In more than a quarter century of U.S. diplomatic involvement in the Karabakh conflict, former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (1977-80) remains the most prominent American political figure to have ever visited Karabakh. The visit took place some three months after the declaration of independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) and the start of the Karabakh war.
As an envoy for the United Nations’ Secretary General, Vance spent about half a day in Stepanakert on March 20, 1992 on a trip that began with stops in Baku and Yerevan on March 18-19.
A video of that visit was published online earlier this year. The recording begins shortly after Vance crosses the frontline between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, then near the Karabakh town of Askeran, arriving accompanied by armored personnel carriers (BTRs) flying UN flags. The BTRs came courtesy of the Russian military unit then based in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja (previously Kirovabad) that also occasionally engaged in fighting against Karabakh Armenians.
On the Armenian side, Vance is met by Oleg Yesayan and Armen Isagulov, respectively the prime minister and police chief of Nagorno Karabakh at the time.
“It is time to try to find a way to peace,” Vance is heard saying shortly before his delegation boards Karabakh officials’ USSR-issued white Volga sedans still carrying Soviet Azerbaijani license plates.
The delegation next visits government buildings and Stepanakert’s hospital, all operating without electricity and under fire from Azerbaijani forces in nearby Shusha. Even before the regular shelling began in December 1991, Azerbaijan had closed its borders and cut off utility lines to both Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. With roads blocked, Nagorno Karabakh’s communications with the outside world were via helicopter flights to Armenia.
After the tour, Vance and company are ushered into Yesayan’s office that has a working generator. There, Yesayan is joined by agriculture minister Armo Tsaturyan and parliament members Robert Kocharyan and Levon Melik-Shahnazaryan (the latter, recently deceased, ended up keeping the recording’s copy in his archive).
“Our demands are not maximalist,” Melik-Shahnazaryan says. “Our wish is for the Azerbaijani Republic and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic to live in peace.”
Yesayan informs Vance that at that moment the NKR Parliament chair and the republic’s political leader Artur Mkrtchyan is meeting with Iranian diplomats, who had helped secure a seven-day cease-fire timed to coincide with Novruz holiday celebrated in Iran and Azerbaijan.
Vance, who resigned as secretary of state amid the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, is next seen speaking with Mahmoud Vaezi, head of the Iranian delegation, thanking him for efforts to secure a cease-fire.
“Peace in the region is our duty,” says the U.S.-educated Vaezi in fluent English.
Vance then meets Mkrtchyan and the two hold a press conference. The former secretary stresses the point that his mission is limited to establishing facts and preparing a report for the UN Secretary General.
Asked about a solution to the Karabakh conflict and how it compares in terms of difficulty to the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Vance says that it is “not easy and this is very obvious.”
In his brief remarks, Mkrtchyan thanks all mediators, while arguing that the peace process can succeed “only when the right of self-determination for Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh is recognized and they become a full-fledged participant in negotiations.”