The Dilemma of the Armenian Victors

Seeing their enclave as another Israel, soldiers of Nagorno-Karabakh say they want to give up captured Azeri land for peace to avoid continual conflict, but they fear for their security

RIPE apples and persimmons hang heavily from the branches of trees in the garden of No. 18 Hycjev Street. But only the sparrows and crows are here to enjoy the harvest.

The residents of this merchant's home, like all the others in this once-wealthy center of Azerbaijan's grape-growing region, fled last July in front of an Armenian attack. In the aftermath, their houses were looted and burned; the window glass melted, and the tin roofs collapsed from the heat of the blaze.

Armenia's scorched-earth campaign is the latest evidence of the ferocity of the war between Armenians and Azeris that has been waged for more than five years. By Western estimates, more than 10,000 people have died in the fighting, and perhaps as many as 1.3 million people have been driven from their homes on both sides.

At its beginning, this conflict was characterized by many as one of David versus Goliath. In the role of David were the 150,000 Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh fighting for self-determination, and ultimately to rejoin their enclave to Armenia proper. Supporting the Karabakh Armenians was the Republic of Armenia, itself a small land of 3.4 million people whose ancestors have lived here since the millenium before Christ.

The Goliath was the 7 million Azeri Turk community, who were given control of Karabakh by the Bolsheviks in 1923 and who insist it is historically theirs. Behind them are tens of millions of Turkish brethren, historic enemies of the Christian Armenians. Armenians accuse the Ottoman Turks of killing up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 in a forced expulsion from what is now eastern Turkey.

This image seemed to hold when the Azeris had the military upper hand, as they did during the first years of the conflict. Azeri forces, equipped with modern Soviet rocket artillery, aircraft and long-range cannon, rained fire down upon tiny Karabakh, driving the populace of the capital of Stepanakert into an existence in underground shelters.

But for many, this metaphor wore thin this year when the Armenians, after gaining control of most of Karabakh, moved into indisputably Azeri territory. In February they enlarged a tiny land corridor to Armenia by seizing the region of Kelbazhar. In summer, they moved into Agdam, near the Karabakh border in the west, and into Fizuli and other districts to the south. And in October, following an Azeri offensive, they seized the rest of southwest Azerbaijan, up to the border with Iran and Armenia itself.

No longer the victim, Armenians find themselves depicted as the Serbs of the Caucasus, relentlessly driving their Muslim foes from their homes as they swallow up more and more territory. Like Serbia, some say, the Armenians have understood the lesson of the ``new world order'' to mean that only force pays a political dividend.

But in the minds of Armenians, as well as Western observers of this conflict, Karabakh is more akin to Israel, with all the complexities that comparison implies. A small people burdened by a historical memory of genocide, surrounded by their enemies, and unsure of their allies, the Armenians have decided that military prowess is their only ultimate security.

``They are obsessed with security,'' says an informed Western source. ``They see a potential country that's all `wasp waist,' '' referring to the famous description of Israel's geographic vulnerability. ``They see artillery that can hammer them from 25 kilometers [15 miles] off.''

Like Israel after the 1967 war, Karabakh Armenians are ready in principle to trade the captured land for a permanent peace. But in the absence of mutual trust, the Armenians also feel it hard to give up the sense of greater security the captured land has brought.

``We understand keeping this land is eternal war,'' says Robert Kocharian, the head of the Karabakh State Committee on Defense and the de facto ruler of this tiny would-be state. ``It's not in our interests. We don't want it.''

But Mr. Kocharian, sitting in a leather jacket in his office in Stepanakert one recent evening, insisted that they will seek a high price for such a trade. ``We can return the land if we are given very strong guarantees that war will not be resumed against Karabakh. But nobody is giving such guarantees to us, not the mediators nor the rulers of Azerbaijan.''

What Karabakh wants - and no Azeri leader can even contemplate -

is sovereignty. ``We need an Azeri Sadat or a De Gaulle,'' Kocharian says. In early October, Kocharian met secretly with Azeri President Gaidar Aliyev in pursuit of a deal; but that peace effort, mediated by Russia, which retains a predominant influence in these former Soviet lands, collapsed quickly.

Informed Armenian and Western sources believe that Kocharian, and the tough military forces he commands, are essentially independent of anybody's control. ``They don't need us any more,'' says a senior Armenian official. ``And they'd like to do without the Russians if they can.''

Rumors of outside support are easy to hear in Yerevan. One Western source talks of daily flights of AN-12 transport planes from Russia filled with gasoline. The tanker trucks travel at night along the treacherous mountain road that links Armenia and Karabakh through what was once the Azeri-controlled Lachin corridor. This reporter counted 22 such trucks on a recent snowy night drive through the corridor.

But the limits of Russian influence are evident in the angry assaults in recent days by Russian diplomats on Armenian recalcitrance. Frustrated by Karabakh's tough stance, they are putting pressure on the Yerevan government in the belief they can bring their brothers into line.

ARMENIAN officials protest that they have little control over the more hard-line Karabakhis. Armenia provides wheat and electricity, but little else, according to various sources. The Karabakhis hope to end that electricity dependency soon when they finish stringing a power line from a dam in the north of Karabakh that used to supply power to Azerbaijan.

Most sources also agree that the Karabakh Armenians are well stocked with arms and ammunition, mostly captured in the recent offensives from Azerbaijani forces who fled leaving mountains of arms behind.

Such arrogance abounds, complete with jokes about opening a corridor to Baku, the Azeri capital on the Caspian Sea, to get a supply of caviar. But it is based on the reality that the far more disciplined and dedicated Armenian forces have simply out-fought their Azerbaijani foes. ``Our fighters do not have the courage to defend our land,'' Azeri leader Aliyev admitted in an address to the nation on Nov. 3.

``The territory we hold now is a means to defend ourselves with less forces,'' says Kocharian, whose soft voice belies his image as the warlord of Karabakh. ``Given the difference of human resources of Azerbaijan and Karabakh, this is a top priority question.'' Before Kelbazhar was taken, he explains, pointing to the map, he needed 1,500 soldiers to defend this line. Now holding a natural line of defense along the mountains, ``150 soldiers are enough to defend the one pass, and only during summer.''

Kocharian embraces the comparison to Israel, including the reluctance to trust their enemies. ``This is a hostile environment. The perspective of a long war has created a special kind of mentality, of surviving in the hard conditions we have now.''

Such talk is readily mirrored on the streets of Stepanakert. Though times are tough, as evidenced by the sparse display of produce and a few treasured consumer goods in the central market, people say they are thankful for the current peace. ``Karabakh can be kept only by military force,'' says Lamara Arshakian, the mother of two young children.

``We can't stop fighting, because the Turks only understand the language of arms,'' says Samvel, a soldier since the first days of battle. ``I won't believe any promises the Turks give us.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.