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The Shifting Dangers of Nagorno-Karabakh
The Shifting Dangers of Nagorno-Karabakh
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.

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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

Agdam is a ghost town destroyed by fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. WIKIMEDIA/João Leitão

The Shifting Dangers of Nagorno-Karabakh

As the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, visits Azerbaijan and Armenia next week, Nagorno-Karabakh will be high on the agenda in Baku and Yerevan. The conflict may seem frozen from afar, but it is anything but quiet. This unfinished war on Europe’s edge looks much more threatening than even a year ago.

At least four important variables have changed which require the EU High Representative and the EU member states to pay close attention. And they are more closely linked to Europe’s preoccupations with Syria and Russia than may at first appear to be the case.

First is the new dynamic of hostility between Turkey and Russia. The stubborn and apparently irrational stand-off between Moscow and Ankara is not just suffocating mutual trade, squeezing Turkey’s tourism and keeping Western nations preoccupied about dangers of their confrontation in Syria. It is also causing new tensions in the countries situated between Russia and Turkey or with special ties to them both, in particular in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

These tensions are acute in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory fought over in the 1988-1994 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the Armenian majority community of this former autonomous oblast of Soviet Azerbaijan sought to unite with Armenia. Armenian forces won control of almost all of the territory and seven districts of Azerbaijan around it. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the U.S. and France, leads a long drawn-out conflict resolution process. It is stuck on much the same stumbling blocks today as it was when the ‘basic principles’ for resolution were formulated in 2007.

Russia-Turkey strains have long been a factor because of Baku and Yerevan’s relationship with each. Armenia is a member of both of Moscow’s regional organisations, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. Its strong security links with Russia were further upgraded in December 2015 when the two agreed on a Joint Air Defense System in the Caucasus.

Azerbaijan meanwhile has traditionally enjoyed strong links with Turkey. They see themselves as brother nations speaking Turkic languages. Baku has relied on security cooperation with Turkey, including through the 2010 Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support. Azerbaijan’s main oil and gas export pipelines pass through Turkey and a new gas export pipeline will open alongside them soon.

But Baku has recently turned increasingly to Moscow to strengthen its military position: over the last five years, 85 per cent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports have come from Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Azerbaijan’s loyalties are thus challenged in the Russia-Turkey stand-off. The number of Azerbaijani actors whose strategic calculations are aligning more with Russia have increased – both because of their waning conviction that the West or Turkey could prevail in a showdown with Russia, and due to personal economic interests, a factor that runs through the whole region. This has led to extra pressures, including an apparent split within the Baku administration.

Baku for its part has increasingly been on the receiving end of ever-stronger Russian overtures for closer cooperation. After Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border in November 2015, Russia was quick to dial up its interest in Karabakh in an informal way.

Moscow has worked bilaterally in parallel to the Minsk Group to float ideas like the Armenian restitution to Azerbaijan of some of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh in return for Azerbaijan granting an ‘interim status’ to Karabakh itself. This option is drawn from the Minsk basic principles, but could consolidate Moscow’s role in both countries, especially if Russian peacekeepers are part of the proposal. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has said there was no ‘Lavrov’s or any other person’s document’, but speculation about Russia’s intentions is rife.

The second new dynamic is the re-entry into the region’s politics of Iran, which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In January, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister announced that the country was ready to mediate in the Karabakh conflict. Where this will lead remains unclear. Iran traditionally has had warm links with Armenia, but has multiple rivalries with Azerbaijan over energy and security in the Caspian Sea, Iranian proselytising among the (mostly nominally) Shia Azerbaijanis, and Azerbaijan’s influence on ethnic Azeris in Iran, at least one fifth of the Iranian population. Tehran’s involvement injects an element of unpredictability, especially from Moscow’s perspective.

The third change are the budgetary problems in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which may prompt political leaderships to seek flag-waving adventures in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has been hard hit by the drop in oil prices and the devaluation of its currency. Recent protests and localized social unrest in rural Azerbaijan indicate that levels of dissatisfaction of ordinary citizens may be high. Armenia’s economy has also been hard hit by the downturn in Russia, its top trading partner and investor, and a key source country of personal remittances, which made up to 18% of the country’s GDP in 2011-2015, according to the World Bank.

The fourth and most worrying element is a rise in security incidents. The Line of Contact and the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan have never been calm since hostilities ceased in 1994. But 2014 and 2015 have seen a dramatic increase in the intensity and frequency of incidents, including the use of heavy weapons such as mortars and artillery in and around civilian areas and the downing of a military helicopter. One soldier was reported killed in January, three in December.

The West has seen the Karabakh conflict as fairly reliably frozen for the past 22 years, despite often vicious rhetoric and periodic escalations, and despite warnings by observers of risks given the past decades’ dramatic arms acquisitions.

But risk-aversion in Baku and Yerevan is dropping at the same time as nationalist rhetoric and arms races continue to rise. The dangers of the use of force to change the military situation on the ground may seem far-fetched. But recent shifts in the region, especially the possibility of new proxy conflicts between Turkey and Russia, make such events more likely and require renewed analysis and bold thinking. As Federica Mogherini visits Baku and Yerevan, she should be aware that business as usual is rife with risk and that the EU must prepare for the possibility that the situation will get worse and not better.