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Karabakh Still Suffers Under Stalin's Legacy

LEST they recur, problems must be addressed at their core.

Four years ago, massive demonstrations in mountainous (Nagorno) Karabakh triggered the movement for rights and reform in the old Soviet Union. Taking Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika to heart, the people of that Armenian-populated autonomous region filled the streets to demand rescission of Josef Stalin's 1923 decision to place Karabakh - despite its Armenian roots and majority - in neighboring Azerbaijan.

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Karabakh's peaceful quest for an end to decades of Azerbaijani repression and for reunification with Armenia set the stage for democratic developments throughout Eastern Europe, but met with brutal violence at home. Azerbaijan reacted with pogroms in Sumgait and Baku and the expulsion of 350,000 Armenian residents. The Kremlin, for its part, wavered in imposing an adequate solution, facilitated the departure of 160,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia, and then joined in anti-Armenian violence and deportations.

Today Azerbaijan, deprived by the democratic victory in Moscow of military assistance from the north, has annulled Karabakh's autonomy, violently appropriated large arsenals belonging to the former Soviet Army, and set about resolving the Karabakh conflict by getting rid of its Armenian population. Using powerful weapons including "Grad" multiple-missile launchers, helicopter gunships, and tanks, the Azerbaijani Army continues to bombard Armenian villages and Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert. The city is in ruins, hundreds are dead, families huddle in basements that serve as bomb shelters, and the Azerbaijani blockade of gas, electricity, and other materials has compelled residents to cut down nearly all the city's trees to keep warm during a blustering winter. Tragedy abounds.

It is against this background - and in the absence of any successful international effort to force the Azerbaijanis back from their policy to destroy and occupy Karabakh - that its population has modified its stance on reunification, held a successful referendum on independence, constituted a parliament, elected a president, and determined to defend its homeland at all cost. The new republic is today in full resistance and convinced that without armed self-defense it will be overrun in days. Certainly, f ighting on one's own land from defensive positions is an advantage, and recent successes have been registered in taking strategic positions used by the Azerbaijani Army for its offensives against Karabakh.

BUT Karabakh today is in danger. The Commonwealth Army - its enormous military stockpile recently raided by the Azerbaijanis - has been ordered to withdraw, and this remote region is completely encircled by superior Azerbaijani forces. Karabakh's destiny, however, is not so irrelevant to the prospect of instability and hostility in the region and the world. Continued resort to final solutions in Karabakh risks leading to an all-out conflagration with the gravest consequences for the Commonwealth and the West.

Armenia has called for peacekeeping, observer, and rapporteur missions to Karabakh from the United Nations, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international organizations. Several states in the region also have taken an interest in helping to resolve the conflict. We urgently invite all good-faith measures in the area.

But if they are to entail effective solutions, they must take into account that the Karabakh question is not a territorial or religious feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is, rather, a clearcut case of respect for international law principles including human rights and self-determination of peoples. The parties to the conflict are Azerbaijan and Karabakh, and Karabakh's legitimately elected authorities must be represented at any negotiating table. Otherwise, these initiatives - whether they come fro m Washington, Prague, Moscow, or Tehran - are doomed to utter failure.

Karabakh is the bitter epitome of the Soviet legacy, and constitutes the best example of how not to resolve the difficult questions stemming from that inheritance. Now that the USSR is no more, what is to happen to the autonomous regions and republics that were administered under its constitution? Do they become the domestic jurisdiction of the republic in which a despotic Kremlin happened to put them, or do they enjoy the rights of nations guaranteed under international law?

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Four years later, the Soviet Union is dead, and a new era of sovereignty and democracy has dawned upon its former republics. But the problem with which it all began is still unanswered and, indeed, continues to worsen. Unless we seek a courageous and creative resolution of the issue and give the Karabakh republic the respect and rights it deserves, the war will remain with us for another four years.

Or perhaps not. Karabakh, without the world's intervention, may well be in its final hours.

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