By Jean-Christophe Peuch
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last week completed an unprecedented fact-finding mission to regions around Mountainous Karabagh to verify Azeri claims that Armenian authorities are sending settlers to the area. The mission–which was supervised by the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group–was the first of its kind since the suspension of the 1988-94 Karabagh war. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL–France’s Minsk Group co-chairman–Bernard Fassier–discussed the mission’s preliminary findings.
PRAGUE–For more than a week–experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conducted an unprecedented tour of the Kelbajar–Lachin–Qubadli–Fuzuli–Cebrayil–Zangilan–and Agdam districts around Mountainous Karabagh.
The eight-member mission was placed under the supervision of the Minsk Group of nations that has been mediating the Karabagh conflict for the past 13 years on behalf of the OSCE. That Group has been co-chaired by France–Russia–and the United States–beginning in 1996.
France’s co-chair–Bernard Fassier–who toured the territories with the OSCE experts–said that the mission–which had long been demanded by Azerbaijan–was made possible only after arduous talks between Baku and Yerevan. Azerbaijan claims the Armenian and Karabagh authorities have already sent some 23,000 settlers to the areas and deman’s that an end be put to what it says is a deliberate policy of colonization.
"The determinant factor that made this mission possible–despite Armenia’s earlier objections–was a compromise reached recently by the two countries under the aegis of the Minsk Group co-chairs. The main provision of the compromise was that Azerbaijan would suspend its action at the United Nations in return for–among other things–Armenia’s consent to that mission–the technicalities of which were agreed to by both parties," Fassier said.
In early 1993–ethnic Armenian forces were in full control of Mountainous Karabagh and had already secured the strategic southern corridor of Lachin that links the exclave to Armenia.
In March 1993–ethnic Armenian forces launched a two-pronged offensive that drove Azerbaijan’s army farther east.
Kelbajar fell on April 3–1993. Agdam–Fuzuli–Cebrayil–and other cities and towns followed soon thereafter.
Azerbaijan claims the Armenian and Karabagh authorities have already sent some 23,000 settlers to the areas and deman’s that an end be put to what it says is a deliberate policy of colonization.
But French Ambassador Fassier said that–with one noticeable exception–Armenian migration into the occupied territories seems to be largely spontaneous and improvised.
"Contrary to what many people thought–there doesn’t seem to be a deliberate–large-scale plan to settle those areas. One exception–however–is the Lachin district. In Lachin–one can say that the [Armenian] settlement is being encouraged and sponsored. But with regard to the six remaining districts–its seems that up to 80 to 90 percent of settlers have gone there either on their own or with the support of local nongovernmental organizations or the [Armenian] diaspora. Except for Lachin–there is no large-scale involvement from [the capital of Mountainous Karabagh Republic] Stepanakert–even less so from Yerevan," Fassier said.
The French diplomat said the largest group of settlers is made up of Armenian refugees who fled Azerbaijan before the Karabagh war broke out in 1988 and in the early months of the conflict. The second-largest group is composed of victims of the December 1988 earthquake that leveled the Armenian city of Spitak and partially destroyed Leninakan–Stepanavan–and Kirovakan.
"Finally–there is a third and much smaller group that consists of people who have fled Armenia for economic reasons–or who live in mountainous areas of Armenia and come on a seasonal basis to these more temperate areas for cattle-breeding purposes. During the winter season–these families come down from their mountains to graze their few cows or sheep in these more temperate zones," Fassier said.
Fassier noted that most Armenian settlers are apparently receiving no assistance whatsoever from Yerevan or Stepanakert. He said the precarious Armenian settlemen’s–generally made up of a few families–remain isolated from each other because there are neither roads nor any means of communication.
With the exception of Lachin–no organized effort has been made to restore infrastructure destroyed during the war. Also–Fassier said–no reconstruction program has been initiated and many settlers continue to live in appalling conditions more than 10 years into the cease-fire.
"In many areas there is no electricity and poverty predominates. I wouldn’t say people live. Rather–they are surviving in half-destroyed walls topped by a tin roof. To survive–these families rely on small gardens or plots of land that offer only limited agricultural possibilities. Sometimes–they also rely on what a few fruit orchards that have been in a state of neglect for the past 10 years are still able to produce. In the most extreme situations there is no electricity and just a hole in the ground–a fountain or a well to draw water from. In areas where conditions are slightly better–accumulators allow for just enough electricity to supply a single bulb. In other areas there are small generators. Sometimes electricity is either imported from Karabagh or supplied by an Armenian military base nearby," Fassier said.
Due to its key strategic importance as a land bridge between Karabagh and Armenia–Yerevan insists that the notion of returning the Lachin corridor to Azerbaijan is a nonnegotiable issue.
In Lachin–Fassier said–migran’s live in much better conditions then in other occupied lands. The reconstruction rate is nearing 50 percent. Schools have been built with government support–water and electricity supplies progressively restored–and local administrations set up.
The OSCE experts are due to present their final report to the Minsk Group co-chairs. The latter will then add their own recommendations and political conclusions before passing on the report to the other Minsk Group members and the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna–tentatively scheduled for the second half of March.