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Last Updated: Monday, 18 February 2008, 12:45 GMT
Conflict overshadows Armenia polls
The frozen Azeri-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most fiercely debated issues in the campaign for Tuesday's presidential election in Armenia, the BBC's Matthew Collin reports from Yerevan.

Armenian military cemetery
Up to 30,000 people are said to have died in the Karabakh conflict

In a cemetery for Armenian military heroes, high above the capital on a snow-covered hilltop, Gagik stands in silence after laying fresh flowers on his nephew's grave.

The 64-year-old pensioner says he has eight relatives buried here. The graveyard has become a symbol of the Armenian war with neighbouring Azerbaijan for the disputed mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Of course, it's never good that people die, but people have to die to protect their nation," Gagik insists.

"We were forced to fight for this land, and land which has been won with blood should never be returned."

'Freedom of Karabakh'

Nearby, 47-year-old Tamara is lovingly polishing her husband's gravestone, with its poignant engraved portrait of a man wearing military uniform and combat medals.

map

She, too, refuses to contemplate any compromise with Azerbaijan to end the long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

"I feel proud when I come here; I feel free in this cemetery, because here I can feel the freedom of Karabakh," she says.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1994 when Armenian fighters won control, although the region is still internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan.

No peace deal has yet been signed, and the two former Soviet republics are officially still at war. Like the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh are seeking recognition as an independent state.

'Karabakh clan'

The conflict has been one of the most fiercely debated issues in the campaign for the presidential elections. There have been angry exchanges and accusations of betrayal over suggestions that Armenia should offer more concessions to Azerbaijan to reach a peace agreement.

If the Soviet Union had not given Karabakh to Azerbaijan by cutting it from Armenia, from the motherland, then the conflict would not exist
Serge Sarkisian
Armenian Prime Minister

The government-backed candidate in the presidential race, current Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian was born in the disputed region, and served as a military commander during the war.

Mr Sarkisian argues that if Kosovo is internationally recognised as independent but not Nagorno-Karabakh, this could be considered as double standards - despite the fact that Armenia itself has not recognised the territory as an independent state.

Although the current Armenian government is led by men from Nagorno-Karabakh, Mr Sarkisian rejects accusations that what the opposition calls the "Karabakh clan" has failed to reach a peace agreement because of its hardline approach.

Political will should be shown to settle this conflict as soon as possible. The current authorities haven't had such political will
Levon Ter-Petrosian
Presidential contender

"We don't want problems to remain which will be the basis for the future resumption of the conflict," he told the BBC, stressing that he favours a peaceful solution.

"If the Soviet Union had not given Karabakh to Azerbaijan by cutting it from Armenia, from the motherland, then the conflict would not exist, so we want to resolve it in a way that is really final," he said.

'Comeback kid'

While Mr Sarkisian was fighting the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Levon Ter-Petrosian was the president of Armenia. But he was forced to step down in 1998 after advocating concessions to end the conflict.

men in Akhurik
Many residents of Akhurik say the village is dying

After almost a decade of silence, Mr Ter-Petrosian has made a dramatic comeback as an outspoken opposition leader, and he accuses the government of prolonging the negotiations to maintain the status quo in the disputed region.

"Political will should be shown to settle this conflict as soon as possible. The current authorities haven't had such political will, and they will not if Serge Sarkisian is elected as president," Mr Ter-Petrosian says.

"Any political solution has to be based on a compromise," he argues.

The clash of personalities between these two powerful characters - the former president and his former ally - brought the Armenian presidential campaign to life.

Baku's stance

But in Azerbaijan, the government is more concerned about how the next Armenian president will deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh peace negotiations.

The authorities in Baku insist that the region is theirs and must not be allowed to break away.

"Whoever is elected, the main point is that he should adopt a policy on conflict resolution consistent with the principles and norms of international law, refrain from the policy of occupation, and leave Azerbaijani territories," Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim told the BBC.

Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey, both closed their borders with Armenia because of the war. The country's economy - already struggling to recover from post-Soviet collapse - has suffered as a result.

Barbed wire

There is a further unresolved problem with Turkey - the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I, which Armenia wants to be internationally recognised as genocide.

Armenia's border with Turkey near Akhurik
Armenia's border with Turkey remains shut, damaging trade

In the village of Akhurik, a short walk from the Turkish border but a long day's drive from Nagorno-Karabakh, a group of men stand around chatting and smoking cigarettes.

The road through the village used to be a trading route, but it now stops short at a barbed wire fence with a military checkpoint blocking the way into Turkey.

"There is no life here - the place has died," says Hovik, one of the men passing the empty hours on the icy pavement.

Border villages like Akhurik have been marooned in economic isolation by political disputes. Hovik and his friends used to do business with the Turks, but they still insist that Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh is more important than their own hardship.

"Even if it meant that this border would re-open," he says, "there should be no compromises over Nagorno-Karabakh."

SEE ALSO
Timeline: Armenia
21 Nov 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Armenia
21 Nov 07 |  Country profiles
Regions and territories: Nagorno-Karabakh
03 Oct 07 |  Country profiles
US delays Armenia 'genocide' vote
26 Oct 07 |  Americas

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