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Tuesday, March 31, 1998 Published at 21:31 GMT 22:31 UK

World: Analysis

Q & A: Why does Nagorno Karabakh matter?

The disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh is at the centre of attention once again, now that its former leader Robert Kocharian is expected to win the presidential election in Armenia. Our regional analyst Tom de Waal offers a simple guide to the place and the issues.

Question: Where is Nagorno Karabakh?

Answer: Nagorno Karabakh is a fertile, mountainous area of 4,400 square kilometers in the southern Caucasus situated inside what is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan. The name itself, a Russian-Turkish-Persian compound, is proof of the region's complex history and means 'Mountainous Black Garden.' The Karabakh Armenians call the region Artsakh or 'Strong Forest.'

Q: Who lives there?

A: In 1989 the population was 192,000 of whom three quarters were Armenians and the rest Azerbaijanis. In 1921, when the region was allocated to Azerbaijan, the Armenian population was 94%. The numbers have been depleted by the war. Both sides passionately dispute the history of the region, but it is clear that for hundreds of years it has been ethnically mixed. The Armenians have left more physical evidence behind them in the form of dozens of medieval churches, but the Azeris also built two mosques in the town of Shusha, where famous musicians and poets lived.

Q: How did the conflict start?

A: With the start of perestroika in the Soviet Union in February 1988 the local assembly in the capital Stepanakert passed a resolution calling for unification with Armenia. Violence against local Azeris was then reported on Soviet television, which triggered massacres of Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.

The conflict gradually escalated. The Azerbaijanis besieged Stepanakert in 1991-2 and occupied most of Karabakh. Then the Armenians counter-attacked and by 1993-4 had seized almost all of Karabakh as well as vast areas of land all around the region. Some 600,000 Azeri refugees were displaced. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was imposed in May 1994, by which time as many as 25,000 people had died.

Q: Why is it still important?

A: The failure to resolve the conflict has severe consequences for the whole region. Around a tenth of the population of Azerbaijan are refugees from the conflict. Many of them still live in misery in camps and they are a cause of great social tension for the country. Armenia's economy virtually ground to a halt as a result of a both Azerbaijan and Turkey closing their borders and three of its four main rail routes are closed. Foreign investors in the oil industry are worried that pipeline routes from the Caspian Sea could be damaged by a resumption of the conflict.

Q: What are the main issues in negotiations?

A: The Karabakhi Armenians say they are prepared to be part of Azerbaijan, but only with, as they call it, 'horizontal' links to the government in Baku. Furthermore they want to keep control of the so-called 'Lachin corridor' that links them to Armenia and have security guarantees from Armenia.

The Azerbaijanis want an unconditional return of all occupied areas of Azerbaijan and refuse to talk directly to the Karabakhi Armenians. They are offering Karabakh a 'high level of autonomy' within Azerbaijan, but are not very specific about this.

Although neither side seems interested in renewing the conflict, there is almost no movement in the peace process.

Q: How will the election of Robert Kocharian change the situation?

A: Mr Kocharian led the war effort in Karabakh and was elected leader of the region. He therefore takes a tough uncompromising stand on the issue, insisting that the government in Baku must talk directly to the leadership in Karabakh. He also says no occupied land should be given up, without concessions from Azerbaijan.

Although prospects for a settlement now look bleak, some commentators say that in the long-run Mr Kocharian is perhaps the only politician who could sell any future peace agreement to the Karabakhis.

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