In reality the road stretched only a few hundred meters, but it seemed as if it spanned two separate worlds. In traveling this route, Carey Cavanaugh, Philippe de Suramaen and Nikolai Gribkov - three mediators in ongoing talks in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - hoped to underscore the potential for a settlement. What they found, however, is that substantial obstacles remain standing in the way of peace.
The three men -- who represent the United States, France and Russia, respectively -- are charged with trying to find a solution to the 13-year-old Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, working under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's so-called "Minsk Group." They recently completed a four-day tour of Azerbaijan and Armenia, crossing a frontline that had remained largely "no-man's land" since the signing of a ceasefire in 1994. [For background information, see EurasiaNet's Recaps archive].
The mediators examined how the conflict has affected the two countries and met with victims on both sides of dividing line. They spoke to refugees, people still homeless from the 1988 earthquake in Armenia and countless officials, including the two countries' presidents.
In the course of their tour, they also walked across the "line of contact" between the armies of the Azerbaijani Republic and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Though the mediators have twice crossed between the forces from Azerbaijan and Armenia proper, this was the first time they had traversed the boundary between Azerbaijan and the breakaway territory. On a hot, dusty Saturday at the end of May, the small group, some clad in flak jackets, walked away from the end of Azeri positions, along the road that had been de-mined only 25 minutes earlier. Escorted by Azeri soldiers, they reached a no-man's land on the hard-baked Azerbaijani plain.
There they were met by members of the Karbakhi army. The commanders of the two groups of soldiers, whose forces had exchanged fire just two days earlier, briefly shook hands but otherwise avoided eye contact.
Ambassador Cavanaugh spoke of the importance of the crossing, in that it proved that similar exchanges could take place in the future.
"You have lived together side by side for centuries and when the time is right you will do so again," added Ambassador Gribkov of Russia.
But when Cavanaugh suggested setting up a communications line between the two sides, in order to avoid any accidental outbreak of hostilities, the results were less than successful. General Vitaly Balasalian of the Karabakh army was warm to the idea; Azerbaijani Colonel Elhan Husseinov, who appeared to worry that such a gesture might grant the Karabakhis too much recognition, said he had to check with his superiors.
The mediators' tour highlighted both the hopes and obstacles to a peace settlement for the former Soviet Union's longest-running ethnic dispute. Cavanaugh, de Suramaen and Gribkov had aimed to engage local residents in a public discussion, promoting the potential benefits of finally opening borders and allowing refugees to return. What they received was a blast of hardline resistance.
In refugee camps and towns across the conflict zone, the message was the same: we want peace, but we don't want to compromise. "How can we let the Azeris back, after the pogroms we saw with our own eyes?" asks Ophelia, 39, an economist living in the Karabakh town of Susha. Susha was once the main Azeri town in Karabakh, but is now depleted of its former inhabitants and populated mostly by Armenian refugees.
In Agcebedi, Azerbaijan, a refugee camp that houses some 750 families, the same sentiments were voiced, just with different words. "We want peace" and "All we want is our land" read the placards these internally displaced persons carried. But Saida, 44, a refugee from the former Azeri city of Agdam said: "I will not return to my home unless Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan."
Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian have met 16 times to discuss a Karabakh solution, the latest in Key West, Florida, in April. The two reportedly were closing in on an settlement at Key West, but the negotiation process has stalled since then. The next round of talks, originally scheduled to occur in Geneva in June, have been postponed "indefinitely," according to Armenian officials. Aliyev, for his part, says that the chances for a meeting have been "diminished." The reason, says Ambassador Cavanaugh, is that both sides are getting nervous the closer they get to finalizing the deal. At the same time, both countries need more time to prepare their populations for a deal that will possibly involve some tough choices.
There is however a sense in this round of negotiations that it is now or never. Three previous peace proposals have been rejected by one side or the other in the past. Ambassador Cavanaugh speaks of a "window of opportunity" that is now available.
The three co-chairs are working closely together, which was not always the case before. The international community is not distracted by other crises, such as Kosovo. And the two presidents appear open to the idea of peace. Indeed, many experts believe that only Aliyev and Kocharian have the necessary gravitas in their countries to convince a skeptical population that this is the best deal possible.
Though unspoken, fears over the health of President Aliyev also seem to be a driving factor. On the Azerbaijani side, officials say that the 78-year-old leader is in top form for a man his age. At the same time, they admit that following open-heart surgery, Aliyev's health can be fragile. On the Armenian side, there are concerns that a successor to Aliyev may not have the pull to see a peace deal through. Also, some say that the Azeri opposition may become a prisoner to their own rhetoric about winning the territory back by force. If opposition candidates succeed in coming to power, they could be forced by their own promises into resuming hostilities against Armenia.
But there are also worries that the negotiators may be pushing too hard, too fast. If this round fails, then some fear that the disappointment will be even greater than before, since the expectations were higher.
Gevorg Poghosyan, president of the Armenian Sociological Association, says that major progress has been made in both societies' attitudes towards the conflict. Neither side wants war and both groups understand that some sort of compromise must be made. Nevertheless, he says we may still be two to five years away from a comprehensive peace.
"It's like trying to make a child grow up faster with the aid of some sort of medication," he says. "If outside forces interfere, it could bring some unwanted results."
David Stern is the Caucasus and Central Asia correspondent for the Financial Times. He is based in Baku. He was among a contingent of international press that accompanied the Minsk Group mediators on the tour of Armenia and Azerbaijan.