Don't Allow a New Arms Race in the Southern Caucasus
Don't Allow a New Arms Race in the Southern Caucasus
What to Watch at the UN General Assembly, plus Ukraine’s Kharkiv Offensive and the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Clashes
What to Watch at the UN General Assembly, plus Ukraine’s Kharkiv Offensive and the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Clashes
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Don't Allow a New Arms Race in the Southern Caucasus

On August 27, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met on the sidelines of the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Kazan, Russia, to discuss the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. That brutal war, which killed some 20,000 people and displaced over a million, has been locked in a shaky cease-fire for a decade, hindering development throughout the southern Caucasus.

Kazan did not produce miracles - or even headlines. However, it provided an opportunity for Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, in their second face-to-face meeting in four months, to encourage their foreign ministers to continue talks and consider proposals prepared by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It was not the hoped-for ice-breaker, but it was an important step forward in the resolution of that long-frozen conflict.

Over half a million Azerbaijanis were forcibly displaced by the war and continue to live in precarious conditions in decrepit camps, unsure of their future. Nagorno-Karabakh forces backed by Armenia continue to control seven Azerbaijani districts in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Such dramatic and painful consequences have prevented the two sides from making a deal, with the rhetoric in Baku and Yerevan effectively on war-footing for 10 years. Since major hostilities in and around Nagorno-Karabakh halted in 1994, the parties to the conflict have been unable to sign a single agreement bringing them closer to a political settlement.

However, for over a year now, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in a new round of talks, supplemented by meetings between their presidents. The United States, France and Russia - the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, responsible for facilitating negotiations - are expressing rare optimism that a settlement may be within reach.

An actual peace-building process could begin with the withdrawal from occupied territories and would most likely end with a legal process (or a vote), including the participation of Karabakh Armenians and Karabakh Azeris, to determine the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Somewhere in between, displaced Azeris would start returning home. Kocharian and Aliyev not only have to agree on these fundamental points, they need to do so very publicly to begin preparing their people for a settlement.

Last time, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were close to a deal after negotiations in Key West, Florida, in 2001, the presidents did not work on getting public backing for their efforts, and public reaction to a political compromise was hostile. Former Minsk Group co-chair, Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh from the United States, summed up Key West's failure, saying: "The presidents were ahead of their people."

The Azerbaijani and Armenian people have been receiving contradictory messages from their authorities for years. On the one hand, they are told the conflict should be resolved peacefully; on the other, they hear there is no room for compromise. While there may have been little ethnic basis for the war when it started, today official propaganda has helped insure the build-up of mutual hatred and contempt. The near complete breakdown in communication and friendship ties between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, between Karabakh Armenians and Karabakh Azeris, means that neither population has much understanding of the other's grievances and fears.

Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have long relied on tough talk at home to boost their domestic approval ratings. Today, as the opposition in both countries is threatening to take power - after the November 6 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and a crucial vote on constitutional amendments in Armenia later that month - leaders may feel it is easier to stick with the proven methods of chauvinism for keeping their hold on power. Some evidence of this came last month, when Aliyev announced a 70-percent increase in military spending, which has, overall, gone up from $135 million in 2003 to $300 million in 2005, and Armenian officials replied that their army had resources to match that sum.

An arms race in the Southern Caucasus and a reversion to nationalist rhetoric will not help. The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia have a chance to lead their populations on a road toward a settlement, and they should act boldly and take it. They should begin by promoting contacts between their people, as well as between Karabakh Armenians and Azeris. After Kazan, they can begin a new journey, showing their people and the world that they are leaders who will not miss this historical chance to bring peace, prosperity and development to their divided region.

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