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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Compromise in Karabakh

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While many nations in the south of the former Soviet Union were celebrating Novruz, the Zoroastrian New Year on March 21 symbolizing the beginning of spring and thus everything new, the perennial Nagorny Karabakh conflict attracted renewed attention due to rising tensions and martial moods. As the oldest "frozen conflict" in the former Soviet Union, which many rightly believe contributed significantly to the super power's demise and made the Caucasus a hotbed of instability, the Armenian-Azerbaijan standoff is still as far from a permanent peace deal as it was at the time of the Russia-brokered 1994 cease-fire agreement.

The long list of reasons for this includes a lack of trust on all sides, competition among various world powers, the region's complex geography, economic decline and crisis, and, finally, refugees and internally displaced people. However, the main reason the conflict still smolders is that neither the conflicting parties, nor the international community, including the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group tasked in 1992 with resolving the conflict, fully understand the importance of a permanent peace based on the same rules and international laws that led to the creation of the United Nations. In other words, the raison d'etre of international law is being undermined by peace negotiations that lead to proposals that suit no one. The legal aspects, the plight of some 800,000 Azeri refugees and displaced persons, and history are being ignored. Instead, unworkable compromises are being suggested and applied. This approach damages the credibility of the international community and could complicate other conflicts around the world by setting a detrimental precedent.

It would be impossible to go over all the facts related to the Nagorny Karabakh conflict in a brief comment, but everyone in Azerbaijan knows them by heart. All of the currently Armenian-occupied territories were recognized as part of Azerbaijan by the UN in four Security Council and several General Assembly resolutions. Recognition came most recently from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE. The refugees and displaced persons comprising 10 percent of the total population of Azerbaijan were chased from their homes after a string of notorious massacres such as the one at Khojali, when over 700 Azeri civilians were killed on a single cold February night in 1992. By far the bloodiest atrocity of the war, the event shocked observers from Human Rights Watch and the Russian human rights group Memorial used to seeing man's inhumanity toward man.

Beginning in the early 19th century, when the independent khanates of the region signed treaties with the Russian tsar, the native Azeri population in Nagorny Karabakh has declined, as incoming Armenians resettled from the Ottoman and Iranian empires. By the 1980s, Armenians made up over three fourths of the population in the region. Yet even such majority population does not give an area the right to "self-determination." Not only has this concept been abused by Armenian ideologues, but it is also secondary to the territorial integrity of a responsible member of the international community, Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, for years negotiators hinted that Azerbaijan should give up a large portion of the currently occupied lands to Armenia, which in turn would release the areas around Nagorny Karabakh it calls "buffer zones." This term makes no military sense if one looks at a map, since much of Karabakh proper is directly on the Line of Contact, where daily crossfire takes place, and all of Karabakh is within the reach of long-range artillery and missiles. After this exchange, advocates of this approach argue, most refugees and displaced persons would return, trade would restart, and Azerbaijan would live happily ever after, albeit without its heart as Karabakh is described by many Azeris. Moreover, it would be flanked by two Armenian states.

Yet Azeris have as much trust and confidence in Armenians and their intentions as Armenians do in Azeris -- that is to say almost none. Moreover, some pundits still view the situation as a zero-sum competition between great powers such as Russia and the United States, not to mention other players like Iran, Turkey and the EU. If we add other disputed land, specifically Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan and Javakhetia in Georgia and large swaths of eastern Turkey, this tangled web is a recipe for a potentially bigger disaster in the future.

It easy to see why Azerbaijan and its people would never agree to the separation of any of its internationally recognized territory and would not be satisfied with anything but full restoration of its territorial integrity and sovereignty. This becomes even more credible in light of the economic development and population boom in Azerbaijan, as compared with the more modest development and decrease in population in Armenia, even though Armenia receives disproportionately more economic aid from the West.

As the biggest country in the Caucasus, with significant interests and responsibilities in the region, Russia now has a unique opportunity to use its long-standing closeness with Armenia to settle the deadliest and longest running conflict in the area by holding Armenia's feet to the fire. If the conflict is not settled justly based on the territorial integrity of all states, Karabakh has the potential to become a mutant version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where everyone loses. If Russia wants to ensure its leadership in the Caucasus, it needs to be on the winning side, on the side of Azerbaijan. For too long, Russian policies were misguided, which translated into awkwardness during elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Abkhazia. It is important to have Azerbaijan as a friend and ally, especially considering Azerbaijan's not so far-fetched prospects of eventual NATO and EU memberships.

There are three additional reasons why Russia would be better served in supporting Azerbaijan's position. First, size does matter. Azerbaijan is the biggest country in the South Caucasus in all respects, including the size of its army, the number of well-trained officers and soldiers, and its ever-increasing military budget and morale. Arguments about Armenian military superiority no longer hold water.

Second, Azerbaijan already has some $2 billion in foreign exchange reserves. It has accomplished this even though major oil and gas exports are due to begin only in 2006. At the same time, it has proven exemplary in spending its newfound wealth, becoming the first country to sign the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, setting up a transparent and independently audited oil fund and getting high marks from the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions for its conservative, careful and scrupulous approach to spending and to reducing corruption. Thus, Azerbaijan is becoming an economic powerhouse in the region.

And finally, Azeris have quickly caught up on the tactics long used by Armenians, undermining the significant advantage Armenia once held in such important fields as diaspora building, grassroots activity, lobbying and propaganda. Moreover, refugee children are coming of age, which is having a natural impact on the mood of Azeri society.

To make a long story short, the international community must support states' territorial integrity and abide by the relevant international laws. This means that Armenian military occupation of Nagorny Karabakh and other lands in Azerbaijan must end.

Adil Baguirov has a Ph.D. in political science from MGIMO and is a writer and researcher based in the United States. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times in response to a comment by John Antranig Kasbarian on March 14, which discussed Armenian views on this conflict.