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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Karabakh debates its future

Karabakh Armenians say they prefer the status quo to an uncertain peace deal.

By Ashot Beglarian in Stepanakert for Eurasianet (06/02/07)

A series of broad public debates in Nagorny Karabakh suggest public opinion amongst Karabakh Armenians is highly skeptical of the compromises being proposed by international mediators on the future of the disputed territory.

The Armenia-based organization, the International Centre for Human Development, organized a series of public meetings with the aim of soliciting a wide range of views on the future of Karabakh. Now an unrecognized territory with an overwhelmingly Armenian population, Karabakh has been de facto separate from Azerbaijan for a decade and a half. A ceasefire has maintained an uneasy peace between the two parties since 1994.

The meetings were held on the eve of the visit to Karabakh on 25 January by the three international diplomats of the OSCE's Minsk Group responsible for negotiating a peaceful settlement of the conflict, the US' Matt Bryza, Russia's Yury Merzlyakov and France's Bernard Fassier.

Tevan Poghosian, executive director of the International Centre for Human Development and chief organizer of the initiative, said a key aim of the debates was to bring the views of ordinary people to the attention of the mediators, despite the fact that their talks were held behind closed doors.

As well as a meeting in the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert, two debates were also held in the regional centres of Martuni and Martakert.

The organizers said they gave the discussions an open format to encourage the free exchange of ideas. Alisa Mkrtchian, a participant in one of the debates, described it as a kind of "brainstorming."

More than 217 ideas were voiced and written up on large screens for everyone to consider and discuss.

Mkrtchian noted that there was wide support for the preservation of the current status quo for Karabakh in which, despite being unrecognized internationally, most local residents believe the territory enjoys a measure of stability.

"Considering that there were representatives of different social groups, political views, ages and so on, round the table, this level of unanimity was quite telling and it reflects the attitude of society to the Nagorny Karabakh problem and to ways of solving it," said Mkrtchian.

The Karabakh Armenians do not have a place at the table in the Minsk Group negotiations, held between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Elements of a peace deal under discussion include the return of the six territories under Armenian control outside Karabakh and a referendum on the future status of the entity.

Masis Mailian, deputy foreign minister of Karabakh, welcomed the discussions because he said that the public in Karabakh had been left "on the sidelines" in the debate over their own future.

"I believe that the authorities should always rely on public opinion and the position of society for its actions," said Mailian. "There are a lot of interesting ideas, which the authorities should definitely take into account in the course of its work."

The participants debated five future scenarios: the status quo; independence for Karabakh; Karabakh joining Armenia; Karabakh becoming an international protectorate and giving up the surrounding Azerbaijani territories; and Karabakh ceding the territories in return for potential independence in the future (the closest option to what is currently under negotiation). The option that Karabakh should return to being part of Azerbaijan was not put forward and no one even mentioned this as a possibility.

At the end of the debate, the majority of participants - 31 people in all - voted for the option of independence, twelve said they wanted to keep the status quo, with other options receiving much weaker support.

There was widespread opposition to some of the ideas being discussed during the current peace talks - the deployment of international peacekeepers in the conflict zone, giving up of territories, return of the pre-war Azerbaijani population and a referendum on the future status of Karabakh.

One participant said, "Since the truce of 1994, the ceasefire regime has been maintained thanks to the balance of forces that has formed. This is a unique case. The introduction of a third force can disturb this balance and lead to unpredictable consequences.^"

A fairly typical view came from Eleonora Gazarian, who said, "One thing became clear in the course of our discussions - we will not make any kind of compromises under someone else’s diktat. I think that we need a comprehensive solution with the definition of the status of Nagorny Karabakh first and then mutual concessions."

On a broader point almost everyone was agreed - that the Karabakh Armenians should proceed at full speed with the project of building up democratic and civic institutions in their unrecognized state, whatever their international status.

Eduard Agabekian, the mayor of Stepanakert, said, "We must create the state of which we dream - with a stable economy, socially just, where there is no conception that some are allowed to do everything and others are not even allowed to do what is permitted by law."

Poghosian said he was pleased with the debates and planned to hold similar initiatives in the future. "People had the chance to check certain items of information and to give their own views of the problem," he said. "Initiatives like this also have the aim of inculcating young people with the ability to negotiate and solve conflicts."
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