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Wednesday 16th September: Nagorno-Karabakh’s 6th municipal elections have sparked a flurry of military and political action. In light of which, this writer asks: How long until the international community officially recognises Nagorno-Karabakh’s wish for independence?
The situation is far from ‘frozen‘ in Nagorno-Karabakh. The landlocked region in the South Caucasus has once again seen military escalation in the run up to last Sunday’s hotly disputed elections. The context is not simple. Since the end of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in which over 30,000 people were killed and 1 million displaced, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan, has tussled unsuccessfully for de jure independence and peace. In 1991, the largely Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum for independence in which 99.89% of participants voted in favour of the motion. In 1998, four years after a Russian-brokered ceasefire, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself a Republic and held its first municipal elections. The Constitution of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was voted in by referendum in 2006. Yet despite these efforts and an official ceasefire, Nagorno-Karabakh’s border continues to see conflict as both Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to fight for its control. Efforts of the international OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France have failed for over twenty years in their objective to bring peace to this embattled region. Bako S. Sahakyn, the elected President of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, does not enjoy the privilege of being included in Minsk Group discussions over the region’s future.
Over the last few years, the ever-fragile 1994 ceasefire has been constantly disregarded by both sides. The spread of propaganda in the countries has poisoned a new generation and prolonged animosity. The last decade has seen oil-rich Azerbaijan increase its arms expenditure almost 30 times. It currently boasts a ‘defence’ budget of $4.8 billion compared to Armenia’s total state budget of $2.9 billion. Punch ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’ into Google and, among the Azeri and Armenian press releases, you will find a handful of international news reports from 2012, 2013, and 2014 describing the escalating tensions in the region and the ever more likely threat of war. Tensions have been simmering for a long time and go largely underreported by the Western press.
Against this backdrop, 2015 has brought its own problems. The threat of war still looms. It is a century since the Armenian Genocide and tensions are running higher than usual. Sniper attacks have been replaced by mortar bombs; inflammatory rhetoric has turned into a refusal to co-operate with the OSCE. In the New Year, Azerbaijan’s Defence Minister Zakhir Gasanov announced in a speech to Azeri armed forces: “We will not allow the enemy to live peacefully on our historic lands. We will restore out territorial integrity” (Al Jazeera). Such alarming rhetoric was followed by the closure of the OSCE Office in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, on the 4th July. The country had decided to ‘terminate the memorandum of understanding between the government of Azerbaijan and the OSCE’ (European Parliament). On 24th August and 4th September attacks from both sides were reported resulting in the deaths of several soldiers (reports offer different numbers) as well as civilian casualties and the partial destruction of villages in the Tavush region along Karabakh’s border. On 7th September, Bloomberg reported on Azerbaijani ‘War Games’, consisting of the deployment of 65,000 soldiers, 700 armed vehicles, 90 aircraft and 6,000 reservists in response to Nagorno-Karabakh’s elections on 13th September. In the same report, Bloomberg included Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s announcement last week in Moscow of a $200 million loan from the Kremlin which will enable Armenia to modernise its military and, by proxy, supply arms and soldiers to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Such actions have prompted censure from the West. The European Parliament (EP) adopted a ‘Joint Motion for a Resolution’ last week stipulating ‘its decision to send an EP delegation to Azerbaijan […] in order to engage with the Azerbaijani authorities on urgent issues such as human rights and conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh’. The following day, John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S Department of State, confirmed the use of mortars by Azerbaijan and Armenia along Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders and condemned the targeting of civilians. In response, Azerbaijan has dismissed the EP’s actions as ‘political idiocy‘. It focusses instead on the United States’, Turkey’s and others’ refusal to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh’s municipal elections. In the same week, Armenia sent its Foreign Secretary Edward Nalbandium to Britain to speak at Chatham House against Azeri brutality (Asbarez). Both countries’ news agencies continue to engage in mud-slinging propaganda against each other.
This density of action over the past ten days was caused, in the main, by three factors. Historically, summers tend to see a spike in regional violence. The centenary of the Armenian Genocide and this month’s anniversary celebrations of Nagorno-Karabakh’s unrecognised independence no doubt aggravated the usual breaches of the ceasefire. Moreover, the announcement and completion of yesterday’s elections in Nagorno-Karabakh was always going to provoke a reaction from Azerbaijan.
However, the crucial factor that ensures the proliferation of conflict is the amount of arms that both countries now hold. In the ‘Global Militarization Index 2014’ conducted by the Bonn International Centre for Conversion, both Azerbaijan and Armenia were placed in the top ten countries for the highest levels of militarization in the world. Russia, who ranked 5th in the report, was cited as the main supplier for weaponry on both sides: ‘Azerbaijan and Armenia aim at complete modernization activities for their outdated weapons system for which they are highly dependent on Russian support, and that support is provided to both countries’. As weapons supplier to Azerbaijan and Armenia and co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Russia’s motives are at best questionable. Although “[w]e don’t exactly know what Russia’s interests or the implications of its involvement are,” John Macleod of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting remarked to Newsweek in February, “the Russians are increasingly pro-active regional players and harbour territorial interests for sure”. Whether recent flares of violence will see Russian ‘peace-keeping’ boots on the ground is a possibility Macleod did not rule out. Only time will tell.
Now, in 2015, Azerbaijan and Armenia are well on their way to achieving military modernisation, the implications of which can only be increased attacks along the Nagorno-Karabakh border. If the OSCE, hampered by the West’s reliance on Azerbaijani gas and oil, continues to fail in its objectives whilst Russia pumps arms and money into the frustrated nations of Azerbaijan and Armenia, peace will not come soon. It is our duty not to forget the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose situation only rarely trickles through to the international papers.
So what can our government and the Minsk Group do to finally make peace a reality for Nagorno-Karabakh? First and foremost it is time the Minsk Group included Nagorno-Karabakh, represented by their elected President, in discussions about their future. It is time we ask the Nagorno-Karabakh people what they want. In recent visits to Nagorno-Karabakh, HART delegates have listened to people’s hopes of independence as a step towards ultimate integration with Armenia, as signified by the steps on their flags. Peace must be gained by international diplomacy that not only recognises Nagorno-Karabakh’s agency and desires, but takes action on them.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.