Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle looks like 2 wars

May 09, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- In this land where for nearly seven decades the truth was monolithic, two very different wars seem to be taking place around the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of them fully documented by the media.

First, there is the war described by Armenia and its sympathizers in the Russian democratic movement.

This war is a brutal, ruthless campaign against peaceful Armenian villagers inside Azerbaijan, inspired by Azerbaijani militants but now backed by the full force of the Soviet military.

For the crime of their nationality, the Armenians are shot, and some are scalped or otherwise mutilated, the reports say. Survivors are being driven at gunpoint from their homes, which are burned to the ground behind them.

Second, there is the war described by Azerbaijan and its backers in the Kremlin.

In this war, Soviet and Azerbaijani troops at last have come to the rescue of peaceful Azerbaijani villagers who for months have suffered the unprovoked attacks of Armenian militants.

Conducting a house-to-house search of Armenian villages inside Azerbaijan, the troops are finding dozens of terrorists who have come from Armenia to inflict violence on their historic enemies.

"The Soviet Union has virtually declared war on Armenia," Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan said Monday.

"War has been declared on Azerbaijan," Elmira Kafarova, chairman of the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet, said at a news conference in Moscow the next day.

The two sides fight their information battle in Moscow news conferences, in bitter debate at the Soviet parliament and in unverified, usually unverifiable, reports of atrocities.

For most Soviet citizens, there is a dreary familiarity to the conflict, which in its current guise dates back three years but has much older roots in religious and territorial competition between the Christian Armenians and their Muslim Azerbaijani neighbors. The contradictory nature of news reports encourages public exasperation and apathy.

A critical new element in the conflict, however, is the changed role of the Soviet army, Ministry of Internal Affairs and KGB, which used to appear largely to function as a neutral peacekeeping force between two hostile republics.

Now, the Kremlin-controlled forces do little to hide their support for the Azerbaijani side, just as the reformers of Democratic Russia and the anti-Stalinist Memorial society accept the Armenian view.

The reasons are obvious. Armenia is now led by anti-Communist former political prisoners, notably Mr. Ter-Petrosyan, whose goal is an independent, capitalist state. Azerbaijan is still ruled by Communists who are hewing carefully to Moscow's line, first of all by vowing to stay in the Soviet Union.

Soviet historian Leonid M. Batkin, in an interview with the United States' Radio Liberty, noted that only 15 months ago, Soviet troops shot their way into the barricaded Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to prevent the Azerbaijani People's Front from coming to power.

Now that the Communists are back in control in Azerbaijan, Soviet military force is being turned on another republic -- one where the Communists have lost power, Mr. Batkin noted.

Another instructive analogy may be drawn with South Ossetia, the mountainous province of Georgia where Georgians and Ossetians have been fighting for months.

There, Soviet troops are clearly defending the Ossetians from what is a thinly disguised attempt by the Georgians to drive them from their homes. In Azerbaijan, there is considerable evidence that the Azerbaijanis are trying to force the remaining Armenians out -- but the troops are widely reported to be encouraging, not preventing, the deportations.

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