The Nargorno-Karabakh Time Bomb

by S. Neil MacFarlane and Larry Minear

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh was the first of the many conflicts accompanying the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Begun in 1988 and still sputtering eight years later, it has also produced the most casualties and refugees of any of those conflicts.

The war began in paroxysms of civil violence as the newly independent republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan purged themselves of minorities from the other, resulting in a population exchange of some 500,000 people. The military conflict began in earnest in 1989 and culminated in a series of Armenian offensives in 1993 and 1994 that created a buffer around Nagorno-Karabakh of about one-fifth of Azerbaijan's territory. The expulsion of the Azerbaijani population from these areas uprooted another 500,000 people.

Having armed both sides, Russia mediated a cease-fire in May 1994 which, despite sporadic incidents, has held for two years. Yet the cease-fire has not been translated into a binding political settlement. Mediation by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has stalled; parallel diplomatic efforts by Russia and the United States have yet to produce results. Unlike traditional conflicts, this one has three parties whose interests must be accommodated: Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Diplomats have thus far failed to find a way of reconciling Azerbaijan's insistence on maintaining its territorial integrity with Nagorno-Karabakh's equally unswerving determination to exercise its right to self-determination. The parties are also divided over the status of the Lachin Corridor, which links the disputed area to Armenia through other Azerbaijani territory. The fate of previously Azerbaijani-populated and -administered territories within the contested area, as well as of the city of Shusha, also remains unresolved.

International indifference to the conflict has serious consequences, both in the region and beyond. The plight of one-half million displaced persons in Azerbaijan represents a ticking time bomb. The Azerbaijani government has resisted resettling them permanently for fear of compromising claims to Armenian-occupied areas. They remain encamped in tents and temporary shelters, and dependent on international handouts, although anxious to return to their homes. Meanwhile, most of the Armenian refugees have been integrated into Armenia, strengthening its vision as a homeland and reflecting the prevailing view there that the return of Armenians to Azerbaijani-controlled areas is unrealistic in the foreseeable future.

But the negative aspects of the current impasse range well beyond the humanitarian. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan, like other republics in the former USSR, suffered heavily from the collapse of the Soviet command economy. Their economic recovery has been profoundly retarded by the persistence of the conflict. With blockades imposed on Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey remaining in place, the energy crisis in Armenia has caused great suffering and slowed economic normalization. It has also driven Armenia to reopen a nuclear power station near the Turkish frontier closed in 1989 as an environmental hazard in an earthquake zone.

In Azerbaijan, the conflict and associated political instability have distracted the government from necessary economic reforms. The risks associated with the conflict have slowed foreign investment in the oil and gas sector. An estimated 60 to 80 percent of the population is below the official poverty line.

Failure to resolve the conflict has negative implications for Western interests as well. It prevents serious consideration of the most cost-effective and environmentally sound pipeline route for Azerbaijan's eventual oil bonanza: from Baku through Armenia to Turkey and on to the Mediterranean coast. It reinforces Azerbaijan's need for a route through Russia, enhancing Russia's position in the competition to control the massive energy reserves of the Caspian Basin.

Russia has succeeded in using the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh to consolidate its influence in the Caucasus at the expense of the newly independent states of the region. Armenian dependence on Russia in the face of Turkish and Azerbaijani hostility has produced a 25-year Russian lease on military bases in Armenia as well as a Russian presence along Armenia's borders. Russia is using the conflict to wrest similar concessions from Azerbaijan. The passivity of the United States and other Western states is helping restore Russian hegemony in the Caucasus.

In short, the longer the Nagorno-Karabakh matter remains unresolved, the more likely open conflict is to be renewed. All three belligerents are engaged in military buildups. All three believe that time is on their side, which suggests serious miscalculations by some and perhaps all. Azerbaijan has made it clear that, although preferring a peaceful settlement, it will consider military options should a settlement not be forthcoming. Given the close and competitive involvement of Turkey, Iran, and Russia in the region, this would risk a wider and potentially disastrous war.

It is time to refocus international attention on the forgotten conflict. Although more active international involvement is no panacea, a durable peace is not likely to be found without more substantial outside engagement in the issues.

Larry Minear is co-director of the Humanitarianism and War Project at the Watson Institute. S. Neil MacFarlane is director of the Centre for International Relations at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. The authors returned earlier this month from a research trip to the Caucasus for the Humanitarianism and War Project of the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University, Providence, RI.

This article first appeared in the Providence Journal-Bulletin, Tuesday, July 2, 1996, Commentary section, page B4.