Nagorno-Karabakh: If There Is No Peace, There Is a Threat of War
Browsing through the archives on my laptop, I found my one year old take on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I can admit that the situation on the ground hasn’t changed dramatically and my article is still reflecting the grave realities we face.
Unfortunately South Caucasus is rich not only with natural resources but also with numerous protracted conflicts, and the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region is among them. The ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been concluded on May 5, 1994, but no substantial progress has been made so far. The main international mediator – OSCE Minsk Group composed of representatives of Russia, France and the U.S. – has failed to bring any positive changes into the resolution of the conflict. The Madrid Principles of the resolution of the conflict adopted by both Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership in December 2007 have brought a light of hope but the following “war” over details disappointed many.
At first sight, it seems that the main bone of contention is whether the referendum defining the final legal status of the region should be conducted prior or after the return of the IDPs, who are of Azerbaijani-origin, because that would determine whether the region will remain as a part of Azerbaijan or proclaim independence. However, after many years of fruitless negotiations it becomes obvious that Armenia is very reluctant to return to Azerbaijani control not only the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself, but also the occupied territories surrounding the region. Armenian leadership is not yet ready to take such a bold decision; it not only lacks political capital to spend but also legitimacy among Armenian population. Any concession of land to the Azerbaijani side could result in the loss of power and political turmoil. Moreover, one should not forget that the current president of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, is originally coming from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and is said to be one of the founders of the Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces.
Politics of demonization of Armenians in Azerbaijan is another argument at hand which prevents any attempts to reconcile both sides. Armenian side has serious concerns that those Armenians, living in the Karabkh region, will be simply wiped out of their living places or turned to be second glass citizens of Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, Armenia has adopted a “fence sitting” approach waiting for the more favourable international environment to come for self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh (read: without return of IDPs). Therefore it would be naïve to hope that a breakthrough in negotiations could be achieved by 2013, when the Armenian presidential elections are going to take place. While both presidents at the OSCE summit in Astana signed a joint statement reaffirming their “commitment to seek a final settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based upon the principles and norms of the international law”, it still should not be considered as a safety net to avoid the breakout of the military actions.
Azerbaijani leadership is well aware of the situation and is trying to push Minsk Group mediators to put more pressure on Armenia while keeping military option as a last resort but the more frequent statements made by both politicians and military on the possibility of use of force to return back the occupied territories indicate that the patience is gradually running out. In its latest report the International Crisis Group has warned on a possibility of the resumption of military hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The situation has deteriorated over the past year, the cease-fire violations became more frequent and the causality figures increased. Unlike it is in Georgia, there is no so-called 24/7 working “hot line” among the parties to the conflict which could prevent the escalation of the conflict. Therefore any serious skirmish could easily spiralout of control and lead to the outbreak of war which could have far more grave consequences for the region than the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008.
In August 2010 Russia and Armenia signed the 5th Protocol to the Treaty on Russia’s military base on the Armenian territories concluded in 1995. The Protocol envisaged that the Russian military base (located in the Northern city of Gyumri) will not only serve for the protection of the national interests of the Russian Federation, but will also ensure security of the host country, that is, Armenia, and provide modern weapons and equipment to Armenian armed forces. For those who have been following the developments in the region, there is nothing new in this document as Russia has long been providing armaments to Armenia. Moreover, both Armenia and Russia are parties to the Collective Security Treaty which envisages that an aggression against one of the state parties is an aggression against all. What is important here that the latest document is just one more explicit proof of Russia’s biased position in the regulation of the conflict as well as to the fact that the key to the resolution of the conflict lies in Kremlin.
These developments led to the conclusion of the Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support between Azerbaijan and Turkey, which pledges that both countries will support each other in a case of aggression and enhance military cooperation. The agreement shows an increasing fatigue, and even frustration with the current state of the negotiation process in Azerbaijan. The country has increased its military spending up to more than $ 3 billion, which is even more than the whole state budget of Armenia. The current growth in oil prices will lead to more fortune and more military spending, but this will not last forever. Azerbaijan’s budget is heavily dependent on oil revenues. And as some pundits predict that at the current rate of extraction Azerbaijani oil reserves may be depleted by 2019, but the oil boom will end in 2013. Less cash would mean fewer chances to regain Nagorno-Karabakh by force.
Azerbaijani diplomats tend to complain that foreigners come to Azerbaijan to get something profitable out of this country – Russians seek for obedience, Europeans seek for oil and gas, Iranians seek for an opportunity to export Islamic revolution, Americans seek for dominance and support Europeans in their quest for energy resources – and nobody cares of Azerbaijan’s top national priority – restoration of the territorial integrity. The only partner for Azerbaijan which not only takes but also delivers is Turkey. But the frustration of the current negotiation format, explicit military and economic support of Russia to Armenia and looming descent in oil production might push Azerbaijani leadership to opt for the military solution, which would plunge the region into chaos.
The current format of the conflict mediation process is ineffective as it very much depends on the domestic situation. The upcoming presidential elections (scheduled for the first half of 2012) in all three countries represented in the OSCE Minsk Group – U.S., France and Russia – mean less focus on the resolution of the conflict. Moreover, due to a large presence of Armenian diaspora Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict often becomes an issue of domestic politics like it is in the U.S. or France.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has largely been out of view for the European Union which has left the resolution of the conflict to the OSCE. In words of the President of European Commission Barroso, the EU is ready to provide assistance for rehabilitation in case a conflict settlement is reached. But again there is a smell of gunpowder in the air, and again the EU is reluctant to step in. If the EU is not yet ready to make bold political decisions, it should invest more into reconciliation between two sides financially supporting non-profit organisations working in this field. Two generations have been brought up not speaking to each other. Azerbaijanis demonise Armenians, but latter portray Azerbaijanis as predators. The stalemate in negotiation process leads to the militaristic rhetoric in Azerbaijan which Armenian side interprets as an intention to wipe out Armenians from Nagorno-Karbakh region. This is a vicious circle, which might bring nothing but misery to people trapped in this situation.
On March 19, 2012, Armenian media reported on one more killing on the contact line presumably by an Azerbaijani sniper. For people living in the region on both sides of the conflict this situation unfortunately has become a daily routine. Both countries continue to replenish their military stocks, Azerbaijani government keep on reminding that the military solution of the conflict is still an option, young generation do not speak to each other, but the two of the OSCE Minsk-group countries, namely France and U.S., have plunged into the pre-election process. The International Crisis Group has released one more warning signal by publishing an op-ed entitled “A Frozen Conflict That Could Boil Over”, but we can only guess whether this signal has reached the target audience.
Yes, the conflict potentially could boil over in the long and medium term, and we should finally understand that in the end we – the EU taxpayers – will be the ones who will pay for the consequences by sending humanitarian aid, pumping money in the post-conflict region and paying higher prices for gas & oil since the pipelines crossing the region might be affected too.
The time has come to take this conflict seriously and use all the leverages at our disposal to resolve it, at least to assist OSCE efforts to introduce an early warning system to prevent the escalation of the conflict similar to the mechanism which is right now at place in Georgia.
Essential readings / documentaries
In each country, school textbooks teach one version of history that sustains animosity towards the other.
By Hayhuki Barseghyan, Shahla Sultanova (Institute for War & Peace Reporting)
A joint Armenian-Azerbaijani short documentary produced as a part of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Media Bias Project funded by Eurasia Foundation.
 International Crisis Groupe. European Briefing No. 60. Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War. February 8, 2011, http://www.crisisgroup.org
 Alec Rasizade. Azerbaijan’s Chances in the Karabakh Conflict. Harvard International Review, January 18, 2011, http://hir.harvard.edu/
 Европейский Союз полностью поддерживает территориальную целостность Азербайджана – Президент Еврокомиссии. 1news.az, January 20, 2011, http://www.1news.az
 Lawrence Scott Sheets. A Frozen Conflict That Could Boil Over. NYT, 8.03.2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/09/opinion/a-frozen-conflict-that-could-boil-over.html?_r=4
 PIK TV. Встреча в Эргнети: превенция инцидентов. 20.03.2012. http://youtu.be/9Zd8z1Pf434
Published 22 March 2012