Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks
Europe Briefing N°71
26 Sep 2013
Confrontation, low-intensity but volatile, between Azerbaijan and Armenia has entered a period of heightened sensitivity. Peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh bogged down in 2011, accelerating an arms race and intensifying strident rhetoric. Terms like “Blitzkrieg’’, “pre-emptive strike’’ and ‘‘total war” have gained currency with both sides’ planners. An immediate concern is military miscalculation, with implications that could far exceed those of a localised post-Soviet frozen conflict, as the South Caucasus, a region where big powers meet and compete, is now also a major energy corridor. Clashes increasingly occur along the Azerbaijani-Armenian frontier far from Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflict’s original focus. Tensions have also spread to areas along the border with the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan where Azerbaijani and Turkish exercised in July. A subsequent firefight produced casualties, and Armenia staged its own war games near the Azerbaijan border in September. Vigorous international engagement is needed to lessen chances of violent escalation during coming weeks and months.
While a shaky ceasefire has been in place since the war that flared in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed, provocative acts are frequent: for example, Baku’s pardon for an officer who killed an Armenian colleague during a NATO-sponsored language course in Hungary, and Yerevan’s declared plan to reopen the airport in Nagorno-Karabakh to fixed-wing flights. Moreover, the possibility of internal political unrest in both countries increases the uncertainty. Unrest at home might tempt leaders to deflect attention by raising military tensions or to embark on risky attempts to capitalise on their adversary’s troubles. Both countries’ leaderships face a testing autumn. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev stands for a third term in October. Most of the traditionally fragmented opposition backs a single candidate for the first time. Though the president’s aides claim support levels of above 70 per cent of the electorate, critics attribute his highly likely victory to the massive administrative resources firmly in his grip. Still, the authorities are concerned lest any unrest gather momentum. Armenia faces a period of uncertainty, with opposition groups planning an autumn of protests.
The strong and coordinated international pressure needed to break the diplomatic deadlock is lacking. There is scepticism in both capitals, as well as among third-country diplomats and analysts, that the officially designated mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Minsk Group – led by Russia, the U.S. and France – can deliver results. Russia’s position raises particular questions about the format’s effectiveness. It is not only a Minsk Group co-chair but also has major strategic interests in the South Caucasus and supplies arms to both sides of the conflict.
Crisis Group has written extensively for years on the dangers posed by this unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. This briefing does not predict a second war is either imminent or more likely than not. It does suggest the near-term threats to stability are becoming more acute. We will report in due course on approaches that might complement the Minsk mediation mechanism in the search for a long-term solution. In the meantime, prudent, prophylactic action is required, including the following:
- Diplomacy by the Minsk Group co-chairs, the European Union (EU) and others should stress need for a quiet period during which both sides dial down rhetoric. This should be accompanied by energetic international engagement highlighting the risk of miscalculations and the huge costs for both sides of resumed hostilities.
- Azerbaijan’s presidential election and Armenia’s susceptibility to political crisis in late 2013 make mutual restraint the immediate priority. Intensified regular contacts as well as meetings between ministers and parliamentarians can help in this regard and should be supported.
- A crisis hotline should be reestablished between Yerevan and Baku to lessen chances of a military escalation. As a modest confidence builder, the two sides should also step up efforts via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to address prisoner of war issues.
- Russia, which is highly influential in all aspects of the conflict and would be the most directly affected of the Minsk co-chairs by a new war, should act more decisively to broker an agreement. It could advance this by announcing a suspension of arms supplies to both sides. Other suppliers, including South Korea and Israel, should be encouraged to do the same.
Baku/Yerevan/Tbilisi/Brussels, 26 September 2013