A NEW tripartite US-Russian-Turkish peace plan is offering a glimmer of hope that the fighting that has raged for five years between Armenians and Azeris in the Transcaucasus region of the former Soviet Union may be halted.
The government of Azerbaijan has already given its approval to the plan. Officials from the three mediating countries are hoping to meet, perhaps as early as tomorrow, to discuss certain objections raised by the government of Armenia and to revise the timing of the plan. Armenian officials express confidence in the chances for an agreement, although it is not yet clear whether the more hard-line Armenian forces in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh are prepared to go along.
"As far as Armenia is concerned, there are now enough additional elements that we can probably go ahead with this, but we want to see what this looks like finally," Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Jirair Libaridian told the Monitor in a telephone interview from Yerevan. The senior Armenian official said that they had asked for clearer guarantees that a proposed cease-fire and halt in military activities will be enforced by international peacekeepers.
After more than a year of failed negotiation attempts, most officials guard against optimism. "It's obviously a significant step forward," says an official of one of the three mediating countries, "but there's still a long way to go."
The fighting centers on the Armenian-populated enclave of Na-gorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, now under the effective control of Armenian fighters organized by the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh republic. In late March the Armenian forces seized the Kelbazhar corridor between Karabakh and the Armenian republic, purportedly to forestall an Azeri offensive. The escalation prompted broad condemnation of Armenian "aggression" and concern that the war could widen into a regional conflict.
The Armenian government says that changes in the tripartite peace plan are needed to convince the hard-line Armenian forces in Karabakh to agree to complete withdrawal from the Kelbazhar region. The Karabakh government wants an early deployment of international monitors, before withdrawal is completed, "to ensure that this is not just a way for Azerbaijan to get Kelbazhar back, to remilitarize Kelbazhar, and to gain time to start major military operations in two months," Mr. Libaridian said.
A senior Western official in Paris told the Reuters news agency on May 11 that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which has been sponsoring peace talks on the conflict, is preparing to send 600 peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh as soon as the warring sides agree to the cease-fire plan.
The peace plan was drawn up after two days of meetings in Moscow in late April and presented to the warring parties on May 3. It calls for:
* The withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Kelbazhar region, which links Armenia with the Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan.
* A two-month long cease-fire and standstill in military activities in the battle area.
* Preliminary negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Geneva from May 17-22 under the auspices of Russia, Turkey, and the United States.
* The resumption of negotiations within the CSCE.
* And finally, preparation of a peace settlement by July 1. The plan calls for the deployment of an unspecified "international authority" to verify compliance with the withdrawal and cease-fire.
The initiative followed signs that both the Armenian and Azeri governments were open to serious talks. The clearest indication of that came on April 21-22 when Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Azeri President Abulfaz Elchibey met for the first time when both were attending the funeral of Turkish President Turgut Ozal. The two men agreed to try to restart the stalled peace talks.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin offered his own mediation effort shortly after that. On April 30 the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire, withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azeri territory, and unimpeded access for humanitarian relief supplies.
The US role has been key to gaining the trust of both sides to the conflict. The Armenians are suspicious of Turkey's role, accusing it of backing its ethnic and religious kin in Azerbaijan, including providing arms. The Azeris for their part are wary of Russia, seeing it as being pro-Armenian and worrying that Russian forces may use the Caucasus conflict to reassert their traditional imperial role.
Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, on a visit this week to Turkey, clearly echoed some Armenian views. According to a report from the official Itar-Tass news agency, Mr. Grachev expressed concerns about the supply of arms to Azerbaijan by "some states."