Armenia edges away from enclave war: The battle for Karabakh is proving too expensive to bear, writes Robert Fisk

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THE ARMENIAN government is quietly winding down its undeclared war against Azerbaijan, conceding that the future of the Armenian enclave of Nagorny Karabakh must be decided by negotiation and that the tiny and besieged republic of Armenia can no longer bear the consequences of the conflict.

A decision by the President, Levon Ter Petrosian, to deport one of the most prominent foreign-based members of the centre-left Tashnak party - which holds political control over the Karabakh enclave - is a sign of how seriously the authorities are about ending the conflict.

The expulsion to Greece of Hrair Marouchian on the eve of the party's first annual assembly in Armenia forced more than 60 other leaders of the Tashnak Armenian Revolutionary Front to cancel their conference and return to their homes in America, Europe and Lebanon. In a live television broadcast, Mr Ter Petrosian said the food, fuel, power and unemployment crisis in Armenia had been largely caused by the conflict in the Karabakh enclave, to which Armenian militiamen - many of them Tashnak members - forced a land corridor in May.

Domestic opponents see Mr Ter Petrosian's statement as a retreat from the government's original demands for self-determination and autonomy in Karabakh, which was for decades subject to discrimination under Azeri rule. The Armenian cabinet is understood to have reduced its conditions for ending the conflict to a demand that Azeris respect the 'cultural autonomy' of Karabakh.

In Lebanon, from which thousands of Armenians have travelled to the former Soviet republic of Armenia after its independence, the news has come as a shock. Lebanese Armenians have helped to train the militiamen fighting in Karabakh.

'The Armenian government is trying to isolate both Tashnak and Karabakh,' Sarkis Mahserejian, the editor of the party's Beirut newspaper, Astag, said yesterday. 'Ter Petrosian is trying to present Karabakh as the cause of all Armenia's problems even though he was originally a leader of the 'Karabakh committee' which first demanded autonomy for the enclave.' Armenian ministers are now insisting that a peaceful and negotiated settlement has to be found to the war with Azerbaijan.

'Territorial successes by the Armenians are only temporary - let the United Nations take over the corridor,' Hrand Bagratian, the deputy prime minister of Armenia, said. 'Maybe it's difficult today to talk about this kind of solution - but it's the right way forward. Negotiations between Karabakh and Azerbaijan must be started in earnest.'

However, the word 'Karabakh' was important. In Mr Bagratian's eyes, it is for Azerbaijan to talk to the Armenian enclave of Nagorny Karabakh - which is inside Azerbaijan - rather than the state of Armenia which has so far supported Karabakh, fed it, armed it and, until recently, sustained its claim to nationhood. A majority of the Karabakh 'soviet' which declared the enclave's independence is made up of Tashnak members and their allies, whereas only 10 of the 250 deputies in the Armenian parliament belong to Tashnak.

The Republic of Armenia has no oil, no food exports, virtually no gold - save for a mine which produces one and a half tons a year - and few remittances from abroad. Mr Bagratian, who is also Minister of Economy, is already negotiating to print a new Armenian currency - to be called the 'dram' - for internal circulation. European Community economists visiting Yerevan have despaired of such a plan, which will introduce a second non-convertible currency into the rouble area.

The Armenians would prefer a western or UN force to guarantee peace in Karabakh, despite the willingness of Russian forces, under the command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, to involve themselves as peace-keepers. CIS troops are still protecting Armenia's frontier with Turkey, but Armenian militiamen have accused Russians of fighting alongside Azeris in Karabakh.

Last month, Russian television news programmes - still received in Yerevan - showed a young Russian soldier trying to prevent cameramen filming him as he stood among Azeri gunmen in Karabakh.