 1 cease-fire plan was a "step ahead in the question of the Karabakh problem." He added that it would be impossible to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict without the participation of officials from Nag orno-Karabakh.

Karabakh officials did not participate in Thursday's cease-fire negotiation session, held in the Kazakh capital of Alma-Ata. Azerbaijan, which does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence claims, has resisted negotiating directly with representatives from the enclave. Bombing raises doubts

Azerbaijan's continued use of jet bombers and artillery, even after it signed the Alma-Ata document, raised concerns that the cease-fire will not take hold, Hovannisian said.

"Azerbaijan continues to try to gain a military advantage in advance of any cease-fire," the Armenian foreign minister claimed. "It is trying to impose a military solution on what is essentially a political problem."

Azerbaijani Defense Ministry officials have denied wanting to continue hostilities, saying the nation was "tired" of the war and would prefer to concentrate on economic reconstruction.

Officials in Baku insist their forces have been attacking only military targets, adding that Armenia also is conducting offensive military operations.

Each side also accuses the other of not complying with an agreement to open railway and power supply links between the two republics. Under the agreement, Armenia was to provide the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichevan with electricity. At the same time, Azerbaijan was to lift a railway blockade on Armenia.

Hovannisian said the introduction of an international peacekeeping force is the only way to guarantee the effectiveness of any cease-fire agreement. Armenia has repeatedly called for peacekeepers from the United Nations or the CSCE.

Azerbaijan, however, is steadfastly opposed to the deployment of foreign peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Though the Karabakh war has sometimes been portrayed as a territorial conflict, its root cause is essentially ethnic hostility, said Oxana Dmitriyeva, a specialist on ethnic disputes at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

The ethnic nature of the war makes it difficult for many on both sides to view the struggle rationally, she added. As a result, a peace settlement will remain a distant goal, even if the Sept. 1 cease-fire is observed.

"War can come and go as people simply become tired of fighting, or exhaust their military supplies," says Ms. Dmitriyeva.

"But if you want a final solution, it could take decades," she says. The conflict will simply fluctuate between war and latent phases.

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