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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenian Politics Hostage to Karabakh

NAGORNY KARABAKH -- Amid the ruins of scorched houses, Samuel Kocharyan showed off his new school built with funds from the Methodist Church.

But the mild-mannered school principal, who moved to the town of Lachin from Armenia three years ago, has no sympathy for the thousands of Azeris who were driven away and would like to return. "To this region? It is impossible," he says. "This is a strategic point."

His intransigence is typical of Armenians who have settled in the conquered town of Lachin that guards the only road-link between the rebel region of Nagorny Karabakh and its supporters in Armenia and the rest of the world.

It was this opposition to any concessions on Karabakh that triggered a political crisis in the strategic Caucasian country of Armenia and led to the resignation of its president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, earlier this month.

Ter-Petrosyan had advocated a compromise in peace talks with neighboring Azerbaijan, but he was driven from his post by outraged Karabakhis serving in his government.

Nagorny Karabakh is a remote and unforgiving place, an enclave entirely within Azerbaijan. The Karabakhi Armenians fought hard for it, waging a six-year war to win de facto independence from Azerbaijan. Isolated in their mountain kingdom, and celebrating this week the 10th anniversary of their break with Azerbaijan, they say they will never give back the lands they seized and never again submit to rule from Baku, the Azeri capital.

On Feb. 20, 1988, the Karabakh Soviet voted to join Armenia and secede from Azerbaijan, triggering the conflict in which Azerbaijan was soundly defeated.

The Karabakhi Armenians now control a swath of Azeri territory around their republic, amounting to 8,000 square kilometers, twice the size of Nagorny Karabakh itself. In the process they expelled about 650,000 Azeris from their homes.

A cease-fire has been in force since May 1994, but the war, which cost an estimated 20,000 lives, is still rumbling. Front-line clashes account for 300 to 400 deaths every year, says Andrzej Kasprzyk of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. "It's a forgotten aspect of this war; it's dangerous," he said.

Karabakh survives thanks to its links with Armenia. It uses the Armenian currency, the dram, and pays government workers and pensioners with credits from the Armenian government.

There are no customs posts between the two states, and Armenian military helicopters shuttle regularly between the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, and the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

Yerevan gave the few hundred-thousand Armenian Karabakhis covert assistance during the war and was thought to pull the strings in the tiny rebel state.

But this month the relationship was turned upside down. Karabakhis have taken charge in Yerevan, and the tail is wagging the dog.

Ter-Petrosyan's prime minister, Robert Kocharyan, a former leader of Karabakh and key figure in the war, has now taken over as the acting head of state in Armenia.

His good friend and fellow Karabakhi, Sergei Sarkisyan, heads the joint agencies of National Security and Interior Ministry in Armenia. Ter-Petrosyan brought the two Karabakhis into the government to co-opt them, but they ended up forcing him out.

Ter-Petrosyan had agreed to a two-stage peace plan on Karabakh proposed by the OSCE, which is mediating peace talks.

Under the plan, which was welcomed by Azerbaijan, Karabakh would have withdrawn from some of the occupied territories surrounding Karabakh. A 2,000-member United Nations peacekeeping force would monitor the region as refugees returned.

Only in a second stage would they tackle the tricky issue of Karabakh's status and the remaining territories, including Lachin, that guard Karabakh's vital road link to Armenia.

In a contentious meeting in January, Ter-Petrosyan's ministers accused him of selling out to Azerbaijan. Within days he had resigned. Kocharyan took charge and immediately made it clear that while Armenia would continue with peace talks, it no longer agreed to the two-stage plan.

The Karabakhis object to the plan for several reasons. One is security, since the occupied areas serve as a buffer zone and join the enclave to Armenia.

More important is the bargaining chip they represent. As Karabakh president Arkady Gukasyan said in an interview, "If we give back the territories, then Azerbaijan will lose interest in making a decision on status."

The public mood in Armenia also supports a tougher line on Karabakh than Ter-Petrosyan was offering. There were no demonstrations or protests over his resignation, and the general view in Yerevan is that he was giving away too much on Karabakh. All the candidates preparing to run in new presidential elections March 16 are also rejecting the two-stage plan.

Ter-Petrosyan wanted a peace settlement to end the economic blockade Azerbaijan and Turkey have imposed on landlocked Armenia and Karabakh. Trade is limited largely to Georgia and Iran, Armenia's other two neighbors, and foreign investors are staying away.

Yet people in Karabakh seem to care little for economic development. "We know it is essential to open up communications, have normal open borders. We are all interested in that. But I do not think that Azerbaijan is ready to open the communications. It would just use it to put pressure on us," says Karabakh's President Gukasyan.

Meanwhile, Gukasyan is trying to make his poverty-stricken rebel republic self-sufficient, rebuilding with money from the Armenian diaspora in the United States and France.

There is so little mutual trust that a peace deal is years off, observers say. Azerbaijan is also resistant to compromise, calculating that its oil wealth will one day give it the upper hand.

In Shusha, another former Azeri town in the center of Nagorny Karabakh now occupied by Armenians, the current deadlock suits everyone just fine. Armen, a small, hardy farm worker with calloused hands, who lost his brother, sister and a son in the war, is adamant. "We could not live together. How could we after so much blood?" he says.