Former Soviet Union Carnage in Karabakh

With the Russians gone, Azeris and Armenians carry on their ancient blood feud

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The Azeri government denied that an attack had taken place and accused the Armenians in Karabakh of breaking the cease-fire. Even in Stepanakert, it was impossible to tell for sure who had started the fighting that raged just a kilometer from city limits. But the GRAD bombardment on the city was no illusion. Nor was the stream of dead and wounded. By day's end nine Armenian soldiers had been killed in battle, three civilians in the shelling. More than 30 people had been wounded. After nightfall, the Karabakh Defense Minister, Serge Sarkisian, said the offensive had been turned back and that more than 100 Azeri troops had died in the fighting. "Perhaps we Armenians are naive," said Karabakh Prime Minister Oleg Yesayan. "We expected them to violate the cease-fire, but not on such a large scale."

Despite the renewed fighting, international mediation efforts continued. Last week, in negotiations organized by Iran and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to stop their cross-border fighting. Karabakh was not discussed, but at a recent C.S.C.E. meeting in Helsinki, tentative plans were made for high-level talks on the future of the enclave. The two sides, however, remain far apart. Armenia insists it is a third party to a conflict between Karabakh and Azerbaijan and demands that the elected leaders of the enclave's self-declared government participate in all negotiations. Azerbaijan does not recognize Karabakh's leaders or its demands for independence. "Nagorno-Karabakh risks entering a new phase of all-out conflict that could possibly draw in other states," warned Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, referring to the competition between Turkey and Iran for influence in the region. To avoid that, he said, "there must be a simultaneous dispatch not only of international observers but of peacekeeping troops."

But not all hope for peace rests on outside mediation. Almost every day for the past three weeks, commanders from Askeran, an Armenian town on Karabakh's border with Azerbaijan, and Agdam, on the Azeri side, have met along a dirt road on the front to negotiate prisoner exchanges. Alakhverdi Bagirov, the commander of local Azeri Popular Front forces, and Vitaly Balasanian, his Armenian counterpart, have known each other since childhood, long before their two towns were divided by war. Balasanian, 33, who managed a restaurant in peacetime, runs the headquarters of his battalion from a stone fortress built in 1751 on a hill overlooking Askeran. At their daily negotiations, he and Bagirov sit on rocks beside a shelter dug out of the road and agree to keep their own separate peace, even as others continue to fight.

Both men blame the Russians in general, and the Soviet army and Gorbachev in particular, for allowing and even encouraging the transformation of the Karabakh conflict into a violent war. "Here's perestroika for you," Bagirov scoffs, his hand swooping out to encompass the surrounding soldiers from both sides, every one of them armed with a Kalashnikov rifle. "The Russians gave us weapons, and they gave the Armenians weapons. And they are guilty."

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