A Forgotten Conflict

Ten years ago today a cease-fire halted a conflict that most of the world has now forgotten. But the decade of quiet emanating from the Armenian-Azeri front line around Nagorny Karabakh should not deceive us that there is lasting peace there. Rather the reverse: Over the last year the truce has been under strain and the threat of a new war in the southern Caucasus cannot be ignored.

It was right back in 1988 that the dispute over Nagorny Karabakh, an Armenian-majority province inside Soviet Azerbaijan, became the first slithering stone in the avalanche of nationalist quarrels that ended up destroying the Soviet Union. Both Armenians and Azeris claimed the fertile, mountainous territory as their own, entirely rejecting the other side's attachment to it. In 1992, with nothing resolved, two well-armed independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged out of the two Soviet republics and pitched into full-scale war with one another.

When exhaustion caused both sides to sign a cease-fire on May 12, 1994, the Armenians had won a costly victory. More than a million people had been displaced, most of them Azeris. Both countries had thoroughly cleansed themselves of the nationals of the other. The Armenians were left in occupation of a vast swath of land, including Karabakh itself, which comprises around 14 percent of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan. Perhaps 20,000 people were dead.

The unresolved conflict still exerts a dread influence over a wide area between the Black and Caspian seas. Armenia is economically stunted by the decade-long closure of its two longest borders, with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Azerbaijan is a wounded nation, still living with the cost of hundreds of thousands of refugees. More insidiously, the political culture of both countries has been poisoned by the nationalist myths the war created.

International negotiators from the United States, France and Russia cannot be faulted for creativity and have come up with a series of different peace plans that try to bridge the conflict. The one that went the furthest was also the most daring: In Key West, Florida, in spring 2001, a framework document was discussed by the two presidents that envisaged Armenia allowing the return of 95 percent of all Azeri refugees to their homes and having a road built across Armenian territory to the isolated Azeri exclave of Nakhichevan. In return, however, Azerbaijan would have had to surrender Nagorny Karabakh itself, with the exception of the town of Shusha. Under Article Two of that document, Nagorny Karabakh was "transferred to the sovereignty of Armenia." The human benefits of that agreement would have been immense -- but so were the political risks for Azerbaijan.

The rest of the world still has reason to be concerned about what happens in these mountains. Next door is the fragile state of Georgia. A few dozen kilometers north of the cease-fire line, construction has begun on the $3 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the first big conduit for Caspian oil to pass to Europe. A new conflict would blight the region and its prospects for another generation -- and unfortunately this cannot be entirely ruled out. In the last six months, Azerbaijan has been gripped by an outbreak of bellicose rhetoric toward the Armenians and calls to "liberate" the lost territories.

What is to be done? In Azerbaijan, the new president, Ilham Aliyev, a cultivated man, faces the difficult challenge of rejecting the rhetoric of war in favor of compromise. The human cost of a new war would be devastating: In even a limited conflict, Azerbaijan would lose thousands of young men just in the thick minefields along the front line; while the small beautiful province in the middle, Nagorny Karabakh, badly scarred by the relatively low-tech war of the early '90s, would likely be annihilated. On a purely practical level, Aliyev will know -- but needs reminding -- that the $20 billion or so Azerbaijan may yet earn from oil revenues in the next decade are far better spent on social programs and business growth than on armaments.

The task facing the Armenians is less easily defined but just as historic. It is to break out of a dangerously introspective predicament and reach out to their neighbor in the Caucasus. To do this, they must show far greater flexibility toward plans to repatriate hundreds of thousands of displaced Azeris to their former homes.

This sad conflict is actually soluble, if only the two sides can be rescued from their isolation. Armenians and Azeris have far more in common than, say, Israelis and Palestinians. Intermarriage between the two communities used to be very high. The problem is that for more than a decade now the two sides have barely engaged in dialogue. Most astonishing to an outsider is that in all this time Azerbaijan has not sat down and talked to the Karabakh Armenians -- whom, after all, it claims to be its own citizens.

This puts the international negotiators in a funny position. Of course they must continue to work to maintain the cease-fire regime and work on peace proposals.

But their main job is somehow to be storytellers, contradicting the bellicose and rejectionist language that issues from the two ex-combatants, walled up in their prison-fortresses, with a patiently told tale of how things could be different, and how Armenia and Azerbaijan can still jointly come back to the community of nations.

Thomas de Waal, author of "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War," is Caucasus editor with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. This comment is reprinted from Tuesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal.