In disputed Caucasus enclave, a tense cease-fire holds but region's development is stymied

AP Worldstream; Jun 16, 2005

The front line is visible from the decrepit, tottering Ferris wheel
in Martakert. The crackle of gunfire can be heard almost daily in
the battered apartments along the town's dusty main road.

More than 10 years after a cease-fire was declared, thousands of
troops face off along 900 heavily mined, heavily armored kilometers
(560 miles) _ remnants of the war fought over Nagorno-Karabakh,
an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

Across the so-called "line of control" separating the Armenian forces
that control the enclave and Azerbaijani soldiers that want it back,
gunfire breaks out, sometimes nightly, and each side accuses the
other of incursions.

Troops on both sides are still dying. In March, three soldiers from
each side were said to have been killed. Firefights early this month
reportedly left two Azerbaijani soldiers dead, and Nagorno-Karabakh
defense chief Lt. Gen. Seyran Oganyan said the exchanges of fire have
become heavier.

The frozen conflict looms over economic development throughout the
Caucasus, a strategic region lying between the Caspian and Black
seas and sitting astride important East-West trade routes. The
Armenia-Azerbaijan border is closed, as is Armenia's border with
Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan. Investors are leery of putting money
into the region.

Nagorno-Karabakh, an area of soaring mountains, now is run by a
self-declared government recognized only by Armenia, and ethnic
Armenian Karabakh forces occupy a wide swath of Azerbaijani territory
outside the enclave proper.

Armenia insists it will never abandon Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan
proclaims the same. The feelings are so bitter that the ethnic
Armenians, who are Christians, compare the Muslim Azeris to the Ottoman
Turks who massacred hundreds of thousands of Armenians early in the
20th century.

Last month, Armenia's and Azerbaijan's presidents met in Warsaw in
the most recent effort to spur a resolution. It's unclear what was
decided, but the two countries' foreign ministers are scheduled to
meet Friday for further talks.

Few expect a breakthrough, however, and as the stalemate over the
enclave drags on, patience wears thin.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev repeatedly has said his country is
ready to resume fighting if a settlement isn't reached. In Martakert,
people are just as adamant.

"Let it be frightening here so long as it's our land," said Rima
Movsiyan, 73, standing outside a ramshackle clothing store not far
from the town's long-abandoned Ferris wheel. "We don't need the
Azerbaijanis here. They know what they did. They'll never return."

The Nagorno-Karabakh war was the first conflict that broke out as
the Soviet Union collapsed and ended up one of the bloodiest: as many
as 50,000 people died. It was accompanied by pogroms against ethnic
Armenians in Azerbaijani cities and by massive deportations by both
sides; as many as 1 million people were displaced, either forcibly
or by fleeing violence.

The bloodshed began after the enclave's legislature in 1988 called for
the region to be incorporated into Armenia, which like Azerbaijan was
then still a Soviet republic. Full-scale military offensives broke
out in 1991.

Genrikh Akopian, 52, bitterly remembers the day that Armenian women
and children fled the city of Shusha, one of the few majority-Azeri
towns within Nagorno-Karabakh and once a prosperous community with
a silk mill and a renowned sanatorium. Azeris threw rocks at the
refugees buses and cursed them, he said.

Ethnic Armenian forces later drove Azeris from the town in one of
the war's pivotal battles. Azeris homes were looted of belongings,
and the buildings and apartment were turned over to Armenian refugees
from elsewhere in Azerbaijan.

Shusha has deteriorated into a dismal backwater, its streets strewn
with garbage and cloaked with smoke from makeshift wood stoves. Wind
whistles threw holes chewed into its two mosques by artillery shells,
and rows of blown-out windows line the once famous sanatorium.

The prospect for a resolution that could bring prosperity to the
region appears dim. The so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe, led by U.S., French and Russian
envoys, has sought a solution for years, but with no visible progress.

Envoys have said little about their work, mindful of the storm of
controversy in 2001 after OSCE proposals were reported in Armenian and
Azerbaijani newspapers. The proposals, including a call for "joint
governance" of the enclave, angered nationalists on both sides, and
the two country's leaders appeared to distance themselves from the
peace process.

"There can be no talk of mutual compromises. That was a mistaken
thesis," Azerbaijani President Aliev said in March.

"They don't want to risk anything. They don't want to take
responsibility. They just want to convince the international community
that Armenia is the aggressor," Arkady Ghukassian, Karabakh's
president, said in an interview.

Nagorno-Karabakh's troubles have hampered development for the entire
Caucasus. Cross-border trade is stymied, trade routes via road and
rail are complicated and major regional infrastructure projects _
like the landmark 1,760-kilometer (1,100-mile) Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
oil pipeline _ are made more expensive.

Last month, outside of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, officials and
executives inaugurated the first section of the BTC pipeline that
transverses the Caucasus en route to the Turkish Mediterranean coast.
The project entirely skirts Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

The World Bank has estimated that resolving the conflict and
normalizing relations could yield as much as a 30 percent jump in
gross domestic product for Armenia and up to a 5 percent jump in GDP
for Azerbaijan.

Politics in both countries retain a nationalistic hue to this day.

In Azerbaijan, the loss of thousands of kilometers (miles) of territory
at the hands of ethnic Armenians hardens positions of the ruling clans,
including Ilham Aliev and his father, who came to power amid the fierce
fighting of the early 1990s. In Armenia, the emotional intensity over
the conflict is underlined by President Robert Kocharian's having
formerly been president of Nagorno-Karabakh and a fighter in the war.

David Shahnazaryan, a former national security minister and opposition
lawmaker, said leaders in both countries use the unresolved conflict
to stifle dissent and strengthen their rule.

"What's bad for Azerbaijan is good for Armenia. What's bad for Armenia
is good for Azerbaijan. That's all they understand," Shahnazaryan
said. "Our societies are closer to peaceful resolution than our
regimes are."