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Crisis Group on the Karabakh Conflict

Syria and Iran currently dominate our agenda, but the nearby developments between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the conflict area of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) have become increasingly worrying.

October 15, 2013 - Michael Kambeck - Articles and Commentary



This so-called frozen conflict shows clear signs of unfreezing and has the potential to unleash a much larger scale of warfare, including geo-political tectonic shifts and human suffering.

Now, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a key NGO flagging conflict warnings worldwide, has published a new report on this conflict in the South Caucasus. “Terms like ‘Blitzkrieg’, ‘pre-emptive strike’ and ‘total war’ have gained currency with both sides’ planners,” the report’s authors say, although war scenarios are much more dominant in the Azerbaijani public than in Armenia.

Misusing conflict to distract from internal problems

The report is very timely, and considers potential unrest in both countries. Azerbaijan’s presidential elections which have just passed, although most observers expected a staged renewal of the Aliyev family’s autocratic rule, may inspire uprisings. Armenia’s decision to join the Russian-dominated Customs Union may also provoke internal unrest, the ICG assume, and both countries may be tempted to use the NK conflict to distract from their internal problems. Previous elections in Azerbaijan have produced heightened military tensions on the border with Armenia and NK. Yet Armenia’s internal situation with the next elections due in 2017 seems incomparable and large-scale unrest unlikely. Russia’s reinforced strategic partnership with Armenia could even prevent a possible war. These ICG conclusions, therefore, try too hard to see parallels where actually the situations differ.

They call upon the international community to work with the sides to maintain a “quiet period during which both sides dial down rhetoric”, to avoid accidental war. The report recommends re-establishing a “crisis hotline” in order to lessen chances of a military escalation and an efficient arms embargo regime for the conflict zone. These positive suggestions have been put forward by the expert community from time to time, including the book Europe’s next avoidable war – Nagorno-Karabakh (Palgrave, 2013).

No confidence, no peace?

The report’s weakness is the attempt to balance out the unbalanced. For example, the authors criticise Azerbaijan for being the driving force in the arms race, for their regular hate speeches, including those by President Ilham Aliyev, and for the extradition of the axe murderer Ramil Safarov from Hungary and his immediate pardon and public glorification in Baku as an anti-Armenian hero. The ICG report additionally notes the NK authorities’ intention to re-launch civilian flights between their Stepanakert Airport and Yerevan, a project which would reduce transportation times, but not change anything else with respect to current road transport. It would have been better to point out this imbalance: both sides in the conflict clearly could do more for peace, but currently mainly one side publicly works against it. However, the report is a comprehensive resource for all the key facts, even providing its own original sources, and admits that “since mediation efforts have stalled, Baku has increasingly emphasised a military solution, publicly and privately.”

The authors analyse that “time is neither side’s ally”; and this is correct. For Azerbaijan, the arms race is based on the country’s massive oil and gas revenues, which analysts say have already peaked. For Armenia and NK, the economic costs of the isolation orchestrated by Turkey and Azerbaijan make it difficult to keep up in this arms race. While these points explain the urgency for action, they do not provide for an artificial balance: Armenia has no incentive to start any military adventure, while Azerbaijan is even creating such incentives for itself, in particular by impeding the OSCE’s Minsk Group mediations. During the years, these mediations have produced a road map for peace already agreed by both sides’ foreign ministers, for the summit in Kazan (in 2011), as well as a list of confidence building measures (CBMs). However, President Aliyev renounced the road map negotiated by his foreign minister in Kazan, effectively stalling the deal, and Baku still refuses all proposed CBMs, demanding that NK first withdraw from the buffer zone, which is actually one point contained in the road map Aliyev rejected. In this way, Baku torpedoes the Minsk Group process and then complains about its ineffectiveness – all the while accelerating its arms acquisitions and declaring that even Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, is allegedly positioned on “ancient Azeri soil”.

A question of leverage

The urgency of CBMs cannot be underlined enough. The ICG mentions NK’s recent call for cooperation regarding the Sarsang water reservoir, which Baku again turned down. This reservoir could be misused by either side to cause a military escalation, for example through acts of sabotage. Re-establishing the hotline connection and denouncing the propaganda of hate are also vital components to allow for a breakthrough in the peace process. The question will be how the international community, especially the European Union, can exercise leverage on the side that so far blocks these CBMs, i.e. Azerbaijan. Waiting for a change of government in Baku may take too long. Azerbaijani lobbyists are currently re-floating an idea in Brussels to condition the EU’s Association Agreements (AA) to progress in the NK conflict resolution, knowing that Azerbaijan does not seek an AA and that Baku would thus receive a veto over Armenia’s relations with the EU. However, reformulated, this idea could work. First, it must include all sorts of agreements that the EU negotiates with both sides, including the energy partnership that Azerbaijan currently seeks with the EU. Secondly, the country in question needs to be able to fulfil the conditions alone, without depending on the other conflict party in its relationship with the EU. For example, the EU could help establish the Minsk Group’s proposed investigation mechanism for shooting incidents, even deploy observers. This CBM, accomplishable by each conflict party alone, could be a condition for contractual agreements with the EU.

Michael Kambeck is co-founder of European Friends of Armenia and its Secretary General. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Bonn and an MA in European Studies from the University of Leeds.

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