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Looming Dangers One Year after Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation
Looming Dangers One Year after Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation
Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis
Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis
Troops in Nagorno-Karabakh on the first line of defense near a makeshift church on 8 April 2016. SPUTNIK/Ria Novosti

Looming Dangers One Year after Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation

One year after Nagorno-Karabakh’s violent flare-up in April 2016, the danger of even more perilous fighting remains real. Further hostilities risk a larger regional conflagration with far-reaching humanitarian consequences. Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Program Director, Magdalena Grono, assesses risks in the region.

BAKU, Azerbaijan — The room housing refugees in the former Soviet sanatorium just outside Baku was getting a much-needed facelift: new black-and-silver floral wallpaper “to make it more attractive to the future in-laws of my daughter who are not displaced like us”, said Bayram, an Azeri veteran of the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Bayram remained steadfast in his support for Azerbaijan’s role in last spring’s violent clash with Armenia. “Of course I know what war is and what the consequences can be”, he explained. He pointed to his leg, maimed by artillery fire almost 25 years ago, and to the poor conditions of the refugee shelter where his family has lived for over twenty years. “But I have sent my eldest son to the army anyhow. He is an officer, and I have told him to fight – to take care, but to fight for his homeland.”

Last year’s escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which began in the early hours of 2 April, killed up to 200 people. However, like many Azerbaijanis whose families have been displaced by the conflict, Bayram’s patriotic pride overtook his concern for lost lives. Bayram had hoped the fighting would result in the return to Baku’s control of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts – held by ethnic Armenian forces since the 1994 ceasefire – so he could go back home.

Across the Line of Contact (LoC), the militarised zone that has separated Armenian and Azerbaijani forces since 1994, conversations in Armenia’s capital Yerevan were like stepping through a mirror. “Don’t you understand that Baku lost last April?” a prominent Armenian expert remarked, challenging the mainstream analysis that Baku’s gaining control over two strategic heights was a significant first since 1994, if not in military terms, then certainly in terms of Azerbaijan’s posture. “We are now prepared and ready to inflict major harm on the Azerbaijanis if they attack, so they do not feel they can get away with this”, another Armenian analyst said. Such sentiments are even more sharply expressed in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, where people are deeply concerned for their security.

Conversations on both sides of the divide reveal a new and dangerous situation: that renewed appetite for confrontation has engulfed a conflict once considered frozen but which –  with  clashes escalating since at least 2012 – is particularly dangerous now given both countries’ more powerfully equipped armies, and Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s respective military commitments with Russia and Turkey. In 2015, Azerbaijan spent $3 billion on its military, strategically diversifying acquisitions, with weapons systems purchased from Russia, Turkey, Israel and Pakistan, among others. This sum was more than Armenia’s entire national budget that year, yet Yerevan still sought to catch up, benefiting from more advantageous tariffs and a credit from Russia.

Armenia and Azerbaijan each finds the current status quo unacceptable for different reasons. Before committing to talks, Yerevan urgently wishes to see improved security, including for people whose daily lives are severely impacted by ongoing escalations along the LoC and the international border between the two countries. Baku wants to have guarantees that there will be substantive progress in settlement talks, including the return of districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as a first step. The prevailing dynamic, compounded by an absence of confidence between the sides or in the settlement process, lends itself to further violent flare-ups that contain grave local and regional risks.

There is a long-standing conflict settlement mechanism, the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But in the absence of a re-invigorated process with high-level backing from the three Minsk Group co-chairs – Russia, the United States and France – the conflict will remain a dangerous tinderbox in the heart of the South Caucasus, between Russia, Turkey, Iran and what the EU considers its Eastern Neighbourhood.

The Frozen Settlement Process

Bayram, the Azeri veteran, said he was disappointed when a ceasefire was brokered by Moscow four days into the April 2016 fighting. Like many displaced people and other ordinary citizens in Azerbaijan, he felt elated that some small but strategically significant land fell into Baku’s hands as a result of the fighting, and that the widespread post-1994 myth of Armenian forces’ invincibility was broken. But he and others in Azerbaijan were also frustrated not to see “more progress”, even if it were to come with a much higher death toll and other costs.

The high pain threshold of both parties in the quest for their desired outcome in the settlement of the conflict bodes ill for finding a political solution. Russia-led attempts to broker a deal last year revealed that a zero-sum logic continues to dictate not only the approach to the substance of the settlement process but also to the process itself. The gulf between Azerbaijani society on the one hand, and the Armenian and Armenian-Karabakh societies on the other, is widened by the lack of contact between parties. Only isolated civil society actors seek the construction of cultural or political bridges. In the year that has elapsed since April 2016, space for discussing mutual concessions has by and large closed.

Yet last year’s conflict did briefly revive the all but moribund settlement process, as detailed in Crisis Group’s July report, “New Opening, or More Peril?”. Summits in Vienna last May and St. Petersburg in June agreed on an investigative mechanism and an increase in the number of OSCE monitors, as well as on proceeding with substantive talks. Yet by late summer, the process ground to a halt and deadly incidents have recurred with varying degrees of intensity.

“We cannot talk when we are being attacked”, explained an official in Yerevan. “The only way to get to substantive talks is to have months of quiet on the Line of Contact”. Beyond the security imperative, Yerevan is reluctant to return lands around Karabakh unless other aspects of the settlement – including Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status – are clarified, guided by a principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Armenians fear losing strategic advantage if they do not secure their desired political outcome on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, namely its self-determination outside of Azerbaijan. Indeed, the return of even some of the districts around the contested heartland would make Karabakh much harder to defend for the Armenians.

For its part, Baku resents the current status quo on the ground and fears that any security arrangements insisted upon by Yerevan would only cement it. Officials in Baku say the increased number of monitors and the investigative mechanism agreed upon last summer are only acceptable if linked to broader substantive progress in the talks.

With frustrations mounting on both sides and the process stalled, incidents along the LoC will likely intensify. Baku in particular shows public readiness to use force to achieve its goals. Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials explain that Baku has renounced the use of force if the conflict is settled within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Failing that, Azerbaijani analysts say, the threat of violence continues to be a legitimate means to put pressure on the adversary.

Meanwhile, Armenian and de facto Armenian-Karabakh forces – two intertwined structures – have focused on new fortifications systems on the Armenian-controlled side of the LoC, as well as on an internal overhaul of command structures. Some Armenian voices, including inside Nagorno-Karabakh, even speak of seizing more territories if they are attacked, in order to increase the security belt and have more to trade in future negotiations.

With both sides now poised to retaliate quickly to any escalation, and without the element of surprise, renewed fighting would likely exceed the unprecedented levels seen last year.

Moscow’s Uncertain Role

On the international diplomatic front, for the last decade, Moscow has de facto been the prima inter pares in the Minsk Group, and it was Moscow that brought about a cessation of hostilities in April 2016. Moscow is the only one of the three co-chair countries which currently seems to have the bandwidth and interest to invest high-level political capital into the conflict.

Diplomats talk about another push for progress in the talks, which Moscow is ostensibly preparing in the foreseeable future. A meeting of Foreign Ministers after the Armenian parliamentary elections on 2 April – coincidentally, the first anniversary of the escalation – should ideally lay the groundwork for a summit of the two Presidents. One desirable approach that is apparently being considered by the Minsk Group co-chair countries would include a combination of a possible declaration of both parties; an expression of support by the Minsk Group co-chairs; and a potential UN Security Council Resolution, according to diplomats based in the region. However, agreement on the details would still be needed at the Presidential level.

With Russia’s long history of rule over the Caucasus region, and a continued sense that the South Caucasus is a sphere of privileged Russian interest, Moscow’s influence has many facets. Russia is the leading supplier of weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia also has close cooperation with Armenia through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Armenia is a member. While Moscow has not formally said it is interested in having peacekeepers in the region, a Russian official informally said that “of course [sending peacekeepers is in] our interest and we are pursuing it”. According to a gentlemen’s agreement in the context of the settlement process no co-chair or neighbouring country should provide peacekeepers.

Baku and Yerevan share a deep reluctance to accept Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh. Both see this scenario as the ultimate loss of sovereignty and a return to their once subservient role within the Soviet Empire. “We have been able to keep Russia out of our domestic politics”, a former Azerbaijani politician said. “Having their boots in Karabakh would mean they would have a very different say over our internal issues”. Likewise, an opposition-minded figure in Yerevan pointed out it was a paradox that while Armenia hosts a Russian military base, no one in Armenia wants to see Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh itself.

A decade or more ago, Armenian analysts often referred to the Balkans – where Operation Storm restored Croat control over Srpska Krajina though it violated the mandate of the UN peacekeepers deployed on the ceasefire line – as an example for why international security arrangements may not be reliable. Today, notwithstanding the role of Russia as Armenia’s primary strategic partner, Crimea’s 2014 annexation by Russia is causing concern that the use of force cannot be excluded, even if international guarantees are in place.

Baku, on the other hand, has seized on the biting sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its European partners on Russia to pursue in various international fora Azerbaijan’s de jure claim to the territory it sees as occupied, referring also to UN Security Council resolutions of the early 1990s. “After Crimea, the international community’s reluctance to use the term occupation and impose sanctions against Armenia is becoming untenable,” a pro-government Azerbaijani analyst said.

No Alternative to Political and Diplomatic Solutions

A year on from the April 2016 flare-up, positions have significantly hardened. Both sides seem prepared to engage only on their own terms and neither society is ready to consider mutual concessions. Any discussion in Baku of the settlement process and its basic principles automatically assumes the determination of the future political status of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan – something Armenians say is unacceptable. On the other hand, discussions in Armenia over the return of lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan have been difficult and, since last April, have become a non-starter. Although, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in the past has said this remained a negotiating chip.

In fact, the distinction between Nagorno-Karabakh proper and the surrounding districts held by Armenians has been largely effaced in the discourse, especially in the months since April 2016. Armenia’s former president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, remains a lone voice urging Armenians to proceed with the return of the districts around Nagorno-Karabakh, but few agree with him. The Karabakhi activist living in Yerevan explained simply: “This would lead to civil war”.

Against the backdrop of political deadlock, risks of escalation on the battlefront are growing dangerously. Most Western diplomats agree that the risks are high, yet they also stress that none of the regional powers are interested in a conflict that could ultimately ensnare them. Russia and Turkey's current geopolitical cooperation regarding the war in Syria increases the chances that they would work to minimise any misunderstandings that might lead to a wider conflagration in the Caucasus theatre.

Even a medium-scale intensity conflict between Baku and Yerevan is likely to have disastrous humanitarian consequences. Given the close proximity of civilians to the front lines, heavy casualties would be likely from shelling or other military deployments. Both sides alleged that the other engaged in atrocities during the April 2016 escalation, which Minsk Group co-chairs condemned in their December 2016 statement. Humanitarian agencies in the region are beefing up their capacities and developing contingency plans.

The destructive potential of renewed conflict should compel both parties back to the negotiating table. If the mooted new meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan materialises, it could help inject new impetus into the stalled process. Baku and Yerevan have already, in theory at least, committed to the basic principles for the settlement developed by the OSCE Minsk Group. The elements, as formulated by Minsk Group co-chairs countries, include: “the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance; a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will; the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation”.

In spite of divergent interpretations of a number of those elements by each party, the OSCE Minsk Group should redouble its efforts to galvanise substantive talks while pushing for implementation of the measures agreed in Vienna. Russia will likely play a leading role in this, but needs the support of the U.S. and France. Washington and Paris should back up these efforts at highest levels, despite the Trump presidency’s apparent disengagement from the region and France’s electoral preoccupations. The EU should use its bilateral relations with each of the countries to reiterate not only the unacceptability of the status quo, but also the unacceptability of a repeat of last April’s hostilities. The EU has long sought to support pro-peace discourses in both societies. This kind of investment should be a renewed priority so that people like Bayram, as well as his Armenian counterparts, do not depersonalise each other.

A lasting settlement will mean living side by side, taking into account the needs of both parties. For now though, there is a wide gap between what outside mediators see as a fair formula and what seems acceptable to local communities. Until this gap closes, the risks of war will remain very high.

Officials from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) record the finger prints of a man during the launch of the 2017 general elections voter registration exercise within the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, on 16 January 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Commentary / Africa

Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis

Political tensions are rising in Kenya ahead of elections in August for the presidency and other senior posts. Measures taken now can avert the risk of a repeat of electoral violence that killed hundreds of people in 2007-2008.

Kenyans go to the polls in August, and fierce contests are likely in the race for the presidency and other elections the same day to county governorships and other senior posts. Electoral commission preparations are dangerously behind schedule amid political polarisation, growing distrust and lack of communication between parties. Given the country’s troubled electoral history, it is essential that politicians and other key stakeholders discuss and agree on the measures necessary for credible polls and a way forward on the electoral timeline.

The elections matter well beyond Kenya’s borders. The country is the transport and commercial hub of East Africa, so a protracted crisis would result in significant disruptions further afield. The 2007-2008 post-election violence, which left 1,000 dead after a brutal police response to protests and ethnic killings, shut down international road links and slowed cargo shipments at Mombasa port to a trickle. Fuel prices more than doubled in neighbouring, landlocked Uganda and Rwanda, and humanitarian assistance further afield in the eastern Congo (DRC) was disrupted for weeks. It took a mediation effort led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and supported by international partners to get the main players to agree to a truce and form a power-sharing government.

In the August 2017 poll, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto face an energised opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance (NASA), that brings together all major opposition figures. It is led by Raila Odinga, whose campaign is all the more determined because this may be his last contest.

A Level Playing Field?

Neither side has made the job of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) easy. In December, Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party used its majority in parliament to push through controversial amendments to the electoral laws with little consultation. They provided for a manual backup to the electronic electoral system in case of equipment failure. This is arguably necessary since no electronic system is perfect, and no technology is foolproof against bad behaviour by politicians.

The government’s unilateral measure sowed mistrust in the electoral process. But opposition leaders have not helped matters by claiming the voting will be rigged by the ruling party and threatening to challenge any outcome to the election that does not favour them outside legal channels. After the opposition claimed that the 2013 elections were fixed, the courts ruled against it.

What has not changed is the behaviour of politicians and the zero-sum nature of political competition.

Following the 2007-2008 crisis, the Independent Review Commission (IREC), headed by retired South African judge Johann Kriegler, concluded that the 2007 polls had been marked by large-scale vote-tampering and issued far-reaching recommendations on the conduct of future elections, including that election commissioners take office at least two years before a general election. The review commission concluded that the technical system for tallying, recording and transmitting results was defective and called for an overhaul. It noted that the vast powers vested in the presidency set the stage for a high-stakes contest that increased the likelihood of violence.

Only some of the proposals to improve the electoral process have been implemented. Most significantly, a progressive constitution was adopted in 2010. A two-round presidential election system now requires the ultimate winner to garner more than 50 per cent of the vote nationally and more than a quarter of those cast in more than half the 47 counties. The process for selecting election commissioners was made more inclusive, and power was devolved to counties whose elected governors and local representatives enjoy a fair degree of autonomy over the deployment of resources disbursed from the centre. The 2013 elections were reasonably peaceful, though the opposition challenged the credibility of the tallying process. Parliament has new responsibilities, including the power to vet most presidential appointees. Members also enjoy oversight of the cabinet through departmental committees.

What has not changed is the behaviour of politicians and the zero-sum nature of political competition. Though the 2010 constitution sought to change the division of power between the presidency and parliament, the head of state remains immensely powerful, able to dole out patronage to supportive elites. When the president’s party commands a majority in parliament, that institution can be reduced to a rubber-stamp assembly. By the same token, devolution in the new constitution has raised the stakes in sub-national contests, with heated competition expected for governorships.

Frequent leadership turnover at the IEBC means there will be a different set of inexperienced commissioners going into an election for the third vote in a row. Some who ran the last two votes left under a cloud, accused either of fiddling results (in 2007) or major corruption and political bias (2013).

While the Kriegler report recommended that commissioners be in office at least two years before an election to enable them prepare adequately, the new team took office on 20 January, a mere seven months before the vote. Delays in parliament, dithering by the executive and confusion within a team picked to interview the new commissioners were blamed for the holdup.

This has left the IEBC, now headed by Wafula Chebukati, a lawyer little-known outside legal circles, facing tall odds to deliver a credible election. Overcoming formidable logistical, technical and legal obstacles within existing timelines and in a febrile, divisive environment will be a major challenge.

Hi-tech Ambitions, Legal Challenges

Kenya’s electoral commission, like many in Africa, hopes to deploy a system with biometric voter identification and electronic results transmission so as to avoid the ballot-stuffing and dubious turnout figures that plagued past elections, particularly in 2007. The IEBC estimates that the vendor that wins the contract will need 60 days to deliver the custom-made integrated electoral management system. It is well behind schedule in finding such a supplier.

Legislative timelines initially called for the system to be in place eight months before the polls, which would have required installation by 8 December 2016. IEBC executives asked for more time, citing stringent procurement requirements. In November, Chief Executive Ezra Chiloba said it hoped to have the new system in place by the end of February. In fact, legal appeals by several of the companies that submitted tenders to supply the system meant that bid papers were only submitted in the first week of February. Now, another vendor’s legal challenge has blocked any decision on the tender.

The installation of a transparent, efficient electoral management system would go a long way to assuaging public concerns.

On 28 February, the IEBC admitted it was out of time to procure the new system on schedule. At a press briefing, its commissioners said, without elaboration, that they would explore using “an alternative voter verification” method. A day later, commission officials said they might procure the equipment directly from a vendor by “single sourcing” or issue a restricted tender that might be less open to legal challenge.

The equipment for transmitting results from polling places to the tallying centre is as important as the voter kits. Past elections were compromised by lack of transparency in tallying and transmitting. The installation of a transparent, efficient electoral management system would go a long way to assuaging public concerns. Unfortunately, rushed procurement, with little lead-time for testing, may set the IEBC up for failure. That would also deepen suspicions in a situation already marked by significant tension between parties. Government steps to limit the role of external partners, such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, that can offer valuable technical assistance, have not helped.

On 22 December, the High Court granted an order halting the IEBC’s award of a tender to financial services firm KPMG for verification of the voter register, upholding an opposition petition that accused the IEBC of making the appointment without sufficient consultation. On 13 February, the High Court nullified a tender to a Dubai-based firm for printing ballot papers, citing violations of procurement regulations and electoral laws.

A separate 13 February High Court decision that all IEBC executive decisions made before the January appointment of commissioners were null and void had particularly serious implications for preparations. The commission has appealed, but further court challenges to its decisions, particularly on tendering, remain possible and could create additional election complications.

Racing Against the Clock

The greatest operational challenge the IEBC faces is not lack of internal capacity but that there is little time to put in place all the elements required to make the vote transparent and credible. It needs to be clear-sighted and open about this. It should communicate to the public and international partners what extra help it needs to implement the various technical steps, including fast-tracked procurement of technology.

If it becomes clear, however, that the remaining time, particularly in light of possible legal challenges, is insufficient, it should ask for an extension. The opposition may be angling for a postponement for its own reasons. Nonetheless, from a technical perspective the IEBC could well run out of time to deliver credible polls.

If it becomes clear the commission needs more time, it may be possible to achieve consensus on a delay including by turning to the courts, because all parties have an interest in a smooth election. There is a precedent for this. Although the constitution provides that elections should be on the second Tuesday of August every fifth year, the High Court gave the IEBC more time to prepare for the last election. 

With little time left in which to build public confidence, the IEBC needs a communications strategy to update voters regularly. More importantly, it needs a mechanism to discuss progress with politicians and consult on key decisions it makes on preparations to assure them the vote will be credible, free and fair. 

The commission should expand its Election Preparedness Task Force, currently composed of IEBC officials, representatives of the interior ministry, judiciary and director of public prosecutions. Giving civil society and the opposition greater access to all aspects of preparations would boost trust in the process. 

How Outsiders Can Help

International partners should extend technical and financial help to the IEBC to help it better tackle the challenges. This should, however, be done with nuance, flexibility and complete transparency, in light of unfounded claims by the ruling party that external parties are seeking to influence the electoral outcome. International observers should be deployed in time to monitor crucial stages of the electoral process, such as verification of the vote register and procurement of electoral materials.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) should expand its technical aid initiatives, including deploying staff with experience handling fraught balloting around Africa to support the commission.

The greatest operational challenge the IEBC faces is not lack of internal capacity but that there is little time to put in place all the elements required to make the vote transparent and credible.

Kenya’s raucous politics shows the relative openness of its democracy. That politicians explicitly mobilise along ethnic lines, however, means elections are marked by high communal tension. Since their words carry extraordinary resonance in a still ethnically fractured country, politicians should weigh them carefully during the campaign. The ruling party should not use state resources to gain an unfair advantage. Opposition leaders should play a constructive role in monitoring and supporting the electoral process and commit to using legal channels to air any grievances.

The main presidential contenders could help by publicly signing a code of conduct ahead of the official start of the campaign, including a pledge to seek legal recourse in the event of disputes and a call to supporters to refrain from violence. A similar step during the heated 2015 Nigerian presidential election campaign helped calm tensions before the vote.

Similar codes of conducts should be organised in counties, including pledges not to use violence and to respect results. Establishing peace committees comprising different community leaders in especially contentious areas would help to bring groups together and limit the risk of communal violence once results are announced. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission should also closely monitor hate speech by politicians on the campaign trail and prosecute offenders.

Disputed polls can carry a major human and financial cost, and three of five elections since a multi-party system was re-introduced in 1992 have been marked by violence. Kenya needs to ensure that the 2017 vote goes smoothly. Faced with the extremely tight timelines, all stakeholders should make their contribution to this.