Analysis & Opinions - International Herald Tribune

A Conflict That Can Be Resolved in Time: Nagorno-Karabakh

Nov. 29, 2003

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts The World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development recently approved funding for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which will bring Caspian oil to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

The pipeline could provide livelihoods for many people in Azerbaijan and Armenia as well as stimulate economic activity in eastern Turkey, and it will make a contribution to enhancing world energy security by developing a non-OPEC oil source.

The volatility of the situation in Georgia, however, should serve as a reminder of the need for active diplomacy to resolve the conflicts in the region as a condition for the successful implementation of this significant project.

An important place to start is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The situation in the South Caucasus is tense, and without timely resolution, the world may face a reignited regional war. However, conditions are ripe for a comprehensive resolution of the conflict through creative and active diplomacy.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted in the late 1980's on the eve of the Soviet Union's breakup. The emerging republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia clashed over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but with an ethnic Armenian majority. A war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990's left more than 30,000 dead and created more than a million refugees - more than 800,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians. A cease-fire has been in place since 1994, but in recent months there have been increasingly frequent skirmishes.

In 1992, the United Nations entrusted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe with the mission of resolving the conflict, despite the fact that this organization has never been responsible for conflict resolution and has no concrete means at its disposal. The UN then stepped back and for more than a decade, took no further action beyond words. The OSCE and interested countries such as the United States have begun a series of well-intentioned but ineffective initiatives, but an uneasy cease-fire and lack of attention-grabbing terrorism have kept Nagorno-Karabakh on the world's back burner.

Resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict warrants optimism and inventive efforts.

Russia's role is crucial. The European Union could offer incentives to Russia to take steps in the region that would promote the end of the conflict.

The conflict should be a focus of EU efforts to widen its political and security impact in the region. While European business is taking a leading role in the Caspian region and gas producers there seek European markets, little European political activity or meaningful security cooperation has taken place in the region.

In recent months, several newly appointed European envoys have visited the region, attempting to activate the peace process. Recent visitors have included Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands, chairman of the OSCE, and Heikki Talvitie, the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus. Their visits were well-intended and welcomed, but the plethora of European initiatives is confusing and often disheartening, as the missions are uncoordinated and lacking in concrete proposals.

Next, the needs and rights of the Nagorno-Karabakh refugees should be recognized and addressed. Most of the 800,000 Azerbaijani refugees originate from Armenian-occupied regions whose status isn't even disputed by Armenia. This offers an opportunity for resolving the problem.

On three occasions in the last decade, the warring sides have come close to signing peace agreements. Armenia's and Azerbaijan's positions are not that far apart. With the help of some creative solutions in the disputed region, the gap can be bridged.

For the past two years the OSCE and other international organizations and countries have been saying that they were awaiting the results of elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia held parliamentary elections this spring, and Azerbaijan completed its presidential election last month, leaving no more excuses for international inaction.

The writer is research director at the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University and author of "Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity."

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For Academic Citation: Shaffer, Brenda.“A Conflict That Can Be Resolved in Time: Nagorno-Karabakh.” International Herald Tribune, November 29, 2003.