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War draws to a close.

The brutal war between two ancient neighbours may now be entering its final stage. Armenia's new offensive into Azerbaijani territory is creating many more refugees, and has attracted strong condemnation as well as warnings from both Iran and Turkey. But the third and possibly crucial regional power, Russia, is keeping its distance from the conflict.

Just two years ago, at the time of independence, the prospects of this oil-rich republic appeared to be brighter than almost any of the fifteen successor states to the Soviet Union. Yet now Azerbaijan faces an uncertain future with little realistic hope of stable government.

One reason Armenian forces have done so well is the prize at stake. They now appear to have achieved the age-old nationalist goal of ensuring the viability of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorny (mountainous) Karabagh. By driving out the Azeri population from Karabagh - and now from the Lachin corridor which connects the enclave with Armenia itself - a spectacular reversal has taken place.

The Armenian nationalists clearly intend to ensure both Karabagh and the Lachin corridor can now be held against any future counter-attacks. That would mean the virtual annexation by Armenia of the disputed enclave, and conquered territory which might be returned to Azerbaijan eventually in a humiliating peace settlement.

The Armenians of Karabagh faced oppressive tactics by Baku for decades, and a virtual blockage of essential imported goods for ethnic Armenian areas for five years. Azeri rule of Karabagh, according to many Armenians, was designed to drive them out. Many thousands did quit and migrate to Armenia. Now at last the boot is on the other foot, and with a vengeance.

Most observers agree, though, that Armenia's spectacular successes in this war are due more than anything else to the failure of Azeri commanders to use the forces at their disposal to resist Armenian advances. The mood among Azeris is grim. While Azerbaijani leaders in Baku continue to rant of foreign plots, blaming Russia's "secret help" in weapons and interference on the side of Armenia, ordinary refugees are bitter and often very angry over the pathetic performance of Azerbaijani military forces against their small neighbour.

Many blame the army commanders - the country's new prime minister Suret Huseinov is himself a former army officer - for playing at politics and displaying cynical opportunism at a time of national crisis and disaster.

Azerbaijan's internal political crisis has been further complicated by a recent revolt against Baku by Ah Akram Gummatov, an army colonel and leader of a south-eastern region - including the key port of Lenkoranc - close to the border with Iran. A self-proclaimed "Talysh-Mugansk republic" was declared last June, and border posts were even set up. From Baku, government spokesmen claimed that Iran was helping in this rebellion, or inspiring it.

Iran's position is indeed more ambiguous than Turkey's. Turkey clearly favoured the government of Abulfaz Elchibey, partly because it loudly voiced Pan-Turkic views fashionable in some circles in Turkey. Though originally elected in free elections by a massive majority, Elchibey's popularity waned rapidly as the government's performance failed to impress people and territory was steadily lost to the Armenians. He was forced out of Baku to Nakhidievan last June, along with those loyal to him, after rebel army units moved forcefully against the capital.

Turkish troop reinforcements along the Armenian border in the first week of September were accompanied for the first time by a direct warning to Armenia to withdraw its forces from occupied areas of Azerbaijan "immediately and unconditionally."

Iran is much more sympathetic than Turkey to the present Baku regime, even though it is led by the communist bureaucrat and former Soviet politburo member Haidar Aliyev. Last month Iran conducted military manoeuvres right up its border with Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave inside Armenia which borders on both Iran and Turkey, in a clear warning to the Armenians to cease their invasion.

Unconfirmed reports, quite possibly deliberate disinformation by Tehran, even claimed Iranian troops had crossed over the Araxes river border. At the same time Iran proposed the creation of a security zone 20km in depth along the border, in effect a safe haven to be guarded by Iranian troops.

One practical reason for Iranian worries is the current refugee exodus from Azerbaijan. Iran represents the last hope for Azeri refugees from Fizuli and Jebrail provinces and other threatened areas of southwestern Azerbaijan. Even for those Azeris able to reach the capital Baku, there is no room for more Azeri refugees in this overcrowded city. The first part of a new human wave, estimated to number at least 200,000 desperate refugees from hastily abandoned villages, arrived in Iran in early September. Iran already has several million refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq to cope with.
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Title Annotation:Armenian intervention in Azerbaijan draws to a close
Author:Hyman, Anthony
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:787
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