Agony of Indifference in Nagorno-Karabakh

West must step in if it doesn't want to see Russia impose a solution - and restore its influence

DURING my two years as the special United States negotiator seeking a conclusion to the war between Armenians and Azeris over Nagorno-Karabakh, I was struck more than anything else by the West's resounding indifference to this bloody conflict.

Despite the fighting since 1988, the more than 1 million refugees, the thousands of dead, the destroyed villages and towns, the ruined economies, and the continuing possibility of intervention by Russia, Turkey, or Iran, no one in Washington or any other Western capital seemed to care.

In fact, what little attention was given to this tragic war a few years ago has gradually dwindled as attention has focused on Bosnia, Somalia, and other trouble spots. When I left my negotiating responsibilities, they were downgraded and absorbed into a position with a much broader focus and other priorities.

But the problem will not go away; it gets worse. And Washington's indifference could contribute either to a long period of suffering for all the area's peoples, or to an outcome contrary to our interests that would make regional stability and prosperity more difficult to attain.

In 1992, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe opened a negotiating process to conclude the war. The effort was to lead to a peace conference in Minsk, so the negotiating group was called the Minsk Group. But the group never got to Minsk, partly due to shifting fortunes on the battlefield, which led one side or the other to refuse compromise.

The failure was also due to Russia's shift toward a more nationalistic policy. At first, Russia fully supported the Minsk Group. But in 1993 Russia reactivated its earlier independent mediation effort, competing with and undercutting the work of the international community. The reason was clear: Russia wished to reestablish its dominance in the region and to exclude outsiders, particularly the US and Turkey.

Russia wants to dominate Armenia and Azerbaijan for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Moscow would like to reestablish control of the former Soviet frontier with Turkey and Iran, and to share in Azerbaijan's oil riches. To accomplish these aims, Russia has been pressing Azerbaijan to accept the reentry of Russian troops as a separation force and as border guards, and to give Russia a share of the oil concessions being developed by Western companies. For leverage, the Russians have used an implicit but dramatic threat: If Azerbaijan does not comply, Russia will step up its backing for Armenia (Russian troops are already stationed there), with disastrous military results for the Azeris.

Up to now, the Azeris have resisted Russian pressures and insisted on an international force to control a cease-fire. This is because any Azeri leader who brings Russian troops back into the country is likely to be overthrown. The resulting stalemate prolongs the agony.

Only an active US role can break this stalemate by counter-balancing the Russians and giving the belligerents enough confidence to accept a compromise. We cannot hand this problem to an international mediator and walk away from it. International mediators only have clout when backed by a great power.

This does not mean we should get involved on the ground in the Caucasus. But it does mean we should take a leading role in the negotiations, on the basis of an impartial commitment to help.

To have a leading role, we need an influential, full-time special envoy. To be impartial, we need to repeal the section of the Freedom Support Act that prohibits assistance to Azerbaijan. With almost a million internal refugees and one-fifth of its territory occupied, a unilateral prohibition of even humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan is deeply unfair.

The US should advance a balanced plan for a political solution and make a special effort to explain it to the interested parties. It should be based on the concept of a self-ruling Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, within and freely associated with a fully sovereign State of Azerbaijan. It should include provision for transit rights for Armenians to cross Azeri territory to Nagorno-Karabakh and for Azeris to cross Armenian territory to the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan, as well as the right to build pipelines and electrical grids. It should provide for the return of refugees to their villages under international supervision.

This is a test of the international community's ability to resolve a conflict within the former Soviet Union. If the West, particularly the US, is indifferent, Russia will handle it in its own way, and we must expect Russia to gradually regain its colonial position throughout the traditional empire of the czars. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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