Prisoners of Ancient Hostilities

August 07, 1993

There is so much bloodshed and misery in places like Bosnia and Somalia that the world pays scant attention to the convulsive hemorrhaging that has continued between Armenia and Azerbaijan for more than five years.

This full-scale war between two neighbors bordering Turkey and Iran has killed thousands. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes either through destruction or fear and are now classified as refugees. The economies of the two former Soviet republics are in a shambles.

Although repeated mediation efforts have been unsuccessful, both sides finally are beginning to show signs of exhaustion.

Armenians have reached one of their goals by completing the takeover of the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan, in turn, is fearful of a further Armenian push inside its territory and seems ready for a cease-fire.

Ever since Stalin handed Nagorno-Karabakh over to Azerbaijan, Armenia has wanted it back. Many Armenians want the territory united with their national state by connecting it with a permanent land bridge annexed from Azerbaijan. Other Armenians want to declare the Rhode Island-sized district an independent republic -- even though it is deep inside Azerbaijan and has no real chance for economic viability as a separate entity.

Either of those solutions might offer some solace to Armenian nationalists who have made the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh their rallying cry. Yet neither scenario would provide a permanent solution but would inevitably lead to future bloodshed.

Further seeking of revenge can be avoided only if Armenia accepts a more modest goal and negotiates self-rule for Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan. Such a resolution to this highly emotional problem would offer a solid foundation for improved relations between the two enemy states. To prosper in peace, they need one another.

Is this asking too much? Probably. Centuries of mistrust caused by religious strife, enmity and bloodshed would have to be healed. Yet unless such a healing process can be started, Armenia and Azerbaijan seem doomed to recurring fighting which may eventually lead to intervention by Turkey or Iran or both and draw in Russia to protect its historic interests.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a symbol, but it is not the only one. The territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia are filled with areas which either now or in distant history were homes for other ethnic groups. They may be less known than Nagorno-Karabakh but their fate is no less contentious.

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