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Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks
Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 67 / Europe & Central Asia

Tackling Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden

As negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh stall, the Azerbaijan government has improved living conditions for the internally displaced (IDPs), though return to the occupied territories remains by far the preferred solution.

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I. Overview

Azerbaijan has made significant progress in recent years in caring for roughly 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forcibly evicted from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts by ethnic Armenian forces nearly two decades ago. Though many still face precarious existences, the state has been investing heavily in new housing and increasing benefits. But while some IDPs have fully integrated, many more are still in limbo. The government and most of the displaced favour return to their original homes. That the stalled peace process with Armenia means this is not an immediate prospect should not preclude IDPs from being full participants in Azerbaijan’s political and economic life. Yet, their unresolved fate is one of the main reminders of the conflict – and, without a peaceful settlement, puts pressure on the Azerbaijan leadership to prepare for the possibility of a new war.

2011 was a lost year for the peace process, as seven years of talks on a Basic Principles agreement meant to lay the foundation for an eventual comprehensive peace deadlocked. Baku and Yerevan are in the midst of a major arms race and exchange increasingly militaristic statements, while sporadic clashes along the front lines kill about 30 persons annually. Beyond some possible confidence-building measures (CBMs), there is little likelihood of progress for the coming year, with Armenia, Azerbaijan and the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries (France, Russia, U.S.) all entering electoral cycles. Earlier Crisis Group reports have explored the threat of resumed fighting and suggested ways to move toward resolution of the conflict. A forthcoming report will again analyse the diplomatic and security situation. This briefing, however, concentrates on a too often ignored human consequence of the crisis.

The Azerbaijan government has begun to expend significantly more resources to improve the lot of the displaced, who are 7 per cent of the total population – one of the highest rates in the world. 108,000 were moved into new housing over the past two years, with space for 115,000 more slated to be constructed by 2015. Some complain, however, of poor construction and infrastructure, lack of community participation in planning and limited access to land or job opportunities in the new communities, all areas that need additional attention and improvement.

Azerbaijan’s IDPs benefit from free or low-cost education, health care and energy and have some special employment opportunities, though their ability to express their interests is limited by inability to elect municipal representatives. The some 40,000 from Nagorno-Karabakh are in principle represented as a group by the Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh Social Union, but its leadership is not fully popularly elected, and the 560,000 displaced from the occupied districts around Nagorno-Karabakh are not well represented. The political voice of IDPs thus remains weak. They should be more effectively integrated into decision-making about housing, services, and other community needs, as well as contingency planning for emergencies and confidence-building measures (CBMs).

This briefing includes a section on conditions for those approximately 128,000 IDPs and permanent residents living in close proximity to the 180km-long line of contact (LoC) that marks the 1994 ceasefire between the opposing forces. It does not address the plight of the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and vice versa who fled the initial violence in the late 1980s, as the overwhelming majority of them have been largely integrated into their respective new countries. Regular exchange of fire between trenches, snipers, mines and a lingering threat of renewed full-scale hostilities make living conditions near the LoC particularly precarious. A small (six-person) monitoring team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has virtually no resources, meaning it provides inadequate oversight and inspires little confidence among the contending sides or civilians.

To facilitate greater IDP engagement in policies relevant to their lives, the Azerbaijan government should:

  • increase transparency; involve IDPs as much as possible in housing decisions; and streamline processes for reporting incidents of corruption or violations of state law regarding IDP issues; and
  • allow IDPs, while their villages and towns remain occupied, to vote for municipal councils in their places of temporary residence.

To protect IDPs and other civilians along the LoC, the Azerbaijan authorities should:

  • agree with the Armenian government and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh to an expanded interim OSCE monitoring role, to an OSCE proposal to remove snipers from the LoC and to set up an incident investigation mechanism, as well as to immediately cease military exercises near the LoC and advancing trench positions; and
  • create an inter-ministerial task force, including the National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), to design a strategy to increase the safety of communities near the LoC, including more civil defence training, while refraining from resettling additional IDPs there.

The international community, in particular the co-chairs of the Minsk Group (France, Russia, U.S.) facilitating efforts to reach a comprehensive peace, should:

  • facilitate the creation of an incident investigation mechanism, including the operation of a hotline between the sides to discuss ceasefire breaches, and otherwise protect the civilian population living near the LoC; and
  • develop more on-the-ground CBMs to create an atmosphere of trust, including promoting civil society meetings between the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnic Azeri population expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied territories.

Baku/Tbilisi/Istanbul//Brussels, 27 February 2012

Briefing 71 / Europe & Central Asia

Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks

Stronger international engagement is needed to help prevent the deadly conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan from escalating gravely at a time of internal political tensions in both.

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I. Overview

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