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A serious escalation in violence at the Line of Contact (LOC) over the past 2 weeks suggests that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is far from being resolved. Tension at the LOC has been rising throughout the last year; the Armenian Reporter documents the deaths of 18 Armenians and 25 Azeris between January 2014 and present day. The total amount of deaths from both sides in 2013 inclusively was 19.
Violence erupted again on the 6th of August 2014. Gunfire disrupted the Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire line causing unrest and injury to civilians as well as military deaths. The recent violence has been described as the worst outbreak for two decades in the region. According to the Armenian Defence Ministry, Azerbaijan willfully violated the 1994 ceasefire about 65 times on the LOC between August 14th and 15th and 650 shots were fired at the frontline. Questions have also been raised surrounding the mysterious disappearance and death of an Armenian citizen on the 7th of August, who was being held in Azerbaijani custody after crossing the border from Armenia.
During the 1920s, the historically Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was assigned as an autonomous region to the newly created Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic by Stalin, as part of a ‘divide and rule’ strategy. In the late 1980s, this unsatisfactory arrangement gave way to conﬂict, violent suppression and the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population in the region.
A ceaseﬁre was brokered in 1994, and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have continued to live under their own government, mostly peacefully, except for regular sniper incidents along the disputed border areas. To date, negotiations have failed to reach any lasting peace arrangements, and there are fears that this ‘frozen conﬂict’ shows signs of a melt-down into war.
Recent events suggest that the foundations of the 1994 ceasefire agreement are faltering. On-going clashes allow a sense of fear to flourish, and serve to polarize the parties of the conflict Tensions between Armenia, Azerbaijan and NKR have been described by the US Intelligence Community as a ‘potential flashpoint’ and the increasingly frequent violations of the ceasefire along the Line of Contact (LOC) constitute a threat to peace in this region. Ashot Ghoulyan (chair of the assembly) recently told HART representatives that “this is not a sleeping conflict – it can explode at any time.”
Last week President Ilham Aliyev launched a bitter social media tirade following the increase in hostilities in NKR. Via Twitter, he pledged to “restore [the] territorial integrity [of Nagorno-Karabakh] either by peaceful or military means” referring to Armenia as “the enemy”. On the 7th of August, Aliyev posted more than 60 messages condemning the Armenians as “barbarians and vandals.” This use of genocidal language is reminiscent of the horrific conflict between 1991-1992 where over 30,000 people perished in a brutal conquest for the territory.
Baroness Cox in a recent Panorama interview commented on the Azerbaijani efforts to present Armenia as the aggressors saying,
I would never say Armenians are aggressors, that is a lie – it was Azerbaijan that attempted ethnic cleansing of the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh back in 1991-1992, it was Azerbaijan that unleashed ferocious military offensive against the civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh – for instance in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh Stepanakert we observed 400 grad missiles a day fired by the Azeris on the civilians. It was Azerbaijan who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity by carrying out a massacre of civilians in the village of Marage.
Azerbaijan’s belligerent rhetoric serves to negate future aspirations of peace agreements and this, combined with their refusals to remove snipers from the frontline among other recommendations, creates a hostile barrier to future progress. Some commentators have noted that the Azeris, as the losing side feel the need to issue threats and makes assertions of dominance.
The bloody clashes in NKR and the subsequent Azerbaijani aggression prompted an immediate trilateral meeting between the Armenian President Sargsyan, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Vladimir Putin of Russia – who acted as mediator. The meeting took place on the 10th of August in Sochi and reflected the need for a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the conflict. Putin commented that both sides ought to “show patience, wisdom, respect to each other to find this solution”. While the primary aim of diminishing the fighting along the LOC has been relatively successful, few substantive or sustainable results emerged from the meeting. Caucasus analyst Thomas de Waal notes the dual failure to publically declare the need to strengthen the 1994 ceasefire, as well as the lack of solid commitment to the reinvigoration of negotiations surrounding potential solutions to the conflict, especially the Basic Principles framework document. The distinct lack of progress seen in the peace process as a whole and the waning chances of a negotiated settlement by the Minsk Group has served to frustrate both sides.
According to de Waal, the current clash is lacking in military logic in that no new territory is gained by either side. Civilians are being harmed in this counterproductive display of political rhetoric and the disruptive activities along the LOC are increasingly damaging for the future of NKR.
The recent conflict has reportedly waned in the last few days and the possibility of a full-scale outbreak of war is unlikely according to Armenia Defence Minister Seiran Ohanian. However, the rising tensions have exacerbated the internal rivalry of the region and it could have dangerous repercussions elsewhere which may threaten to increase the number of casualties, military and civilian on the frontlines.
James Warlick of US Minsk Group claims that Azerbaijan may have glimpsed an opportunity to reignite conflict while the international community is faced with other pressing concerns such as Ukraine and events in the Middle East. Global preoccupation with international affairs, and the ideological clash between the US and Russia (2 of the 3 mediators in the Minsk Group) in their approaches to these conflicts, reduce the likelihood that these powers will cooperate and come to a negotiated solution for peace. Current international realities have served to make the conflict in NKR ‘even more intractable.’
Russia plays a significant role in contributing to the stalemate in NKR. It benefits from the on-going conflict by selling the Azerbaijani side military equipment while simultaneously strengthening its economic relationship with Armenia with a view to the latter becoming a member of the Russian Customs Union. As a result of this self-interest, Russia seeks to preserve the status quo while preventing the outbreak of a fully-fledged war.
Laurence Broers describes this situation as one of ‘enduring rivalry’ and this reflects impressions elsewhere that the situation of ‘no-war, no-peace’ in NKR is currently as much about managing the tension as it is about negotiation and conflict resolution.
A more ‘sophisticated mechanism’ of investigation is needed to determine the realities of the conflict on the frontline in Karabakh. Currently there are a mere 6 international monitors from the OSCE Minsk Group who endeavour to make monthly visits to the LOC and this is simply not enough to ensure both accountability and the production of reliable evidence.
Furthermore concerted international diplomatic engagement is urgently needed with a focus on preventing confrontation, reducing tensions, fostering dialogue at all levels and working towards sustainable peace. Despite the seriousness of the NKR conflict, the situation is barely on the radar of international community or media, and this lack of awareness and diplomatic engagement means there is little sustained pressure to break the current deadlock or to prevent military escalation. It is also extremely important that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are involved in any negotiations or settlements for peace. As Baroness Cox states, “it is their future which is at stake.”