Tuesday, December 10, 2013
- Former Soviet states Armenia and Azerbaijan failed yet again this week to come to a peace agreement over the disputed mountainous enclave Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azeri counterpart Heidar Aliyev agreed to settle their differences peacefully after four hours of talks at the border village Sadarak on Wednesday. But Kocharian conceded later that the talks failed to produce practical results.
The two presidents discussed restoration of old railway links. But no agreement was announced on this.
The peace agreement seemed fragile too. Following the talks, Armenian defence minister Serge Sarkisian warned that renewed armed conflict could lead to heavy casualties on both sides. In response, Azeri foreign minister Vilayat Guliyev said that Azerbaijan would never accept loss of its territory and would liberate its land sooner or later. Guliyev also ruled out economic ties between Azerbaijan and Armenia until the dispute was settled.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous territory located within what Azerbaijan claims to be its territory, but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. It has been at the centre of hostilities between the two countries since 1988. Following an attack ten years ago, Armenian-backed separatist forces drove Azerbaijani forces out of the enclave and seized other parts of Azerbaijan.
An estimated 30,000 people died in the war that ended in 1994. The war turned about a million Azerbaijanis into refugees.
Nagorno-Karabakh which does not have a border with Armenia, is a fertile, mountainous area of 4,400 square kilometres in the southern Caucasus. The very name speaks of conflicts between different groups. “Nagorno means mountainous, and Karabakh is the name of the region. The joint name, a Russian-Turkish compound, was the name used by the Soviets.
In 1989 the population of the region was 192,000 of whom about three-quarters were Armenians and the rest Azerbaijanis. That makes a relatively small population of Armenians compared to Armenia which has a population of about 3.8 million. Azerbaijan has a population of 7.7 million.
Armenia claims that Nagorno-Karabakh is self-governed by Armenian nationalists, and not occupied by Armenia. Azerbaijan claims that Armenia occupies Nagorno-Karabakh and some other districts of Azerbaijan. Armenia which borders Georgia, Turkey and Iran is mostly Christian, and Azerbaijan which borders Russia, Turkey and Iran is mostly Muslim.
Moves to settle the issue through bilateral talks were further complicated by the recent presidential election in what the local Armenian leadership claims to be the state of Nagorno-Karabakh. Arkady Ghukasian was re-elected President with 88 per cent of the vote on August 11. Aliyev denounced the election, describing Armenia as an “aggressor”.
Ghukasian has always been a close associate of President Kocharian. He swept to power in September 1997 with 85 per cent of the vote.
Ghukasian, who survived an attempt on his life in March 2000, is a hard-line supporter of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence from Azerbaijan. His re-election indicates that peace is still far.
Russia is expected to play a key role in peace moves between the two countries. The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement August 7 that it supports Azeri territorial integrity, and criticised the Karabakh elections.
At the same time, Russia sees Armenia as a strategic partner in the region. Russia and Armenia signed a far-reaching friendship and co-operation treaty in August 1997 that provides for mutual assistance in the event of a military threat to either.
Under the treaty Russia is allowed to keep 12,000 troops in Armenia. The troops help guard the mountainous borders with Turkey.
On August 9, two days after Russia condemned the election in Nagorno-Karabakh, its troops held joint manoeuvres with their Armenian counterparts in the Armavir region of Armenia.
The treaty between the two mainly Orthodox Christian ex-Soviet republics also provides for boosting co-operation in economy, science and culture.
Earlier moves for a peaceful settlement have failed. The Minsk Group set up by the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sought progress through small agreements rather than a comprehensive deal. That policy has produced little.
At talks in the U.S. last year Kocharian and Aliev had seemed closer to an agreement than ever before, but those talks too failed to produce results.