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Nagorno-Karabakh’s referendum

Daria Vaisman Shaun Walker
14 December 2006

It was all a bit of an anticlimax. The contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was voting on 10 December 2006 for a new constitution - after twelve years of de facto independence from Azerbaijan, it was meant to be the final stage on its path to statehood. Yet on the streets of its capital Stepanakert, no one seemed particularly excited. Two lonely posters and one small banner advertised the referendum. While all the major international papers covered a similar referendum in breakaway South Ossetia on 12 October, here only one of the wires showed up.

This is surprising, considering that Karabakh has been the bloodiest, highest profile, and most intractable of the frozen conflicts in the region. But the neglect was less evidence of indifference to independence than of a feeling that Karabakh is further down the line to recognition than its breakaway counterparts; the referendum was merely confirming its independence, rather than agitating for it.

Nagorno-Karabakh has a special history. The Armenians call it a centre of their ancient civilisation; the Azeris point to their famous Karabakh poets and musicians. The spectacular mountains and green valleys give a dramatic backdrop to a region infused with Persian, Turkish and Russian influences. Though the region's ethnic groups collided over the centuries, Stalin's nationalities policies in the early Soviet period exacerbated the tensions. Karabakh, though always majority Armenian, was attached to the newly created republic of Azerbaijan in 1921.

Though there were desultory cries for greater control from the Armenian population of Karabakh throughout the Soviet period, their demands grew stronger as the union collapsed. Azeri and Armenian friends and neighbours turned against each other, fuelled by nationalism and Armenian Karabakh's irresistible drive for independence.

A still-standing but shaky ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, after six years of fighting. The results were dire: more than 700,000 Azeris and 400,000 Armenians were displaced from their homes, and Karabakh is now a monoethnic shadow of its cosmopolitan past. The status of Karabakh has been discussed and contested over the decade since, but with each failed peace talk, the chance for compromise on either side fades further. With its symbolic importance and its value as a cause around which political elites can harness public sentiment, it is the region's Jerusalem.

A frozen status quo

The Karabakh border with Azerbaijan is a frontline. In fact, the actual line of control, where nervous young Karabakh conscripts train rifles at Azerbaijan from clumsily dug trenches, is well outside the borders of Karabakh proper, in territory occupied as a buffer zone. With this border closed, Karabakh is only accessible by a single major road that wends through the mountains from Armenia.

There is no way of knowing where Armenia ends and Karabakh begins - no visible signs mark the border, and a barely noticeable checkpoint intermittently stops cars with a friendly request to register in Stepanakert. Armenia funds approximately half of Karabakh's state budget, and trains its military. This makes true independence for Nagorno-Karabakh difficult to imagine.

Even less likely, however, is a return to Azerbaijan. By the territorial-integrity standards applied to the other breakaway states, Azerbaijan should keep Karabakh, as it was part of their territory during the Soviet period, just as South Ossetia and Abkhazia were parts of Georgia. Azerbaijan has promised the "highest level" of autonomy, but Armenian Karabakh is understandably sceptical.

A comparison is sometimes made to the Aland Islands - an archipelago with a Swedish population that was given to Finland in 1921. Decades of broad autonomy under Finnish rule left a contented population and an example that this kind of dispute can be solved peacefully. In 1993, a mediation group brought the three sides in the Karabakh dispute to the islands, and suggested a similar arrangement. The Karabakh Armenians, so goes the apocryphal tale, surprised everyone by agreeing to the idea. "Yes," they said, "we're happy to be ruled by Finland."

The peace process

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group, a multilateral group led by Russia, the United States and France, has been charged with negotiating a solution to the conflict. A series of summits have been unsuccessful, including most recently at Rambouillet earlier in 2006 despite widespread expectation of a breakthrough. While the sides have been close to agreement on many issues, the recurring problem has been the most fundamental one: the status of Karabakh. As with Jerusalem, there is no status acceptable to both sides.

With Karabakh's independence already a de facto achievement, the Armenian side already has a disproportionate share of what it wants. True, the situation is far from ideal for Karabakh - the regime is concerned about an attack from Azerbaijan, and lacks the investments and political status that come with international recognition. But the imperfect status quo seems more appealing to the Armenian side than other options on the table, particularly those which seek to reunite the region with Azerbaijan.

This stumbling-block has led many to advocate a "step-by-step" approach to resolving the conflict, rather than a "package deal" to solve the conflict all at once. The idea is to build up trust first while negotiating on less contentious issues, such as troop withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territories, and then deal with Karabakh's status at a later date. But even this approach has failed to yield results so far.

Daria Vaisman is Caucasus correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and a freelance writer based in Tbilisi and Moscow. She has written for Slate, the International Herald Tribune, Foreign Policy, the New Republic and other publications

Also by Daria Vaisman on openDemocracy:

"Turkey's restriction, Europe's problem"
(29 September 2006)

"Orhan Pamuk and Turkey’s future"
(1 December 2006)

Shaun Walker is a journalist based in Moscow, where he writes for RussiaProfile.org

Also by Shaun Walker on openDemocracy:

"Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional" (9 October 2006)

“South Ossetia: Russian, Georgian...independent?" (15 November 2006)

The regional powers

The United States sees the Caucasus as a strategic energy corridor that bypasses both Iran and Russia. With the newly built Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which will soon be pumping a million barrels of oil per day from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, the US is worried that regional conflict would jeopardise its sizeable energy investments.

Iran, which borders Armenia and Azerbaijan, has helped both sides at different times. During the height of the conflict, Iran supported Christian Armenia against its fellow Shi'a state Azerbaijan. With much of northern Iran populated by increasingly anti-government ethnic Azeris with ties to Azerbaijan, it's in Iran's interests to keep Azerbaijan occupied with Karabakh.

Despite support for Armenia during the conflict, Russia in recent years has tried not to take sides, maintaining good relations with both parties. Karabakh officials remain cool on relations with Russia, however, and are keen to avoid being lumped in with the other breakaway states. As one Karabakh official put it, "Of course we're very interested in hearing from the others as the status of Nato-controlled Kosovo's independence nears. But we have bilateral not multilateral ties with them." The fear is that Russia is using the breakaway states as an anti-western policy instrument, and Karabakh has no interest in taking part.

There is a sense even among the other breakaways that they would prefer a guarantor other than Russia if they had a choice. Karabakh does - in large part due to the powerful Armenian diaspora. This is evident even before arriving; the road between Armenia and Karabakh is perhaps the best in the Caucasus, and was funded by $25 million of diaspora money. Maps, tourist brochures and websites about Karabakh are glossy and professional.

Masis Mayilian, Karabakh's deputy foreign minister, asked us in flawless English if we wanted to see the text of a lecture he had delivered at a university in the United States. It was worlds away from South Ossetian or Transdniestrian officials - Russian-speaking and suspicious of anything and anyone western.

While these regions have no voice in western capitals, the Armenian diaspora acts as an international lobbying group. "The moral and political support is more important than the investments; they can lobby our interests in the US Congress," said Mayilian. In October 2005, fifty-nine members of congress sent a letter to President George W Bush calling Karabakh an independent country of "proud citizens committed to the values of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights."

The Azeri factor

There is one thing that may shift the balance in the medium term: Azerbaijan's oil windfall, estimated by President Ilham Aliyev to be about $140 billion in the next twenty years. A good amount of this is being spent on updating the Azerbaijani military, and with nearly a million internally-displaced people (IDPs) in Azerbaijan as a result of the Karabakh conflict, regaining lost territory is a huge priority among the populace and elites. While an all-out military attack might be unlikely, having the capability to launch it might shift the balance at the negotiating table, and give some force to Azerbaijan's demands.

The Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents met again on 28 November, at the CIS summit in Minsk, and again no progress was made. If and when progress does come in the negotiations, it will be a long time before Karabakh returns to any kind of normalcy. If Azerbaijan recovers control of some or all of the territory occupied as a buffer-zone, it will take years of investment to make it habitable again. Walking around a destroyed Azeri town like Fizuli is rather like visiting ruins from ancient Rome - all the evidence of former civilisation is there, but the devastation is so complete that it is difficult to imagine it as a living community.

Despite the fact that more than a million people remain displaced from their homes, both Azerbaijan and Armenia have too much to lose from a new conflict. While a breakthrough in negotiations seems unlikely in the near future, so does further bloodshed. Instead, the most likely scenario is more of the same - a fragile status somewhere between peace and war.

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