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The question of Azerbaijan.

On August 9 Azerbaijani troops captured Artsvashen, a pocket of Armenian territory within western Azerbaijan. This latest fighting in a four-and-a half-year conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan sent Armenia--a member of the mutual security pact signed by six former Soviet republics in May--pleading with its fellow members to intervene militarily on its side. So far they have not done so. And the predominantly Russian troops of the twelve-member Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.), stationed in Azerbaijan and Armenia, continue to be under orders to keep out of the fray.

Like the situation in what was once Yugoslavia, this is an ethnic conflict with a long and complex history. At the root of the conflict is Nagorno-Karabakh (the name means Mountain of the Black Garden), a 1,700-square-mile, largely Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, so placed by Joseph Stalin in 1921 to reward the revolutionaries of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, a strong Bolshevik center. The territorial dispute is fueled by a centuries-old animosity between Armenians and Turkic people, of whom Azeris are just one variant.

In an environment of rising ethnic and religious consciousness following the collapse of secular Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet Union, Azeris find themselves living in the only Muslim republic in Transcaucasia. However, in the final analysis, they feel reassured by having Muslim neighbors to the south (Iran) and the west (Turkey).

Azerbaijan did not join the mutual security pact signed by half of the C.I.S. members. Armenia did. Peace talks sponsored by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (C.S.C.E.) collapsed in early August, but Armenia's pleas to its mutual security members for military intervention have failed largely because it was the Armenians themselves who capitalized on political chaos in Azerbaijan last spring by seizing Nagorno-Karabakh militarily. Since the seizure, followed by the Armenian establishment of a seven-mile corridor running through Azeri territory from Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian' border, the enclave has been "cleansed .. Virtually all of the 50,000 Azeri inhabitants, forming 25 percent of the population, have left, voluntarily or otherwise.

Such migrations have marked the conflict almost since it began, as have numerous charges and countercharges of cold-blooded murder and massacres. When on February 20, 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh's regional soviet called for a formal transfer of the enclave from Azerbaijan to Armenia, angry Azeris killed thirty-two Armenians in Sumgait, a dormitory town near Baku. Armenians in turn killed Azeris living among them. The escalating violence resulted in the dispatch of Soviet troops to Baku in January of 1990, the death of 122 Azeris at their hands, and the flight of 300,000 Armenians and 200,000 Azeris across the borders. (Russian and Jewish minorities, however, are not threatened in either country.) More than 3,000 people have died in the fighting.

In both republics the conflict has intensified nationalist passions, with the ultranationalist Tashnak Party gaining ground among the Armenians. The Armenian government's claim that Nagorno-Karabakh was taken by a militia over which it had no control wounded Azeri pride. People could not accept the idea that their republic, three times the size of Armenia and twice as populous, rich in oil and gas, had been defeated not by a regular army but by a militia. They attributed their setbacks to conspiracies hatched by pro-Armenian Russian officers in the C.I.S. army and politicians in Moscow, by the well-heeled Armenian diaspora in league with the Tashnak extremists, by the fanatic Iranian mullahs in Teheran--as well as by the treacherous Azeri "mafia," which allegedly sold Azeri arms to the Armenians for huge profits.

Having just shed the ideology of proletarian internationalism, Azeris have adopted nationalism with a vengeance. They blithely put the number of Azeris in the world at 60 million, twice the actual figure. They began referring to the Azeri speaking region in northern Iran as South Azerbaijan, implying an eventual union of the two parts. (This was enough to set off alarm bells in Teheran, where the power of ethnic nationalism is well understood.) And they nurtured a powerful nostalgia for the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, which existed from May 28, 1918, to April 20, 1920. Azeris claim that Baku was the center for the Turkish-speaking intellectuals who developed the ideology of secularism in a Muslim state.

This was adopted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, after he had abolished the Islamic caliphate in the wake of the First World War.

During this past spring's campaign for President, Nizami Suleimanov, one of the serious contenders for office, played to the Azeris' exaggerated sense of self-importance. He vowed to market Azerbaijan's oil and gas so extensively that within two years the republic would be a Kuwait-by-the-Caspian. He promised a military-industrial complex 100 times more powerful than Armenia's. Starting as a minor candidate, he quickly built up a popular base of 30 percent of the electorate.

The polling on June 7, however, went as expected--in favor of Abul Faz Elchibey. Ever since he became the leader of the Popular Front, rounded in 1988 as an opposition force, Elchibey has presented himself as a fervent nationalist. With his election, he became the second nationalist intellectual to achieve supreme power in Transcaucasia, the first being Zviad Gamsakhurdia of Georgia. His victory has had fairly immediate implications for the conflict with Armenia and for Azerbaijan's relations with its more powerful neighbors, Turkey, Iran and Russia.

Elchibey lost no time in launching an offensive against Armenia. His forces' limited successes in the northern part of Nagorno-Karabakh, around the strategic town of Mardakert, helped to restore damaged Azeri pride. And the timing was right--on the eve of the C.S.C.E.-sponsored meeting of eleven countries in Rome on June 15. Elchibey had feared that if he did not act in advance of that meeting, the follow-up peace conference, to be held in the Belarussian capital of Minsk, would recognize the status quo, legitimizing Armenian control of the enclave. When, at the meeting, the Armenians insisted that the assembled participants condemn the Azeri offensive, they drew a blank. After all, the Armenians had taken Nagorno-Karabakh and a corridor through Azerbaijan by force.

Regionally, Elchibey's election marked a plus for Turkey and a minus for Iran in their competition for influence in Azerbaijan. Much to the disappointment of the Azeri public, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not taken either side in the conflict but has acted as a mediator between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia, brokering cease-fires, which have been short-lived. Iran has put national interests above Islamic ideology. It is loath to see a stable, strong Azerbaijan at its doorstep. Such a state might encourage irredentist tendencies among the Azeris in Iran, 7 million of whom live in provinces that share borders with the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Elchibey has made no secret of his anti-Iranian bias. "Iran is as much a heterogeneous empire as Russia and is thus doomed to fall apart if democratic reforms and voluntary confederation do not occur," he said recently. "Religion cannot hold a state together for long. Nationalism spelled the end for the Christian empire-states of the West, and it will now spell the end for the Muslim states of the East."

The Azeri leader also directed his fire at the C.I.S., particularly Russia, promising during his campaign to withdraw Azerbaijan from the "semi-slavery" of the commonwealth. This alarmed Moscow, apprehensive that any withdrawal might start a chain reaction and lead to the demise of the C.I.S.

Apparently, the fear of Azerbaijan's secession played a major part in the thinking of policy-makers in Moscow and in their decision, deliberate or otherwise, to keep Azerbaijan weak and on the defensive. Here, as in so many aspects of the conflict, there are echoes of history. The political geography of these two Transcaucasian republics--with a strip of Azeri territory called Nakhichevan separated from Azerbaijan proper by Armenia, and the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh situated within the borders of Azerbaijan despite its ethnic cognation to Armenia--was a brainchild of Stalin. He wanted to punish Armenia for harboring counterrevolutionaries after the 1917 revolution and inject a destabilizing ethnic factor into the regional equation.

Today, Russia's desire for a weak Azerbaijan has translated into favoritism for Armenia. With C.I.S. troops stationed in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moscow has a powerful card to play. And it has played it. By discreetly diverting weapons and military expertise to the Armenians through the Russian dominated C.I.S. force last spring, Moscow enabled the Armenians to score victories. Russia is thus implementing its policy to preserve the C.I.S. by fair means or foul. At the same time, it is unlikely to respond positively to Armenia's plea for military intervention, partly because the mutual security pact's four Central Asian members, being Muslim, would not go along, and partly because of Azerbaijan's strong links with Turkey.

Through the vicissitudes of this long dispute, Azerbaijan has received consistent backing from Turkey, which shares a seven-mile border with the enclave of Nakhichevan. This support has paid off in Turkey's competition with Iran for influence in Azerbaijan.

Turkey scored a point over Iran, for instance, when, earlier in the year, the Azerbaijan government decided to switch from the Cyrillic to the Roman script, which the Turks use. Among those who backed the move was Elchibey. When he was told by an Iranian clergyman that acceptance of the Roman alphabet amounted to acceptance of Christianity, and that Azeris ought to return to Arabic, "the alphabet of Islam," Elchibey, an orientalist and Arabic scholar, replied: "Arabic is a stepchild of Aramaic and Hebrew, and goes all the way back to Phoenician, and can in no sense be described as an inherently 'holy' or 'Islamic' alphabet."

To revive linguistic affinity with its Azeri neighbors, the Turkish government began beaming television programs at Azerbaijan (and Central Asian republics farther east) in late April. This has proved popular in Azerbaijan and has begun subtly to change spoken Azeri, a language akin to Turkish. Ankara claims that in due course there will be two-way television traffic between Turkey and its eastern neighbors.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, insists that Turkey must not act as a big brother to the southern republics of the former Soviet Union, but this view has not percolated downward. Kurtulus Taskent, deputy director general of the Turkish Foreign Ministry's eastern section, told me: "We feel moral and political responsibility toward Azerbaijan and other Turkic republics, and would like them to establish a secular democratic system and free-market-oriented economy."

In any event, Azerbaijan, with a population of no more than an eighth of Turkey's 57 million, can hardly feel equal to its neighbor. "Azeris feel more being with Turkey than we feel being with them," said Yusuf Kanli, editor of the Turkish Daily News. "Also, Azeris are more for Pan-Turkism than we are." When Alparslan Turkes, head of the Pan-Turkic National Labor Party in Turkey--which could muster barely 4percent of the vote in the last general election--arrived in Baku recently, he was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds. Among those greeting him was Elchibey.

Despite its own severe economic problems, Turkey has granted $250 million in credits to Azerbaijan--including $10 million to the tiny Nakhichevan enclave--to buy Turkish goods and services. Iran has provided no such economic aid. Turkey is better equipped than Iran to help Azerbaijan economically. Its people have considerable management skills and experience of commercial dealings with America and Europe. Given its abundant petroleum and gas resources, Azerbaijan can complement the economy of Turkey, which, unlike Iran, lacks oil. However, the speed of economic reform and foreign investment in Azerbaijan hinges on domestic stability, which in turn depends on the resolution of the festering Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.

The recent offensive by Azerbaijan raises the possibility of a military solution, secured by Azerbaijan alone or in conjunction with Turkey. It seems, though, that Turkish involvement would be too risky. As Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, commander of the C.I.S. army, warned, foreign intervention in the dispute "could bring the world into the Third World War." Turkey is a member of NATO, and were it to attack Armenia, the mutual security members within the C.I.S. would have to respond. Shaposhnikov's statement had a chastening effect on the hawks in Ankara, reportedly including President Turgut Ozal.

The same logic would apply to Armenia's call for active intervention by its fellow members of the mutual security pact. Since the Armenians captured Nagorno-Karabakh by force, they have no moral right to call on others to reverse Azerbaijan's minor military gain. The only alternative, therefore, to a total military solution--with Azerbaijan retaking NagornoKarabakh by force and turning 150,000 Armenians into refugees-is a diplomatic one brokered by the C.S.C.E.

A final, satisfactory compromise would require territorial bartering: allocating Azeris a corridor through Armenia to connect their enclave of Nakhichevan with Azerbaijan proper, while allowing Armenia to maintain a corridor linking it with Nagorno-Karabakh, at present populated almost wholly by Armenians. The question is, Is there the political will in Baku, Yerevan, Moscow and Ankara to strike such a deal?
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Title Annotation:Nationalism Unleashed - I
Author:Hiro, Dilip
Publication:The Nation
Date:Sep 14, 1992
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