Armenians' fight threatens to spill across regional borders

March 12, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It's a dangerous neighborhood.

To the northwest is Georgia, just recovering from a civil war; to the west, Turkey and Armenia, former bitter foes, and to the south, Islamic fundamentalist Iran. Further south, across parts of Iran and Turkey, lies Iraq.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the scene of ethnic and territorial carnage in a region steeped in conflict and offering the potential for more.

That helps explain the growing international push to halt the fighting in the mountainous enclave largely populated by Christian Armenians but under the authority of Muslim Azerbaijan. Peace-making efforts may enlist NATO itself and eventually, the United Nations.

Fueling the effort is the fear that if the West -- joined by Russia and Turkey -- doesn't succeed, Iran's diplomatic bid might.

"I think that region is going to get worse before it gets better," Robert Strauss, U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.

Such conflicts "can very easily spill over into conflicts that go beyond the borders of the republics themselves involved and involve other republics and indeed countries that were not part of the former Soviet Union," Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., said at a news conference.

Expert opinion is divided on how far the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting could spread. But it already has spilled outside the enclave to Azeri villages on the perimeter and could flare into a bigger conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, former Soviet republics and feuding neighbors.

"I think the chance of the conflict erupting into an all-out war and the chance of a political solution are 50-50," Azerbaijani Prime Minister Hasan Hasanov said in Moscow yesterday after talks with British Foreign Office minister Douglas Hogg,

who was on a mission to look at ways to defuse the fighting.

At a minimum, one U.S. official said, it sets an example of instability that other republics in the former Soviet Union don't need.

The fighting began in 1988 and has taken an estimated 2,000 lives. But its roots go back decades, at least to 1921, when the Soviet Union first assigned Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and then reversed itself and gave it to Azerbaijan.

The enclave's Armenian majority has repeatedly fought against Azeri domination and sought unification with Armenia. Adding to the hostility was Armenia's expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Azeris in 1988, says David Nissman, an expert on Turkey who has written about the region.

Although the Armenians are Christian and Azeris Muslim, experts say the conflict is over territory, not religion.

But the region as a whole is a jumble of ethnic and religious tensions, aside from the antagonists' mutual antipathy. It includes old Armenian-Turkish hatreds, an uneasy peace between Iran and its own Azeri minority, and a number of Kurds. Russia, itself a multi-ethnic caldron, looks on nervously.

With the end of Soviet domination, the area became a diplomatic vacuum into which Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and, belatedly, the United States, have sought to gain influence.

Azerbaijan's closest cultural ties are with Turkey, with whom the Azeris share the Turkic language, and those relations are likely to strengthen. But Azeris are Shiite Muslims, like the Iranians. And Iran has attempted to export Islamic fundamentalism as well as to build up trade and diplomatic links with the region.

Whatever the potential outcome of the conflict, the United States has assumed a stronger indirect role in pressing for an end to the fighting.

"Additional steps by all of us and the international community may be needed to respond to the violence and to bring it to an end," Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Tuesday.

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