WHILE fighting rages in Georgia, another hot spot in the turbulent Transcaucasus seems to be cooling.
Last week, for the first time in their five-year conflict, the warring Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and their Azeri foes held direct talks, under Russian auspices in Moscow.
The two sides agreed to extend a cease-fire until Oct. 5 and to hold a summit meeting between their two leaders in Moscow ``very soon,'' according to participants. Until this meeting, Azerbaijan had refused to recognize the representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave that has declared independence from Azerbaijan, as a separate party to the conflict.
``It was a mutual probing of the desire and the readiness for compromise,'' said Karabakh ``foreign minister'' Arkady Gukasyan in an interview with the Monitor after the talks.
In recent weeks, the Karabakh forces captured a major chunk of Azeri territory outside of the enclave as a demoralized Azeri Army fled, creating a flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees. But despite those victories, ``we understand perfectly well that Karabakh cannot survive in a long war,'' Mr. Gukasyan said.
Unlike a year ago, Azerbaijan no longer ``believes it is possible to resolve the situation by military means,'' says an Azeri source involved in the talks.
Participants from both sides concur that this breakthrough could not have occurred without Russia's active participation. Russia is a part of an international mediation effort sponsored by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, but in recent weeks the Russians have become the main actors, organizing and sitting in on the talks held on Sept. 13 in Moscow.
TWO key factors explain the higher Russian profile: the threatened involvement of Iran and Turkey in the conflict as a result of the Armenian drive, which has carried their forces close to the Iranian border; and the fall of the pro-Turkish Azeri government of Abulfaz Elchibey and his replacement by former Soviet Politburo member Gaidar Aliyev.
``The Russian role became more active recently, connected with the moves by Iran and Turkey,'' Gukasyan said.
``Russia wants stability in the region,'' reasons the Azeri participant. ``Russia has its own interests, both in the Transcaucasus and the North Caucasus,'' referring to the regions that have been under Russian and Soviet control since the last century.
A key turning point came two weeks ago when Azeri leader Aliyev came to Moscow, announcing that Azerbaijan would now rejoin the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States. That move deprived Armenia of a claim to exclusive Russian backing and restored Moscow as a power looked to by both sides.
``When Elchibey was there, the Russians had no leverage with Azerbaijan whatsoever. Now they do,'' says a Western diplomat who closely follows events in the region.
The shift in the Russian stance was evident when Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan rushed here for talks on Sept. 15. In a meeting that Russian officials described as ``a frank exchange of opinions,'' the Russians echoed Azeri claims that thousands of civilians were being victimized and made into refugees.
The Russians also backed Azerbaijan's insistence that the Armenian republic, which backs the Karabakh forces, directly participate in peace talks. The Armenian government has consistently held that the conflict is between Azerbaijan and Karabakh, which was formed as an autonomous region within Azerbaijan by the Soviet authorities in 1923.
The Russians also appear to back the Azeri position that the Armenians must first withdraw from occupied territories outside Karabakh, with talks on the status of Karabakh to follow.
Karabakh official Gukasyan said that the talks must discuss in one package the three issues of withdrawal, the lifting of the Azeri economic blockade of Armenia, and the ultimate status of Karabakh itself. He calls for a step-by-step process in which the Armenian forces might trade pieces of territory for specific concessions, such as lifting the blockade.