- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh — Even if a draft law forcing the govern-ment of Armenia to recognize the inde- pendence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is rejected by the Armenian parliament, residents of this breakaway republic say they will continue their struggle for international recognition.

Populated mostly by Armenians this lush mountainous region, slightly larger than Rhode Island, broke away from Azerbaijan after a bitter war between 1990 and 1994.

Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, supported by their brethren in Armenia, emerged victorious from a bloody conflict that killed more than 35,000 people on both sides.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic formally declared its independence in 1992. At the time, many critics dismissed the move as a shrewd political maneuver by Armenians — who were starting to win the war — to deflect international criticism from Armenia proper.

Today, Karabakh possesses almost all the trappings of a state. It has its own flag and its own army. It issues entry visas to foreign visitors and its residents regularly vote in elections to all levels of government.

But Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence hasn’t been recognized by any country, not even its closest ally: Armenia.

And Armenian authorities have made it clear they have no plans to recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as an independent state despite pressure from a major opposition party.

“The recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia has always been and remains in Armenia’s diplomatic arsenal,” Vladimir Karapetian, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Affairs Ministry, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “That must come at a time when it can be maximally effective and can help achieve a lasting resolution. That time has not yet come,” he said.

These comments came in response to a draft law circulated in late August by Raffi Hovannisian, the U.S.-born leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party and Armenia’s former foreign affairs minister. The bill would have forced the Armenian government to officially recognize Karabakh’s independence. However, fearing that such a drastic move could derail the fragile peace process, the pro-government factions in the parliament and another opposition party rejected the bill.

Yet many residents of Nagorno-Karabakh say they’ll persevere, hoping the international community will one day recognize their independence.

“You know a lot of countries haven’t been recognized but people still live in these countries,” said Karina Sarkissian, a retired accountant. “But still we’re hoping that one day the international community will recognize us. We are peaceful people, like every normal people anywhere else in the world we want peace, we want to raise our children in peace.”

Fifteen years of de facto sovereignty have also produced a tectonic shift in popular attitudes toward independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, both from Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Twenty years ago, Karlen Avanessian dreamed of reunification with Armenia.

In February of 1988, he was one of the activists who went door to door to gather signatures for a petition asking the Soviet Politburo to transfer authority over the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Armenia.

Two years later, when the confrontation with Azerbaijan degenerated into a vicious war, he picked up a gun to defend his family and fight for his dream, said Mr. Avanessian, a 66-year-old former welder-turned-shopkeeper at Stepanakert’s main bazaar.

But if a referendum on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh were held today, Mr. Avanessian said he’d vote for full independence, not a union with Armenia.

“We want to have our own, separate Armenian state, a small state, but our own state,” said Mr. Avanessian as neighboring shopkeepers nodded in agreement. “For seventy years, thanks to a decree by Lenin, Karabakh was made part of Azerbaijan. But for centuries Karabakh was an independent state. Now the international community wants to remember those 70 years and forget about the centuries we were independent.”

Only his neighbor to the right, a settler from Armenia proper, disagreed.

“Uncle Karlen, you can’t say things like that, we have to have one unified Armenian state,” she said. But she was in the minority. As the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has dragged on for almost two decades, many in this breakaway republic have come to realize their dream of reunification with “Mother Armenia” might never happen.

But independence is a different matter. It’s seen by many as more acceptable to the international community. And Western designs for Kosovo’s independence are seen as setting a precedent for Karabakh’s eventual international recognition.

Thus, despite close political, economic and military ties with Armenia — Nagorno-Karabakh uses Armenian currency, the dram, Armenia’s current president, Robert Kocharian, is the former president of Nagorno-Karabakh — independence has become the preferred option for many Karabakh Armenians.

And they see democracy as the ticket to international recognition of Karabakh’s de facto independence.

Sergei Markedonov, a prominent Caucasus specialist from the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, an independent Russian think tank, said promoting democracy in Nagorno-Karabakh provides not only for a sustainable and self-sufficient form of government, but also an effective instrument for its campaign of international recognition.

Since Nagorno-Karabakh started its campaign of independence in the late eighties, Mr. Markedonov said, it has conducted three successful presidential election campaigns, parliamentary elections, and three campaigns of local self-government elections.

These elections have been officially rejected as illegitimate by the international community, which stresses that without the participation of the Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh, driven out during the war, no election can be considered fully democratic.

Despite this international criticism, Nagorno-Karabakh compares favorably to Azerbaijan, where the current president, Ilham Aliev, “inherited” power from his late father Geidar Aliev, Mr. Markedonov said.

“I think those democratic tendencies could not be ignored by the West,” he said. “Now Azerbaijan can be characterized as a ‘soft sultanate,’ where power was passed from father to son. In many cases Azeri leaders appeal to Nagorno-Karabakh as the primordial territory of Azerbaijan, but are they ready to guarantee high standards of democracy for the Armenian population?” Mr. Markedonov said the question of “democracy gap” between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh will be raised during any final-status negotiations and be used by the Armenian side as another argument against the rebel territory’s reintegration with Azerbaijan.

“We have to compare democratic standards in Nagorno-Karabakh and in Azerbaijan,” Mr. Markedonov said. “And we have to understand that the liquidation of Nagorno-Karabakh would mean the liquidation of democracy here.”

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