By Alexandros Petersen

http://euobserver.com/9/2 5894
April 1 2008

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - In the 'Writers' Guidelines' section of
Foreign Policy magazine's website, the editors offer a bit of advice
to the would be wonk writing for the journal: 'Unless your piece on
Nagorno-Karabakh is going to be relevant or worth reading by someone
in, say, Antananarivo, don't bother sending it'.

Such a view of the now 20-year-old conflict in the Caucasus is not
uncommon outside of the region. Karabakh has become synonymous with
'confusing ethnic conflict in an unfamiliar part of the world in which
the EU probably shouldn't get involved'. Yet despite media focus on
Russia's elections and China's crackdown in Tibet, Karabakh received a
mention in European media recently due to one of the largest clashes
across the ceasefire line since the end of large-scale fighting
in 1994.

The incident's significance is heightened by the violent aftermath of
Armenia's 19 February presidential elections, in which the incumbent
prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian, claimed 52% of the vote, in polls
considered questionable by international observers and fraudulent by
the opposition.

In scenes reminiscent of the colour revolutions in Georgia and
Ukraine, tens of thousands of protestors backing former president,
Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition challenger, as well as
other contenders, gathered in Yerevan's Liberty square to demand
a re-examination of poll results. On March 1, government security
forces swept in and forcibly dispersed the crowd with truncheons,
cattle-prods and tear gas. Several opposition leaders were detained
and Ter-Petrosian escorted home by a security detail.

Despite several wounded, protesters regrouped in front of Yerevan's
municipal authority with renewed and openly exhibited defiance. As
the growing crowd made barricades out of buses, and swelled to about
15,000, beefed-up security forces surrounded the group, and clashes
ensued. Security personnel fired tracer bullets above the heads of
the crowd, and tear gas canisters into it, as protesters responded
with molotov cocktails and any projectiles they could find. The end
result was eight deaths and a 20-day state of emergency imposed on
the country by outgoing president, Robert Kocharian.

Three days later, as tanks and armoured vehicles enforced calm
in central Yerevan, uncommonly intense violence erupted in the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, with reports of larger-calibre gunfire
than that normally crossing the frozen lines of battle.

Azerbaijan's defence ministry said that three of its soldiers were
killed as they were attacked, but that 12 Armenian soldiers perished
in response. The ethnic-Armenian self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh forces
claimed only two of their comrades, but eight Azerbaijanis had died
during an attack and counterattack initiated by Azerbaijan.

We may never know whether the new Armenian leadership launched
a strike in Karabakh to divert attention from events in Yerevan,
or whether Azerbaijan's military took the opportunity of political
instability to test the Armenians. But violence in the conflict zone
and on the streets of Yerevan signals that it is time for both sides,
as well as international mediators, to get serious about resolution
of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, has made it clear that Karabakh
must be back in Azerbaijani hands by 2013, and only a day before
the clashes, underscored his determination to consider armed force
as an option in doing so. His statements are backed by $1 billion
in defence spending, fuelled by his country's Caspian oil boom,
and an Azerbaijani-backed UN General Assembly decision hurriedly
approved on 14 March. The urgency with which Azerbaijani officials
speak of resolution, in one way or another, was lately increased by
Kosovo's declaration of independence, and the view that it might set
a precedent for the self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

But, the onus is on Yerevan to change the current situation. The
international community has made it clear that Karabakh and the seven
territories under occupation surrounding it are only be recognised as
part of Azerbaijan. So far, Baku has stressed territorial integrity -
with 20 percent of its territory under Armenian control - while Yerevan
has highlighted concerns for the rights of the ethnic-Armenian minority
within Azerbaijan.

Within the Minsk Group, the OSCE-sponsored mediation mechanism
co-chaired by Russia, France and the U.S., Baku has pledged autonomy
for Karabakh, but Armenia insists on a referendum being held in the
territory - bereft of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeri natives
that fled the war.

As a native of the region, and in response to Ter-Petrosian's unpopular
attempts at reconciliation, Sarkisian dragged his feet on Karabakh
while prime minister. But violent protests in support of Ter-Petrosian
and clashes in the conflict zone mean he now has the impetus to
move toward peace. His decision to bring the third-party self-styled
pro-Western reformer, Artur Bagdasarian, into his coalition government
may signal a step in that direction. This opportunity, however,
raises the responsibility of Brussels and European governments,
regional powers, as well influential members of the Armenian diaspora,
to push for a resolution as soon as possible.

The dividends of peace would be substantial. After close to two
decades of independence, Armenia could finally have its borders to
Azerbaijan and Turkey open to trade. The potential would emerge for
Armenia to diversify its economy away from foreign remittances, as it
would suddenly find itself part of the burgeoning East-West energy
and transport corridor linking Asia with Europe. Resolution of the
conflict would also mean less reliance on Russia for military aid,
and Iran for natural resources.

However, the region's powers would also benefit from decreased
potential for full-scale conflict and the disappearance of frozen
instability close to Russia's restive North Caucasus, Turkey's
neighbouring Nakhchivan, and Iran's majority ethnic-Azeri north.

Europe and the U.S. would benefit from a new partner in the region,
new options for the transit of Caspian energy, and the neutralisation
of a potential hot-spot within increasingly tense relations with
Russia - a prospect which even the denizens of Antananarivo might
find significant.

The author is Adjunct Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme
at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.