New push to resolve after-effects of USSR's forgotten war

The Minsk Group meets in Brussels Tuesday in a fresh attempt to break the deadlock over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region

Since being driven from her family's comfortable farmhouse in eastern Azerbaijan by Armenian forces 14 years ago, Salbeh Suleimanova has raised four children in a canvas-roofed mud hut , making do with state assistance worth about $40 per month in this squalid refugee camp of 10,000 people.

But she has never stopped yearning for her home, now occupied by Armenians, 100 miles down the road.

"Not a day goes by that we don't dream of liberation, going back to our own place," she says. "I don't feel any hatred, but I'm always angry. No one should have to live like this."

Ms. Suleimanova is among the nearly 1 million Azeris and 400,000 Armenians uprooted from their homes in the Soviet Union's longest, bloodiest, and – in the West – most widely forgotten war.

As the USSR was crumbling in 1998, brutal ethnic cleansing erupted between this region's Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians, and the subsequent war left 30,000 dead.

The trigger: Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave claimed by Azerbaijan but populated mainly by Armenians, which had enjoyed autonomous status under the USSR.

The Minsk Group – co-chaired by Russia, France, and the US – meets Tuesday in a fresh attempt to break the deadlock over Nagorno-Karabakh, after a dozen years of fruitless international diplomatic efforts.

But with a region-wide military buildup in full swing, and impatience with the flagging peace talks mounting, some experts fear renewed warfare is growing more possible.

"The negotiating process is in a serious crisis," says Sergei Markedonov, a regional expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. "There is absolutely no confidence between any of the parties to this war."

Mutual recrimination persists

Tuesday's meeting brings the Azeri and Armenian foreign ministers together in Brussels, but there is a new complication: Nagorno-Karabakh last month adopted a local constitution that declares the tiny statelet a "sovereign, democratic and independent" nation.

Similar to Monday's independence referendum in Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, which passed with 99 percent support, the move is largely symbolic – but fiercely contested.

"The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is not a subject for negotiation," says Azeribaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, in a meeting with visiting journalists.

"The Armenian position is based on dreams and desires," he says. "They think their temporary military advantage gives them the right to think that Nagorno-Karabakh can be separated from Azerbaijan and joined to Armenia. This will not happen."

Mr. Aliyev says he's willing to grant the region's Armenians "autonomy" under Azerbaijani rule, but only if all Azeri refugees are allowed to return to their former homes.

Azeri officials refuse to even discuss, however, any possible return for the nearly half-million ethnic Armenians who were expelled from the capital, Baku, and other Azeri cities amid the USSR collapse.

Petro-sweepstakes winner

Azerbaijan, once one of the poorest republics of the former Soviet Union, has won the petro-sweepstakes over the past three years.

As major Caspian oil and gasfields have come on-stream, the little Caucasus country's economy is set to grow by a third this year alone, while the state budget has quadrupled since 2004.

British Petroleum's Baku-Ceyhan pipeline opened this year, and will be pumping 1 million barrels of Caspian crude daily to Western markets by 2009.

Oil money could fuel military

With its burgeoning wealth and growing role in global energy security, Azerbaijan is rising dramatically in strategic importance. The US has courted Aliyev as an ally in the global war on terror, and the Islamic world's only leader of a predominately Shiite nation who champions secular government and pro-Western policies.

"Azerbaijani oil is making a difference already," in world petroleum markets, says Peter Sinott, an expert at Brooklyn College, in New York. "Baku's oil revenues will grow substantially for the next five years, but what will they do with it?"

One thing Aliyev intends to do is build a world class war machine. Azerbaijan's military expenditures have exploded, from $135 million in 2003 to a projected $1 billion next year. That's part of a Caucasus-wide trend, which will see Armenian armed forces' spending grow by 22 percent, to $212 million in 2007. Georgia's defense budget also leapt from $146 million in 2005 to $218 million this year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"We are in a situation of war, and we must be strong," says Aliyev.

But he quickly adds his belief that time is on Azerbaijan's side, as oil revenues transform his country into a modern, diversified economy. "We are negotiating, but we understand that if you are strong, your negotiating position becomes stronger."

But that long-term view may not play well in Azerbaijan's hinterland, where refugees from the Karabakh war make up more than 10 percent of the population.

Temporary solution

In Bilesuvar, an Azeri town near the Iranian border, Yagoub Aleskerov is one of thousands of refugees who've recently been resettled from a Sabirabad-type camp by the Azeri government.

He's been given a comfortable two-room matchbox house with a small plot of land to grow vegetables. Despite the radical improvement in his conditions, however, Mr. Aleskerov remains bitter.

"This is just temporary," he says. "The president has promised us that we will return to our homes, and that's the only thing we're waiting for."

Makhmoud Goulayev, the district head in Bilesuvar, suggests Mr. Aleskerov is not alone in his discontent.

"People here are very angry, and they want action against the Armenians," says Makhmoud Goulayev, district head in Bilesuvar.

"The aggressors must be punished. If the peaceful way doesn't work to return our lands, then we shall have to find other methods."

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