(Nagorno-) Karabakh – The Danger of Getting Used to a Conflict

From the outset, Germany’s chairmanship of the OSCE, in 2016, promised to be fraught with sizable challenges. One of these challenges came from the recent developments in the South Caucasus, which demonstrated with renewed force that national boundaries in the post-Soviet space, and thus the security situation, are still far from stable. Despite the proximity and urgency of the threat to European security, the EU has struggled with an effective response to the political and military crisis in Ukraine, and the war in its Eastern regions, following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. Now, the conflict, which has flared in the South Caucasus around Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia serves as a reminder that there are other regional conflicts that demand Europe´s attention, and Europe’s response will be no less important than in the case of Ukraine. Since the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has often been termed ‘frozen’ or ‘dormant’, it has created an illusion that not much has been happening on the ground in the recent past.   

The 2013 OSCE annual report records that 5 civilians and 32 servicemen were shot and wounded in 2012, and another 14 servicemen were killed. According to the latest available OSCE report, throughout 2014, ‘authorities reported violations of the ceasefire agreement on an almost daily basis.’ In the recent so-called 4 day war the casualties have been heavier: 60 servicemen have died in the fighting, while the likelihood of greater civilian casualties is also high.

Recently, observers, like the Yerevan based analyst, Richard Giragosian, have also expressed concerns over the prospect that Russia might try to further stimulate tensions in Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to turn the conflict into a ‘hot war,’ in which it could gain even “greater leverage and latitude” over the region[1].

Origins of the Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, can be traced back to complex history of the Karabakh region in the pre-Soviet period, but the conflict was more or less dormant under the Soviet influence, between 1923 and 1991, when the area existed as an autonomous ‘oblast’ of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. As early as 1988, however, major disputes emerged, as the government of Nagorno-Karabakh formally expressed its will to unite with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. As Thomas de Waal, a senior associate with Carnegie Europe, best known for his 2003 book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War notes about the situation in Karabakh: “If I have a single phrase to sum up the cause of the conflict, it is “mutual insecurity” …neither Armenians nor Azerbaijanis trusted the other to guarantee their security and turned for protection to new nationalist politics and armed men from their own ethnic group”[2].

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a full scale war broke out, lasting until 1994. Since then, Karabakh has been ethnically an almost exclusively Armenian territory; Azerbaijanis, who made up at least 20% of the total population of the region in the final years of the Soviet Union, left the territory and moved to Azerbaijan, which also created a tremendous humanitarian problem of  Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s). No formal agreement about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has ever been reached and, unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were formally recognized by Russia in 2008, the de facto Republic of Karabakh has not garnered recognition even from Armenia.

Divisive Discourses

To this day, the conflict marks a sharp dividing line between the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Public discourse is dominated by intractable, highly nationalist narratives, which directly serve the semi-democratic and authoritarian governments, respectively, as they unite their populations against a ‘common enemy’ and divert attention away from necessary sacrifices on the path to domestic reforms. An extreme, even absurd, manifestation of the dehumanized narrative of ‘the enemy’ was the case of one Azerbaijani, Ramil Səfərov, who, in 2004, killed an Armenian during the NATO Partnership for Peace Training in Budapest. Səfərov served eight years in prison in Hungary, and when he was transferred to Azerbaijan in 2012, instead of continuing his life sentence, received a job promotion, a new apartment, and was celebrated as a national hero. Generally, by politicizing such narratives, each country portrays itself as the victim and the other as the aggressor, who bears the sole responsibility for the conflict.

The ‘Thawing’ of the Conflict?

While in the past years the region witnessed a relative stabilization of the conflict, developments since 2013 have been alarming. First of all, an unprecedented arms race has begun, fuelled by Azerbaijan’s oil boom, the concomitant economic stabilization, and Russia’s new policy of exporting weapons to both sides of the conflict. (Traditionally, Russia had been Armenia’s weapons supplier and security guarantor.) Azerbaijan’s military budget exceeds Armenia’s state budget by US $1 billion[3]. According to Thomas de Waal, Nagorno-Karabakh has, together with Kashmir and North Korea, one of the three most militarized borders in the world; its line of contact is a “fearsome scar on the map, more than 200 km long, with World-War-I-style trenches on either side, bristling with heavy weaponry”[4].

In January 2014, several soldiers and civilians fell victim to escalating tensions along various sections of the frontline; Azerbaijan resorted to deploying air force units. In 2015, the situation partly stabilized once again, but “sporadic armed clashes…with several reports of troop deaths from both Yerevan and Baku” continued[5]. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have reported hundreds of ceasefire violations over the last year. Regrettably, information on what is actually happening on the front lines is largely unreliable. There is no permanent independent monitoring mission; the OSCE only conducts small ad hoc missions with limited personnel. In 2013, 16 such missions were conducted on the line of contact and 9 at the border. 5 civilians and 32 servicemen were reported shot and wounded and another 14 servicemen killed. In 2014, 17 monitoring exercises were conducted on the line of contact, and 7 on the border.

Various experts warned regularly about the possibility that due to the generally tense atmosphere, minor incidents could spark a renewed outbreak of war[6]. As Laurence Broers, an expert for peace building in the region, noted in February, 2014: “the conflict parties’ attitude towards confidence building is more hostile, instrumental and zero sum than it has ever been. […] The political environment for peace building is less favorable than it was five years ago, and much less so than during the 1998-2001 era”[7].

Two infrastructure projects act as the source of additional complications. First of all, Armenia would like to launch flights from Yerevan to the recently reconstructed, although still inoperational, airport in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Azerbaijan has threatened to bring down the planes by force, as they would enter official Azerbaijani airspace without permission. Additionally, Armenia has proceeded with the construction of the Vardenis-Martakert highway, which will improve the economic and humanitarian conditions in the region. Azerbaijan fears that it would consolidate Armenian control and could be used for major troop movements[8]. Thus, the infrastructure projects are likely to further aggravate tensions on the ground.

The Peace Process: State of Affairs

The peace process for Karabakh has been chaired by France, Russia and the United States, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, established in 1994 and additionally comprised of Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Finland, as well as Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, very little has been achieved. Although the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents recently met and spoke face-to-face, which is noteworthy, no one seriously believed that the parties to the conflict were ready to make concessions. The Madrid Principles, originally elaborated by the co-chairs in 2007, propose a settlement of the conflict based on the return of the territories to Azerbaijan, followed by a legally binding “expression of will” on behalf of Karabakh, which will determine its future status. They also stipulate the right of IDP’s and refugees to return to their homes, international security guarantees, and the creation of a peacekeeping operation.  However, Armenia and Azerbaijan have not agreed to the Madrid Principles, since Armenia does not want to “give up” Karabakh without a specific date for a referendum, which Azerbaijan in turn rejects. Generally, it is unlikely that Azerbaijan will formally accept the secession of Karabakh any time soon.

It is clear, that, after the recent 4 day war, a new dynamic, with new pressures, is coalescing in the South Caucasus. American diplomat, Ronald Asmus, titled his book about the 2008 Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia: A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West. 4 days after the cessation of military action in Karabakh, it would be fair to say that the thawed conflict has shook the neighboring Georgia, even though the shockwaves of the explosion have not yet reached the European continent, which is desperately trying to withstand the shockwaves that have already hit it from the wars in Ukraine and Syria.  

*The author thanks Sonja Schiffers and Shota Papava who also contributed to this article.

See also: