The post-Soviet Caucasus has been erupting in violence for most of the past decade. The fighting might have been dismissed by the rest of the world if it weren't for Saudi-scale pools of oil thought to lie beneath the Caspian Sea.
This hoped-for bonanza may even have been a factor in the terrorist attack that killed eight top lawmakers in Armenia's parliament this week, analysts say.
Five gunmen who burst into a parliamentary question-and-answer session and opened fire, killing Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisyan and seven others, surrendered yesterday after a night-long standoff with special troops in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Their 40 hostages, mostly lawmakers, were released. But there are still no clear answers as to why the group carried out the bloody and apparently senseless act of terror.
"It's a very strange thing, but they had no demands other than to broadcast a statement on TV," says Vartan Toganyan, press spokesman for the Armenian Embassy in Moscow."They apologized for killing everyone except the prime minister, who they said deserved to die."
The gunmen surrendered after President Robert Kocharyan personally granted them the right to make their statement and guaranteed them a fair trial.
Attacker Nairi Unanyan, a former member of a banned ultranationalist party, delivered a general tirade against corruption, ill leadership, and national betrayal. But the statement contained few hints about his motives. "We wanted to save the Armenian people from perishing and restore its rights," he said. "Those responsible for robbing the country must face trial along with us."
The attack came just as Armenia appeared ready to settle its bitter feud with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. A war between the two former Soviet states ended in 1994 with de facto Armenian control over the disputed territory, but peace has yet to be concluded. For Armenian nationalists, any move toward compromise is seen as national betrayal.
US Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott held talks with Armenian President Kocharyan and the now-deceased prime minister on Wednesday, and left Yerevan just hours before the attack. High on the agenda was an American-authored plan that would attach Karabakh to Azerbaijan as an "autonomous republic" with its own army and currency. Mr. Talbott has now been ordered back to Armenia.
The US is a co-chair, along with France and Russia, of the "Minsk Group" that has been attempting to mediate the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
Analysts say the outlines of a breakthrough in the process were clearly forming.
"Every time there is an attempt to settle the Karabakh problem through negotiations with Azerbaijan, something happens," says Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. President Kocharyan - who is a native of Karabakh himself - and even Sarkisyan, were ready to sign on to the deal.
Closely connected with this, some analysts say, is the battle for control of anticipated oil flows from the recently-discovered Caspian Sea shelf. Michael Lynch, an oil researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says, "The [Caspian region] has about 30 to 40 billion barrels that are pretty clearly there. There may be another 200 billion barrels, but that's speculation."
Output of Caspian oil has so far been disappointing, and the welter of ethnic conflicts in the post-Soviet Caucasus has profoundly discouraged both investors and world political leaders. But the struggle over how to divide the oil, and the vast revenues it would generate, is well under way. Three major routes for transporting the oil to world markets are under consideration. All of them are currently stymied by war, instability, and political intrigue. The first is an existing pipeline that passes through the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya to Novorossysk, on the Black Sea coast.
Moscow favors this route, but has been unable to convince the international community that it can provide adequate security. The second, already in limited operation, passes through Georgia to the Black Sea terminus of Supsa. But Georgia, too, has been wracked by civil war and secessionist struggles.
The third option, strongly favored by the US, would pass from Baku, the Azeri capital, through Armenia to ports on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. This route would bypass Russia's sphere of influence and also reward Turkey, a NATO member that has suffered greatly from the cutoff of Iraqi oil to its Mediterranean ports in this decade.
"Finding a solution to the Karabakh conflict is the key to solving a huge geopolitical problem for the West. And that is closely bound up with how to securely extract and transport the Caspian oil," says Vitaly Naumkin, a geopolitical analyst with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
Armenia has been nearly bankrupted by years of post-Soviet isolation and the costly war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh. Though it has been a close ally of Moscow - and even hosts Russian troops on its territory - that approach has paid few economic dividends. "Armenia is on the verge of a radical strategic shift, away from Russia and toward the West," says Mr. Naumkin. "There is no doubt that Talbott brought a package of incentives to Yerevan, to encourage the Armenians to sign on to peace with Azerbaijan.
"That may have included development loans and other aid, but the big carrot is the future prospect of the oil pipeline, with the vast revenues it would generate for Armenia in transit fees," he says.
But any accommodation with Azerbaijan or Turkey, which is still blamed for its genocide against Armenians early this century, would be viewed by Armenia's nationalist groups as selling out Karabakh and betraying the nation to its enemies.
"These killings were a clear warning to President Kocharyan to tread more carefully in his approach to the Karabakh problem," says Sergei Arutunyan, head of the Caucasus department of the Institute of Ethnology in Moscow. "The people who committed that act may have been crazy extremists. But anyone can read, and would be foolish to ignore, the message they sent."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society