Since a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994 brought an end to six years of often intense fighting in the majority Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, the conflict over the territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan has officially been what diplomats like to call “frozen”. Clashes between the Caucasus neighbours took place in 2016, however, and more recently last month, making the relative peace in the disputed region look increasingly fragile.
While part of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh had autonomous status – although autonomy in practice meant very little in the USSR – within Azerbaijan despite being populated primarily by Armenians. At the time, the all-encompassing authority of the Soviet Union was enough to keep ethnic tensions in check. But as the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the peace.
In 1988 the region – located wholly inside of Azerbaijani territory – declared itself part of Armenia, then in 1991 proclaimed its independence. A full-scale war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, who both viewed, and still view, the territory as theirs. By the time of the 1994 ceasefire, the region had suffered 30,000 casualties, and thousands more had fled. Armenia – very much in the ascendancy when fighting stopped – de facto controlled not just Nagorno-Karabakh but also a portion of the surrounding territory.
Since then there have been regular skirmishes along the line of contact despite both countries committing – on paper at least – to resolving the dispute, primarily under auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, which includes Russia, France and the United States.
It has become what one analyst dubbed “a peace process with little peace and little process”.
No peace, no process
In April 2016 the region saw its biggest outbreak of violence since the 1990s: the so-called “four-day war”. Armenia claimed that Azerbaijan was attempting to seize territory within Nagorno-Karabakh, and there were an estimated 350 casualties across both sides – forces and civilians – before Russia, again, brokered a new ceasefire.
Most recently, on July 12, partly as a result of peace negotiations going nowhere but also because of domestic politics in the two countries and the highly volatile situation on the ground, fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out again, although not in the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself. This time, both sides accused the other of shelling civilian areas on their shared border between Tavush in northeast Armenia and the Tovus district of Azerbaijan. Eleven soldiers and one civilian were killed on the Azerbaijani side, while Armenia lost four soldiers, including two officers.
Zaur Shiriyev, a Caucasus analyst at International Crisis Group says that the latest round of violence probably began as a small incident, given impetus by an untenable peace process. “Negotiations aren’t yielding any results,” he says, “and that raises tensions in international border areas, so each side has been expecting the other to attack.”
The killing of a popular Azerbaijani general in the clashes prompted thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets in Baku, in a rare display of public anger in what is an infamously authoritarian country. Protesters demanded mobilisation, yelling “Karabakh is Azerbaijan”, and occasionally clashing police. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev labelled the protesters “peaceful patriots” who had been “led astray” by opposition activists who are “worse than Armenians”.
The next day, domestic tensions escalated further in Azerbaijan. Mr Aliyev fired his foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov, accusing him of being too timid and weak, and participating in “meaningless negotiations”. He was replaced by the erstwhile education minister Jeihun Bayramov, who has next to no diplomatic experience.
Armenia has since claimed that it repelled an Azerbaijani attack on July 21 in the same region, an accusation Baku vehemently denies. In retaliation, Azerbaijan accused the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, of undermining peace talks chaired by the Minsk Group. This is partly due to Yerevan’s direct discussions with authorities in Karabakh, which is not recognised as a UN member state, and with whom Baku refuses to negotiate.
A new battleground
Richard Giragosian, the founding director of the Regional Studies Centre (RSC), an independent Armenian think tank, views the recent clashes as a turning point. In his opinion, a new battleground has been opened up.
“This attack on Armenia proper was made some 300 kilometers from the usual battleground of Nagorno-Karabakh, and unlike past fighting, the latest escalation was an unusual attempt by Azerbaijani forces to dislodge and seize Armenian territory,” he tells Emerging Europe.
While the nature of the attack itself is heavily disputed by Baku, its location is not, and this venturing beyond the usual perimeters of the conflict does not bode well for the future of the region. Moreover, the show of force on both sides hints at greater escalation, where the deployment of forces is no longer just for diplomatic or political purposes.
“I do not expect any positive developments in the near future,” says Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Centre of Analysis of International Relations in Baku. According to Dr Shafiyev, this is as a result of Armenia’s “unrelenting push” for control of the region.
“Armenia wants to solidify the results of its occupation of Azerbaijani territories and to maintain the status quo of occupation,” he says.
Another reason for pessimism is the domestic situation in both countries. The recent Azerbaijani appointment of Mr Bayramov, the former education minister, lacking in diplomatic skills, concerns Armenia. “It further implies a shift to a new strategy relying more on force of arms than on diplomatic dialogue,” explains Mr Giragosian. Furthermore, a recent shift in power structures within the Azerbaijani government have lead many to suspect that an internal power struggle is taking place, where only the defeat of Armenia will secure victory.
For Armenia, a country still enjoying the afterglow of its so-called Velvet Revolution in 2018 – which put Mr Pashinyan in office – the rallying effect of the war has served a different purpose. Here, according to Mr Giragosian, the country is employing a “small-state soft-power” model that aims to elevate diplomacy rather than the threat of force, demonstrated by its direct negotiations with Karabakh.
“Armenia has an opportunity and an imperative to differentiate itself from illiberal or authoritarian modes of managing conflict. Authoritarian conflict management requires higher levels of coercive power and evasion of democratic oversight that Armenia has neither the capacity nor the appetite for after the Velvet Revolution,” Mr Giragosian tells Emerging Europe.
However, for Dr Shafiyev, Armenia’s newfound diplomatic soft power can be just as threatening, and hope in Azerbaijan that the Velvet Revolution would bring change were quickly dashed.
“[Pashinyan’s] rhetoric became more nationalistic and expansionist,” says Dr Shafiyev. This rhetoric was on display for all to see last August when he addressed a crowd in territory that Armenia occupies but which are internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Pashinyan called for unification between Armenia and Karabakh, declaring: “Karabakh is Armenia, period”.
“All of these moves suggest that there’s going to be no change in Armenian policy, which is received in Azerbaijan as the continued policy of annexation,” says Laurence Broers, Caucasus programme director for Conciliation Resources. “The longer the conflict goes on, the less likely it is that Azerbaijan is going to get minimal concessions or results, never mind the return of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.”
The international context
Contained within the region, this sharp polarisation and aggressive rhetoric from both Armenia and Azerbaijan is concerning enough for those living in Karabakh who want the dispute resolved, but when expanded into the international arena, the stakes become a lot higher.
For a region rich in oil and gas, stuck in between global powers, all sides are treading on thin ice. Destabilisation could spell not just a damaging war for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but a potential proxy war for the region’s other stakeholders.
Russia is officially an ally of Armenia as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), but has sold arms to both sides. Moreover, its notable silence regarding the recent skirmishes has left many Armenians feeling that they are being taken for granted and that Moscow is seeking better relations with Baku, a more palatable authoritarian partner for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
However, if there is one thing that both sides can agree on, it is that Russia is a disappointment. Azerbaijan has expressed disdain at Russia’s help for Armenia on the front line, notably its delivery of equipment for electronic warfare, which was the weakest link in the Armenian military.
While the European Commission’s Vice-President Josep Borrell did manage to speak with both Yerevan and Baku last month, beating Moscow to the punch, the West is similarly seen another disappointing partner in peace negotiations.
The other members of the Minsk Group, France and the US, are viewed by Azerbaijan as being hardly involved, not least due to the presence of large Armenian diasporas in both countries.
For Dr Shafiyev, Western involvement creates further disillusionment with the multinational peace process from the Azerbaijani point of view. “Unfortunately, Western experts usually treat conflicting sides equally, unlike in the conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova,” he says.
Turkey, on the other hand, is an avid supporter of Azerbaijan and has a large Azeri population. However, Dr Shafiyev tells Emerging Europe that despite being Azerbaijan’s strongest ally, “Turkey was not so active in countering the influence of other regional players.” However, he does concede that Ankara has recently indicated strong support which might change the balance of power in the region.
“The possibility for greater power intervention in energy-rich Azerbaijan, when and where such possible instability may invite a new arena for real competition between Russia and Turkey, may eclipse the already latent clash of interests between Moscow and Ankara in both Syria and Libya,” adds Mr Giragosian.
Another potential player is Iran, which recently offered to mediate. “Although this was never a viable alternative,” Mr Giragosian explains, “the offer itself is a display of Iranian determination to plant its flag in what may become a more robust reassertion of its presence and position in the South Caucasus.”
For the 150,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, the increased tensions and international meddling has tangible, tragic consequences. Farmers are struggling to harvest crops in fields riddled with land mines, and water supplies which are damaged. Young people are emigrating in ever greater numbers, as tax breaks, subsidies, and other initiatives to try to convince these people to stay continue to fail. Some residents of the region have given up repairing their damaged homes: crumbling fatalism, a metaphor for the failing peace process.
While Baku and Yerevan, not to mention Moscow, Ankara, Washington, and Paris are tied in a war of words, a diplomatic zero-sum game that ends only with renewed hostilities, the disputed territory itself is suffering.
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