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Ethnic resentments and pride complicate Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement

By JIM HEINTZ
The Associated Press
5/26/01 5:01 AM

SHUSHA, Azerbaijan (AP) -- Standing on the dizzying Shusha heights, U.S., French and Russian diplomats could see the site of a key turning point in the six-year war over Nagorno-Karabakh -- and its bleakest consequence.

On one side were the plunging 1,000-foot cliffs that a handful of ethnic Armenian commandos scaled to knock out Azerbaijani heavy artillery that had devastated the separatist region's capital, Stepanakert, which lies below.

On the other side lay the city of Shusha. Populated mostly by Azeris before the war, almost all of its 5,000 residents are now ethnic Armenian refugees who fled violence in other parts of Azerbaijan during the war.

Somewhere in distance, the diplomats mediating a thorny peace process believe, is a settlement agreement that could bring stability and eventually prosperity to Azerbaijan and Armenia, countries of strategic importance both to Russia and the West.

But for any deal to work, it must address both the pride and the suffering that Shusha symbolizes. Nagorno-Karabakh is a small patch of high mountains and deep valleys, where Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis lived for nearly a millennium as their land shifted among empires. After the Russian empire's collapse in 1917, new governments in Armenia and Azerbaijan briefly struggled for control of the area until Soviet dictator Josef Stalin made it part of Azerbaijan in the 1920s.

Long-suppressed ethnic tensions erupted in the 1980s as the Soviet grip loosened, and war broke out after the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to break away from Azerbaijan in 1988.

After a war that killed more than 30,000 people and drove a million from their homes, a 1994 cease-fire left Nagorno-Karabakh firmly in control of an unrecognized ethnic Armenian government and its militia, who stare down Azerbaijani troops along a well-fortified "line of control."

The United States, Russia and France have led a nine-year peace effort and are pressing for a resolution of the enclave's status, shepherding the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan through at least 15 meetings in the last two years. The mediators visited the region this month with a sense of urgency.

In the decade since becoming independent, Armenia has sunk into poverty, even its prosperous diaspora reluctant to invest. For Azerbaijan, the flood of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and threat of renewed war has stymied development of the rich Caspian Sea oil fields.

The top U.S. mediator, Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, says a settlement could be an economic windfall, boosting investor confidence, opening borders and restoring impoverished and landlocked Armenia's rail links with Turkey, which favors Azerbaijan.

But in Shusha, the long view is not as compelling as the miseries and resentments in the foreground. Azeris consider the city the historical and cultural heart of Nagorno-Karabakh -- and they want it back. Ethnic Armenians who fled there to escape attacks elsewhere in Azerbaijan say they won't leave.

"I can't go back to Baku. I was driven out -- the Azeris told me 'leave or we will kill you'," said Bagrat Khachatrian, 70, one of a crowd who surrounded the envoys in Shusha to press their complaints. Meanwhile, Baku is Azerbaijan's capital.

With grievances simmering, Cavanaugh has said that even if Azerbaijan President Geidar Aliev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian manage to agree on a settlement deal, the hard part will be convincing their constituents to accept painful compromises.

Although some 200 people die from bullets or mines linked with the conflict, the deaths attract little international attention. Cavanaugh worries Nagorno-Karabakh could become a "comfortably stagnant" dispute, written off by foreign governments as a hopeless cause, but not an especially troubling one.

Superficially, Nagorno-Karabakh would be easy to forget. With about 140,000 people at most among soaring mountains on a tiny territory traversed by axle-shattering roads, it seems like a classic backwater: scenic but insignificant.

However, it lies athwart the crossroads of Russia with Turkey and Iran. Empires have vied for control of the region, a history reflected in the name Nagorno-Karabakh, a Russian-Turkish-Persian hybrid meaning "mountainous black garden."

For Russia, a settlement would bring a welcome dose of stability in a region already wracked by war in Chechnya, and a chance to exert more influence.

For the United States, a settlement would be a foreign-policy victory at a time when Mideast peace efforts have disintegrated, and possibly a small step closer to rapprochement with Iran.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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