Twenty years ago, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, unleashed from Soviet control, waged a bitter struggle for this mountainous region in the South Caucasus. A cease-fire was reached in 1994, after about 30,000 people had been killed, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh outside Azerbaijan’s control, as an unrecognized, de facto republic in the hands of ethnic Armenians.
Since then, no one on either side has had the will to hammer out a settlement. Tension has been put to use by those in power — in Azerbaijan, in Armenia proper and here in separatist Nagorno-Karabakh. Democracy, human rights, an unfettered press, a genuine opposition — these are the sorts of things that get put aside in times of crisis. And here, the crisis has been going on for two decades and shows little sign of letting up.
“The development of democracy has fallen hostage to the conflict,” said Masis Mayilian, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former foreign minister and a onetime candidate for president. “This is very handy for totalitarian regimes.”
A renewal of the war would be a disaster for all concerned, unless it were very quick. On this they agree. The two sides are much more heavily armed than they were in 1991, especially Azerbaijan. It might be very difficult for Iran, Turkey and Russia to remain uninvolved — and impossible to confine the fighting to Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A major supply route used by the United States to provision troops in Afghanistan would be disrupted.
But resistance to a peace settlement along the lines of a proposal sponsored by the United States, France and Russia has been stiff. “We share the wish that there be no war,” said Robert Bradtke, the U.S. diplomat involved in the talks. “But do the parties have the political will?”
So far, they don’t. Azerbaijan and Armenia, which negotiates on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh, say they support the international effort to find a way toward settling the first post-Soviet conflict. “It is high time to do it,” Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov said recently in Moscow after meeting with his counterpart from Russia, which is especially intent on getting an agreement.
But Azerbaijan also says that it will never formally surrender territory. And the people of Nagorno-Karabakh say they will never give up the right of self-determination. For two decades, both sides have kept passions inflamed, which turns out to be good politics for those at the top.
But with snipers on both sides shooting at one another every day, occasionally causing casualties, and plenty of saber-rattling rhetoric, the chances of stumbling into a war of miscalculation, or a war of hotheadedness, are considerable.
Tevan Poghosyan, who in the 1990s represented Karabakh in the United States and now runs a think tank in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, said war is inevitable. It will take another round of fighting, he said, to “steam” the poison out.