icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Reducing the Human Cost of the New Nagorno-Karabakh War
Reducing the Human Cost of the New Nagorno-Karabakh War
Report 207 / Europe & Central Asia

Azerbaijan: Vulnerable Stability

If it continues to ignore the need for economic and political reform, Azerbaijan will squander an historic opportunity to use the country’s energy resources to build a more durable state system and a prosperous nation.

Executive Summary

Ilham Aliyev’s presidency has been marked by stabilisation of the political life of the country and economic growth driven by oil exports. This stability, however, has come with the consolidation of authoritarian rule, greater suppression of freedoms and an increased reliance by elites on corruption and patronage networks to dominate virtually all aspects of public life. With a marginalised and demoralised opposition, little independent media and rent-seeking elites who have vested interests in the preservation of his power, Ilham Aliyev has a level of control over society that his father never possessed. The international community has little leverage with which to pressure the regime, but it should do more to persuade the leadership to see that even its own self-interests lie in gradual but genuine liberalisation.

The government has developed effective methods for keeping political forces, non-partisan civil groups, media, religious communities and independent business alike from becoming self-sustainable challengers. It appears to have deliberately promoted a sense of impunity so as to ingrain self-censorship in the public and discourage any unsanctioned collective action. Due to restrictive readings of the existing laws, it denies the right to freedom of assembly. Opposition demonstrations are regularly prevented and sometimes violently broken up. Civil activists often find themselves at the mercy of local authorities and are occasionally denied the right to hold activities outside of the capital. The denial of registration for NGOs and religious communities has been used as a tool to restrict their activities. Mosques have also been shut down by the government on questionable grounds, raising the spectre of pushing them underground and stoking radical tendencies.

Although President Aliyev exerts firm control over the government, he is not all-powerful. He depends on the elite to preserve his power, and unless a direct challenge is involved, he is not interested in revising the delicate balances within the system by removing powerful subordinates, even if he is unsatisfied with performance. As a result, domestic politics are shaped less by unequal opposition-government contests than by internal dynamics and occasional power struggles within the ruling elite.

Oil revenues have further entrenched a stagnant political system, making it even more resistant to reforms. But the oil revenues are levelling off and are projected to gradually decline within a few years, which could lead to economic problems and growing public frustration. The closed political system prevents meaningful debate on Azerbaijan’s long-term challenges and stimulates a sense of apathy and distrust. To protect state stability, a start on economic and political reform is essential.

The continuation of “business as usual” runs the risk that Azerbaijan could squander an historic opportunity to use its energy resources to build a more durable state system and a prosperous nation. The growing over-reliance on the energy sector, discrepancies in wealth distribution and public disenchantment with both the government and traditional opposition parties increase the likelihood of a surge in radicalism and instability in the medium to long term. It is in the regime’s own interest to open up political space, take steps to rein in corruption and de-monopolise the economy, while it still stands on solid financial and political ground. Azerbaijan has already reached the peak of its oil-driven GDP growth rates, which ran as high as 35 per cent in 2006 but are expected to slow to about 3 per cent in 2010 and 0.6 per cent in 2011. If the authorities further delay reform, they may lose the ability to control future developments and meet growing public expectations.

President Aliyev could reinforce both his domestic and international credentials by embracing deeper structural change. Genuine steps towards reform could also engender a more sympathetic attitude from the international community towards his most important policy problem, the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In the meantime, continued backsliding on human rights, including politically motivated arrests and the persecution of government opponents, casts a shadow over Azerbaijan’s relations with important allies. International actors need to impress on the leadership that they run counter to both the country’s international commitments and the government’s own interests.

Baku/Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 3 September 2010

Woman cries inside a bus prepared for evacuation of civilians during increased fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, on 3 October, 2020. Celestino Arce / NurPhoto via AFP.

Reducing the Human Cost of the New Nagorno-Karabakh War

Fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is decimating towns and cities, displacing tens of thousands and killing scores. Combatants must cease attacks on populated areas and let humanitarian aid through. International actors, notably the UN and OSCE, should send monitors and push harder for a ceasefire.

Two weeks into a renewed war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, fighting appears poised to escalate. On 10 October, a Russian-brokered humanitarian ceasefire intended to enable combatants to retrieve the bodies of the dead and exchange prisoners appeared to fall apart as its ink was drying. Both sides have since struck towns and villages, with enormous damage to lives and livelihoods. While it may take time for the parties to return to peace talks, they and international actors must act to stem the mounting human toll. Whatever an eventual settlement entails, it will be closer to hand and more sustainable if the parties stop killing civilians and adding fresh grievances to an already intractable conflict.

Both sides have struck towns and villages, with enormous damage to lives and livelihoods.

As Crisis Group noted in a 2 October statement, the conflict has no simple solution. Since the 1992-1994 war, which pitted Azerbaijani forces against Nagorno-Karabakh rebels backed by the Armenian army and ended with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence, decades of stalled negotiations, outbreaks of violence and hardened positions on all sides have compounded the territorial dispute. Foreign actors matter, but for now cannot impose a lasting peace. The failure of the 10 October ceasefire shows that even Russia, which has a treaty with Armenia and longstanding relationships with both Yerevan and Baku, has only limited leverage. Turkey backs Azerbaijan diplomatically and with military aid, but Baku is not sufficiently dependent on Ankara’s support that threats of its withdrawal, even if they were forthcoming, would end fighting. Europe and the United States have even less influence. 

Military casualties already number high in the hundreds and the civilian toll is also mounting. Azerbaijani missile, artillery and drone strikes on Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital of Stepanakert and other towns and villages have turned homes, schools, and much of the region’s infrastructure to rubble. Credible reports indicate the use of cluster bombs, particularly dangerous to civilians and banned by an international convention (although neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories). Since 10 October, fighting has spread to the streets of Hadrut, a town 40km south of Stepanakert and well within Nagorno-Karabakh itself, rather than being limited, as it was during the first days of the war, mainly to the unpopulated adjacent territories controlled by Armenian forces since the 1992-1994 war. According to the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, as of 12 October, at least 31 civilians had been killed in the region and over 100 injured, many seriously. Some 70,000-75,000 people, half the region’s population and 90 per cent of its women and children, have fled their homes. Many are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. With a continuing pandemic and rapidly cooling weather, the mass displacement could have severe public health consequences.

With a continuing pandemic and rapidly cooling weather, the mass displacement could have severe public health consequences.

On the other side of the front lines, Azerbaijani officials report 42 civilians killed and 206 injured as of 12 October. Most attacks have hit Azerbaijani cities near the breakaway territory, but some have struck civilian areas hundreds of kilometres away, including the Absheron peninsula, where the capital, Baku, is located. Azerbaijan accuses Armenian forces of using cluster bombs and Scud missiles. Particularly hard hit are the country’s second-biggest city of Ganja and a town, Mingachevir, which hosts a large water reservoir and serves as a regional electricity hub. Ganja was hit again within 24 hours of the weekend’s ceasefire. Journalists tell Crisis Group that several hundred people, mostly women and children, have evacuated front-line areas.

Employees of the Ministry of Emergency Situations work near destroyed houses in Ganja, Azerbaijan on 11 October 2020. They were hit by shelling after fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces began in and around Nagorno-Karabakh on 27 September. Mikhail Voskresenskiy / Sputnik via AFP.

Many outside actors have expressed alarm. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has joined calls for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, while the European UnionSlovakia, and a variety of humanitarian organisations promise aid, though the fighting hampers aid delivery. Moreover, no international aid can reach Nagorno-Karabakh itself without Azerbaijan’s blessing, which Baku has not granted, leaving only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has maintained a permanent office in the region since the 1990s. With international borders closed due to COVID-19, if fighting escalates to engulf more of Azerbaijan and Armenia, it will result in many displaced who have nowhere to go.

With the collapse of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, both parties look set to escalate fighting, with prospectively grave consequences. Azerbaijani advances fuel Armenian fears and counter-strikes. The attacks on civilian areas to date may be mistakes or efforts by combatants to deter further escalation by the other side. If intentional or with insufficient care for protecting the civilian population, they violate international law. Even if not, they are causing tremendous suffering. They are counterproductive to an eventual peace, hardening hostility and rendering a sustainable settlement more remote.

It is critical that both sides cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering.

Ideally, both sides would return to talks, but even absent that, it is critical that they cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering. They must eschew cluster bombs, stop targeting population centres and provide corridors for the evacuation of the wounded and dead and the delivery of humanitarian aid. International actors, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which has overseen negotiations since the end of hostilities in 1994, and its co-chairs France, Russia and the U.S., other capitals worldwide and international organisations should speak in one voice and specifically call for such measures. Countries that provide weapons to the parties, including Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Pakistan and Israel, and those through which deliveries transit, including Iran and Georgia, should cease provision and transit, at least when it comes to systems credibly reported to have been used in attacks on civilian targets (Georgia has already stopped weapons transit through its territory).

The UN Security Council can play a role. First, the council, which has to date discussed the crisis in private and released a press statement calling for calm, should now convene an urgent public meeting on the escalating fighting and attacks on civilian areas. It should insist the parties abide by the 10 October Moscow agreement on a humanitarian ceasefire and facilitate the safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of lifesaving aid, including providing full and secure access to the region for humanitarian actors. Going further, the council should adopt a resolution calling for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, beyond the limited humanitarian one agreed in Moscow. The resolution should also condemn the parties for endangering the lives of civilians and call on them to return to talks under the Minsk Group co-chairs’ auspices.

The OSCE and its Minsk Group should step up efforts on the ground.

As for the OSCE and its Minsk Group, they should step up efforts on the ground. Mitigating harm to civilians will require coordination across front lines even as fighting continues. The Minsk Group process has frustrated both sides (and particularly Baku) in its failure over three decades to deliver a lasting peace. Still, it provides a format for the parties to carry out such coordination. In the wake of the Moscow agreement, which called for a return to Minsk Group talks, the co-chairs reported that they and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (OSCE CIO PR) were working with the ICRC to explore “modalities and logistics for the return of remains and detainees”. They also report that they continue to engage the conflict parties on a long-term settlement. Building upon this work, the OSCE should resume its field activity in the region, suspended in March as a result of COVID-19, and work with military and diplomatic representatives of the warring parties and the ICRC to develop guidelines and a contact mechanism to facilitate the humanitarian measures outlined above. 

This expanded field activity should include means to monitor and “verify” the Moscow agreement’s or any new ceasefire, as the Russian and Armenian foreign ministers called for in a 12 October press conference. One tool might be a version of the investigative mechanism to study incidents that Yerevan, Baku and OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries agreed to put in place, along with an expansion of the OSCE CIO PR’s office, after four days of clashes in 2016. This could give OSCE monitors the unrestricted access they would need to Nagorno-Karabakh and, if expanded, any parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia under fire. In the past, Baku resisted the mechanism, despite having agreed to it on paper. At the time, Azerbaijan sought to regain control over the adjacent territories through negotiations before agreeing to new mechanisms that it feared would solidify the status quo. But Baku may be more amenable to granting monitors temporary access to its territory and that of Armenia to investigate recent attacks, while active hostilities continue. Whatever its specific tools, the OSCE should consider making its monitors’ and investigative reports public,given the lack of objective, neutral reporting on the conflict and rampant biased information and disinformation.

The UN could support the OSCE’s monitoring. The two institutions already have a strong relationship. The OSCE Minsk Group could tap UN expertise on observer missions and investigative techniques in warzones as it designs a way forward. The UN could be even more active in its support if the Security Council requests that the UN Secretary-General dispatch, in coordination with the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office’s Personal Representative, military and civilian observers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider conflict region. Such a mission could observe the ceasefire and document and report on violations of international humanitarian law committed during the fighting. Once the OSCE’s monitoring mission takes shape, the UN mission could withdraw. Such missions would require the conflict parties to guarantee members’ security, which in itself could help limit violence. 

These steps will not, in and of themselves, end the war. But they would save lives and improve prospects for a real peace, whenever it may come.