By Jean-Christophe Peuch in Prague
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) approved on Tuesday a controversial resolution on the Nagorno-Karabakh that criticizes ethnic Armenian forces for occupying considerable parts of Azerbaijan's territory years after the end of the separatist conflict.
The document also states that the 1988 to 1994 war led to large-scale ethnic expulsions and the creation of mono-ethnic areas that it says "resemble the terrible concept of ethnic cleansing." The vote came amid protests from the Armenian delegation, which described the draft resolution and its appending report as biased in Azerbaijan's favor.
For more than two hours, Armenian and Azerbaijani delegates to the PACE crossed swords over who should claim historical rights over Nagorno-Karabakh. But British parliamentarian David Atkinson, who drafted the recommendation on behalf of the Strasbourg-based Assembly's political affairs committee, urged his South Caucasus colleagues not to engage in sterile discussions:
"We cannot go down this route,” he said. “Those who hark back to history are condemned to live in the past. We have to move forward. We must recognize the realities of today."
And in Atkinson's words, the "realities of today" are that – 11 years after the 1994 truce that formally ended the Karabakh war -- Azerbaijan remains technically at war with its secessionist region. Atkinson especially drew the Assembly's attention to the plight of those civilians who, despite the end of the war, are still denied the right to return to their home regions.
Azerbaijan demands that all ethnic Armenian forces withdraw from its territory as a prerequisite to any discussion on the status of its secessionist enclave. Armenia, which represents Karabakh in the peace talks, opposes Baku's "step-by-step" approach and insists the fate of the breakaway region be settled simultaneously with all other issues.
Ignoring protests raised by Armenia's representatives, the majority of PACE delegates on Tuesday supported a demand made by Bulgarian parliamentarian Evgeni Kirilov that Azerbaijan be free of any occupying troops. “There cannot be territories occupied by force, or there cannot be any prospect of joining any territories by force to [any] country,” he said.
The resolution calls on Azerbaijani authorities to establish contacts with Karabakh leaders -- which they have persistently refused to do -- and to refrain from any attempts to retake lost territory by force. Nevertheless, some Armenian delegates blame Atkinson for the resolution's alleged bias.
This was notably the case of Armen Rustamian, the deputy chair of the Armenian delegation and a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a nationalist political party also known as Dashnaktsutyun. Addressing the Assembly in French, Rustamian said he believes Atkinson's resolution will not only hinder the peace process, but will also serve as an incentive for Azerbaijan to forcefully restore its territorial integrity.
"Azerbaijan is expecting to use this document as a justification to issue an ultimatum it has been preparing for a long time. Azerbaijan wants to solve the [Karabakh] issue according to its own scenario -- that is, through war," he said.
Of all non-Armenian delegates who attended Tuesday's debate, only French parliamentarian Francois Rochebloine publicly questioned the impartiality of Atkinson's
report: "It seems to me that, for the sake of objectivity, this report should have given a more balanced view of the position of the Armenian side and its readiness to negotiate."
Of particular concern to Armenia's representatives is a sentence in the resolution that refers to the "large-scale ethnic expulsions" that resulted from the Karabakh conflict and "the creation of mono-ethnic areas which resemble the terrible concept of ethnic cleansing." Although the document does not explicitly mention the massive exodus of Azerbaijani civilians during the years 1993 and 1994, some Armenian Diaspora groupings have protested the wording of the resolution.
In a statement released Sunday, the Brussels-based European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy -- formerly known as the Armenian National Committee of Europe -- described the draft document as "the report of Azerbaijan." It also called on European citizens to act through their Strasbourg-based representatives so that the text would be either withdrawn or rejected.
The Armenian government has so far not reacted to the Atkinson report. Media reports quoted Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying Yerevan would make its position public only after the document was voted upon.