Lost in purgatory: the plight of displaced persons in the Caucasus.

Author:Bacon, Kenneth H.

All people forcibly uprooted by political violence are losers, but some are bigger losers than others. We refer to a growing category of refugees known in the chill jargon of humanitarian relief as "IDPs," or internally displaced persons. These are people driven from their homes and farms within their own homeland, unlike those forced to flee their country under threat of persecution. The difference is critical, since under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, those qualifying as refugees receive greater recognition, rights, assistance, and protection than the internally displaced, even though both groups face similar hardships.

Moreover, there is a political as well as a legal catch. IDPs are frequently pawns in a slow-moving, inconclusive diplomatic chess game. Not only do adversaries in civil conflicts tend to prefer protracted deadlock to necessary compromise, but combatants often exploit displaced populations as visual reminders of victimization, even at the cost of prolonging their hardship. "Politics is keeping them victims to attract donors," we were informed by a relief worker in Azerbaijan, where many displaced communities rely on international aid.

Nowhere are the anomalies of this new purgatory more evident than in the South Caucasus, the rugged isthmus that separates the Black and Caspian Seas. Nearly 1.4 million people have been displaced by civil conflict in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, amounting to 8.7 percent of the population of the three countries. Most were displaced by ethnically based independence movements shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union--in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and by Abkhazia's attempt to break away from Georgia. (1) Many IDPs have lived in squalor for upward of a decade, their plight either forgotten or known only to interested parties, notwithstanding the new media attention on the Caucasus as a seedbed of terrorism and instability. Our purpose is to describe the problem, and to put forward some reasonable proposals for salvaging the people trapped in this purgatory.

Uprooted Populations

The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the contested ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, is the biggest longstanding source of displacement in the South Caucasus. This conflict, embroiling Azerbaijan and Armenia, has uprooted 844,000 Azeris, more than a tenth of Azerbaijan's population. In addition, large numbers of ethnic Armenians have fled Azerbaijan, and today nearly 265,000 continue to live in refugee-like conditions in Armenia. The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh began shortly after the Soviet Union incorporated the Caucasus in 1920-21. Moscow placed the Armenian enclave under the governance of Azerbaijan. In 1988, Armenians began to demonstrate against Azeri control. Demonstrations turned into riots. Russian troops supported Baku's efforts to retain control of the enclave until 1991, when the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was 75 percent Armenian, approved a referendum calling for independence. Some 30,000 people died in the...

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