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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > South Caucasus > Azerbaijan > Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict from the Ground

Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict from the Ground

Europe Report N°166 14 May 2005


The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is the most significant obstacle to peace and stability in the South Caucasus. Eleven years into a ceasefire, the parties have been unable to sign a single document bringing them closer to a settlement. Whatever is being done at the internationally mediated negotiations, at ground level resumed war appears a real possibility. There is need to counter the hate propaganda and demonising engaged in by both sides and unlock the potential for confidence building and dialogue between average Azeris and Armenians before the memories of cohabitation fade and the divide becomes virtually unbridgeable.

Nagorno-Karabakh has aspirations for independence and argues with some reason that it has a democratically-elected government that is meeting the preconditions of statehood. However, it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan and is still highly dependant on Armenia for its military security and economic survival: over half its army are believed to be Armenian citizens, while Yerevan covers 50 per cent of the budget through an "interstate loan" that is virtually interest free and unlikely to be paid back. Azeris do not participate in its political, economic, cultural and social institutions. Nagono-Karabakh has mono-ethnic institutions and become one of the world's most militarised societies.

Deprived of the basic right to return to their homes, over half a million Azeris displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts have become highly dependent on the Azerbaijani state, without a clear sense of their future. For years Baku's policies toward the displaced were designed to meet short-term needs, with the expectation they could return home soon. There was more than a hint that efforts to integrate them better were not pushed so as to use their plight to score political points. The government's current strategy emphasises more sustainable solutions but the displaced remain poorer and more disadvantaged than their fellow citizens, struggling to increase participation in political life not only to speed up prospects for return but also to improve their immediate situation.

Armenian and Azerbaijani public opinion on how to resolve the conflict is as divided as ever. Nothing has been done to prepare people in either country for any agreement. Karabakh Armenians' expressions of confidence about their independent future, and Karabakh Azeris' frustration and anger about their plight as displaced persons are deeply at odds. Neither community appears prepared to agree to the kind of steps toward resolution of the conflict currently being considered by the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in the negotiations sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

For many historical, demographical, geographical, and economic factors, Azeris and Armenians living in and around the conflict zone are dependent on each other. Yet they are deeply divided by mistrust. Demonisation of the "other", rising military expenditures, and increasing ceasefire violations are all ominous signs that time for a peaceful settlement may be running out.

Parallel processes are needed for a stable settlement. This report explores how the Armenian and Azeri communities from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts live today and view the potential resolution of the conflict. A subsequent report will shortly assess the OSCE-sponsored diplomacy and attempt to bridge the gap between it and the situation on the ground, focusing with specific recommendations on both the main issues that must be treated in a peace agreement and on what needs to be done to further inter-communal reconciliation.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 14 September 2005