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Picturing the Uncertain Calm on Armenia’s Front Lines
Picturing the Uncertain Calm on Armenia’s Front Lines
Briefing 60 / Europe & Central Asia

Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War

Escalating front-line clashes, a spiralling arms race, vitriolic rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks increase the chance Armenia and Azerbaijan will go back to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, with devastating regional consequences.

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I. Overview

An arms race, escalating front-line clashes, vitriolic war rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks are increasing the chance Armenia and Azerbaijan will go back to war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Preventing this is urgent. Increased military capabilities on both sides would make a new armed conflict in the South Caucasus far more deadly than the 1992-1994 one that ended with a shaky truce. Neither side would be likely to win easily or quickly. Regional alliances could pull in Russia, Turkey and Iran. Vital oil and gas pipelines near the front lines would be threatened, as would the cooperation between Russia and Turkey that is central to regional stability. Another refugee crisis would be likely. To start reversing this dangerous downward trend, the opposing sides should sign a document on basic principles for resolving the conflict peacefully and undertake confidence-building steps to reduce tensions and avert a resumption of fighting.

There has been significant deterioration over the past year. Neither government is planning an all-out offensive in the near term, but skirmishes that already kill 30 people a year could easily spiral out of control. It is unclear if the leaders in Yerevan and Baku thoroughly calculate the potential consequences of a new round of tit-for-tat attacks. Ambiguity and lack of transparency about operations along the line of contact, arms deals and other military expenditures and even the state of the peace talks all contribute to a precarious situation. Monitoring mechanisms should be strengthened and confidence-building steps implemented to decrease the chance of an accidental war.

At the same time, more has to be done to change a status quo that is deeply damaging to Azerbaijan; 586,000 Azeris are internally displaced (IDPs) from Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas, and some 14 per cent of the country’s territory is occupied. Otherwise, Azerbaijan public opinion and leadership will feel justified to use the military assets Baku has been accumulating at an increased rate: the already substantial defence budget is slated to rise by some 45 per cent between 2010 and 2011, to $3.1 billion out of a total $15.9 billion state budget.

Weapons purchases, belligerent rhetoric and offensive posturing along the front lines may be tactics to pressure Yerevan into concessions at the negotiating table, but they also could be signs of preparation to use force before the country’s oil revenues are projected to decline after 2014. Similarly, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh – aware of this time line and the risk of a nationalist gamble – may be tempted to try a pre-emptive strike. Azerbaijan’s armed forces are estimated at nearly 95,000, Armenia’s and Nagorno-Karabakh’s at around 70,000. The two sides’ arsenals are increasingly deadly, sophisticated and capable of sustaining a protracted war. Both can hit large population centres, critical infrastructure and communications.

Conflict prevention would be best ensured by signature of the basic principles agreement, first outlined by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2005 and discussed since then between Presidents Sargsyan (Armenia) and Aliyev (Azerbaijan), with the help of the U.S., Russia and France OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs. At the OSCE Summit in Astana in December 2010, the two presidents reaffirmed their commitment to find a final settlement based on international law, including six points that have generally been accepted as part of the basic principles, but they did not sign the long-awaited agreement. Further deterioration in the security environment is likely to make agreement on the basic principles more difficult.

2010 saw little progress in the Minsk Group-mediated talks. Both capitals argue they have offered the maximum concessions. President Aliyev publicly stated that he largely accepted the basic principles as elaborated in February 2010, while President Sargsyan remained noncommittal. The Azerbaijani leadership has begun to warn that diplomacy has been in vain and threaten that it may withdraw from negotiations if Yerevan continues “simulating talks”.

President Sargsyan has little domestic room for manoeuvre. Most Armenians feel the risks of changing the status quo outweigh the benefits. They say they would have to withdraw without a real guarantee of security, in return for a vaguely-defined “interim status” for Nagorno-Karabakh that would include a promise of a vote on final status but no indication of when it would occur and whether it could lead to independence. Armenians initially called the seven districts they occupy around Nagorno-Karabakh a “security zone”, but a growing number now regularly refer to them as the “liberated territories” or “historic Armenian lands” that should never be returned to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis insist that any peace settlement must preserve their country’s territorial integrity and guarantee IDPs the right of return, including to Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenians seek the right to full self-determination for the (Armenian) population of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the possibility of independence.

To reduce the dangers of a new war and improve the environment for conflict resolution:

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan should formally endorse the basic principles, promote more pragmatic public discussion on the value of such an agreement, reduce belligerent rhetoric and not demand at this stage that a fixed timeframe be set or a specific outcome be pre-ordained or excluded in a referendum to determine Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status.
  • The parties should undertake confidence-building measures along the front lines, including withdrawal of snipers from the line of contact (in accordance with OSCE recommendations), suspension of large-scale military exercises near the line of contact, the pullback and cessation of use of any artillery and a halt to trench advancements towards each other’s positions. Armenia should stop sending regular army conscripts to serve in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Armenia and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities should cease supporting activities that make the status quo more intolerable for Azerbaijan and thus use of force seem a more attractive option for its leaders and public, such as settling Armenians in occupied Azerbaijani territories, renaming previously Azerbaijani majority towns and undertaking unilateral archaeological excavations.
  • Both Armenia and Azerbaijan should accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
  • The international community should step up its efforts to discourage the dangerous arms race in the region. In particular Russia, as an OSCE Minsk Group co-chair, but also others, should uphold the non-binding UN and OSCE arms embargoes on Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • The OSCE, with full support of the Minsk co-chair countries, should encourage the parties to broaden its observer mission’s mandate to authorise investigation of claimed violations and spontaneous monitoring, including with remote surveillance capabilities, and to agree to a significant increase in the number of monitors, as an interim measure until a peacekeeping force is deployed as part of the implementation of a peace agreement.

A subsequent briefing will examine new approaches for advancing the negotiations and implementing any deal and provide recommendations on additional steps external parties could take in support of peace.

Tbilisi/Baku/Yerevan/Istanbul/Brussels, 8 February 2011

Picturing the Uncertain Calm on Armenia’s Front Lines

Sniper fire and clashes have become rare on the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In a year that has seen positive steps to mitigate the decades-old conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, this photo essay illustrates how some Armenian front-line villagers’ lives have slowly improved.

Twenty-five years have passed since a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was agreed to by the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. But clashes have broken out frequently since then, in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and also along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The dispute has cooled slightly this year, however, following the uprising that ushered in a new government in Armenia in April 2018. The two countries’ leaders have met several times, as have their foreign ministers. Two new hotlines connecting security personnel and political representatives, opened in September 2018 and March 2019, respectively, have helped defuse tensions along the frontier and reduce combat fatalities. Crisis Group had long advocated for these communication channels.

In September 2019, we travelled to Armenia to visit villages close to the international border with Azerbaijan. In many places, the long conflict has turned the frontier into a battle front. We also met with Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The pictures below illustrate what we found.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Azerbaijani sniper fire can hit almost every open-air spot in Movses, an Armenian village in the north-eastern region of Tavush, pictured here from the Armenian side. The Azerbaijani positions run along the flanks of the high mountain in the distance on the right. Shootings have become less frequent in recent months, but residents still feel at the mercy of an unresolved conflict. Isolation is also a major concern, as the only road linking Movses to surrounding villages is in poor condition. A second road closed by war in the 1990s reopened soon after Baku and Yerevan agreed to open communication channels in September 2018. Although it runs close to the heavily fortified border, some villagers have the courage to use it.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Rima Abrahamyan (left) is an Armenian refugee from Baku in Azerbaijan. She fled her native city 30 years ago and has been unable to return since then. For the last three decades, her home has been this single room in what was once an institute in the Yerevan slums. She shares the room with her mother (right) and her sons. Many other Armenian refugee families, who fled ethnic violence in Azerbaijan’s biggest towns in the conflict’s early years, also live in the building. Like Rima, they have been unable to go home.

More than 60,000 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan reside in Yerevan. In the early 1990s, around 725,000 people were displaced, including more than 200,000 ethnic Armenians from Azerbaijan, and around 525,000 Azerbaijanis from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone or Armenia. The Armenian authorities persuaded many refugees to accept Armenian citizenship, thereby waiving their legal rights as displaced persons and any aid to which they were entitled. Rima, however, refuses to become an Armenian national, even though has little hope of going back to Baku.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

A soldier’s uniform and posters used for military instruction dominate a schoolroom in Movses, one of the most exposed villages along the international border with Azerbaijan. Sniper fire and clashes have been rare for the last few months. But the years-long deadlock in the peace process means that war-oriented attitudes are embedded in the policies of bureaucracies and entrenched in the thinking of the border population.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

A woman fries aubergines in a cannery close to the Armenian border with Azerbaijan. The products are sold elsewhere in Armenia and exported to Russia, too. An entrepreneur set up the business with the idea of bringing investment to the area and discouraging migration from the surrounding villages. For decades, locals have steadily left the region as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Destroyed vehicles dot the landscape along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. This bus from Soviet times has been sitting for decades on this hill, close to the Armenian village of Movses, a silent witness to the stalemated conflict.

Barbed wire and hilltop forts are part of the scenery, too, and a constant sense of insecurity blights peoples’ lives. Locals welcome the calm that followed the opening of communication channels between the two countries, but occasional clashes and sniper fire feed the feeling of vulnerability, as do the minefields on village outskirts. Relations between the two states fluctuate, and bellicose posturing fuelled by domestic politics often heightens tensions along the border.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Levon Mariyanyan lives in the Armenian village of Paravakar, close to the border. His vineyards lie on a flat valley floor, which makes them an easy target for Azerbaijani riflemen posted in the heights above. One shot at him three years ago while he was leaving his farm, setting fire to his car.

“I served in Afghanistan in the late 1980s as a Soviet soldier”, he says. “I wasn’t shot at once over there. Who would have imagined that I would get shot at while tending grapes in my own country?”

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

September brings the grape harvest here in the Armenian village of Chinari, just dozens of metres from the Azerbaijani front line. At the mid-morning break, farmers brew small pots of strong coffee amid the vines. Until recently, they could not pick their grapes for fear of Azerbaijani snipers in the surrounding hills. Shots still ring out from time to time, the farmers say, but they add that new security guarantees have made their work much safer. “It hasn’t been so calm for decades”, says one.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

An underground shelter in a school close to the Armenian border with Azerbaijan. Many such facilities date back to Soviet times, when Moscow feared war with other world powers. Since the early 1990s, however, what has driven students into these fortified shelters is gunfire exchanged between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Inga Manukyan is an Armenian refugee from Baku in Azerbaijan. She and her husband fled three decades ago, in the early stages of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, following ethnic violence. She has been unable to return and now lives in two former dormitory rooms, sharing space with her son and grandchild. Her ex-husband died some years after fleeing to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, deprived of proper medical care. She still keeps the title deeds and other documents proving ownership of her family house and other properties in her native Baku, where she hopes to live once more.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

A stone with a cross carved on it stands by a disused shelter. Both sit atop a hill on the Armenian border with the Azerbaijani mountains in the distance.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Sargis Arakelyan lives with his mother on a hilltop in the Armenian village of Movses. Their property has sometimes been hit by fire from the Azerbaijani military outposts lying in a direct line of sight on the mountains opposite. Sargis says his children – like many others over the years – have left town due to difficult living conditions, leaving the village depopulated.

CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutiérrez Lucena

Two men fish on the Armenian side of Joghaz reservoir, which sits between Armenian and Azerbaijani military positions. Locals say that fishing in these tranquil waters, particularly by boat, is risky business. Sniper fire from the Azerbaijani mountains makes sailing farther out impossible, forcing fishermen to venture into the lake only at night, if at all. While tensions have calmed in the last few months, many are still afraid. Only an enduring political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will bring true peace to the region.


Video and Multimedia Producer
Analyst, Eastern Neighbourhood