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The Shifting Dangers of Nagorno-Karabakh
The Shifting Dangers of Nagorno-Karabakh
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan
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.

Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan campaigning for his political alliance “My Step” in his hometown Ijevan, about 20 kilometres from frontline trenches along the border with Azerbaijan. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan

With his party’s victory in the snap parliamentary elections and a new calm on the frontlines with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s leader Nikol Pashinyan and his team will have more space to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

BERKABER, Armenia – One of the windows in Sonya Matinyan’s home is filled in with bricks. The glass of the other is splintered by a rifle bullet. The roof has taken a few missile hits and leaking water has stained the ceilings in the interior. But, unusually, the 57-year-old Armenian is staying home this winter.

That’s because things are changing for the better in Berkaber, on Armenia’s north-eastern border with Azerbaijan. No gunfire has sounded here in the region of Tavush for almost two months, a welcome change from clashes that in the past two winters drove inhabitants into fortified cellars or to distant relatives’ homes. The quiet marks a rare lull in an area that has suffered conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the two countries drove out each other’s Azeri and Armenian minorities and Armenians seized the nearby region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts from Azerbaijani control.

Map of Armenia CRISISGROUP
The poll was one of the freest and fairest in the recent country’s history, most observers said.

The recent improvement is in large part thanks to Nikol Pashinyan, a once marginal former journalist who in April led demonstrations that swept aside the old Armenian leadership. He confirmed his primacy on 9 December, when his My Step political alliance won snap parliamentary elections. The former ruling Republican party failed even to pass the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The poll was one of the freest and fairest in the recent country’s history, most observers said.

The longest truce in almost fifteen years is also holding because the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to communicate without intermediaries in September. In mid-November, defence officials of both countries met to finalise restoring direct lines of communication between military units located along Armenia’s southern border with Nakhchivan, an autonomous exclave of Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”

The 9 December election concludes a period of transition since Armenia’s “velvet revolution” in April. The new ruling alliance has a disparate membership. Its backbone is a handful of people who stood next to Pashinyan in his small and once unimportant opposition party, Civil Contract. This group has been joined by other leaders of the street protests that led to the resignation of former president and subsequent prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan. Some members of Pashinyan’s team know the complexities of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from years of work in civil society organisations and meetings with Azerbaijani experts. 

The new parliament’s first session will convene in the coming weeks to endorse Pashinyan as prime minister. With a strong parliamentary majority, Pashinyan and his team will face fewer barriers to initiating new legislation and reforms. The public expects swift improvements in how ruling elites govern, an end to corruption and more incentives for small businesses. People, particularly those directly affected, also want to see progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Official negotiations have been dormant for several years.

“Maybe he doesn’t have a magic wand to fix everything at once”, says 47-year-old Armen Markaryan two weeks before the election. He came to listen to Pashinyan at a pre-election meeting with voters in the town of Ijevan, the main town in Tavush and only about 20 kilometres from the military trenches at the border with Azerbaijan. “But he has to change something so that we can live better and without war”, Armen said.

A Complex Peace Process

Pashinyan’s team has been publicly cautious about its plans regarding Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. Throughout the election campaign, the former ruling Republican Party attacked the Pashinyan alliance as “traitors” preparing a “criminal conspiracy” with Baku. They based their attacks less on what Pashinyan has said than on the young age of many members of his ruling team and their lack of personal connections to Nagorno-Karabakh and the war in this region in the 1990s – in contrast to previous Armenian leaders. Pashinyan’s entourage reject the accusations of selling out.

Official negotiations have been dormant for several years. An April 2016 flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh killed at least 200 soldiers and civilians on both sides, after which divisions deepened as the parties started making maximalist demands. Azerbaijan calls for the immediate return of the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, which have been under Armenian control since the early 1990s. Armenia, on the other hand, insists that the first step should be for Baku to grant independence to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Snow covers the slopes of Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, close to Armenian frontline trenches on the state border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Local officials say clashes over the past four years have denied villagers access to about 80 per cent of their farmland. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

The new ruling team in Armenia recognises that there is no easy way out of this impasse. “Everyone understands that a ‘reset’ is needed”, one of the newly elected parliamentarians of Pashinyan’s political alliance said, suggesting that both sides need to take steps to escape the years-long deadlock in talks. “But in order to launch such a reset, we must first reach a consensus within the party and the government”.

In August, speaking at a rally to celebrate his first 100 days of his office, Pashinyan promised tens of thousands of people gathered in the centre of Yerevan to turn to them for support before any settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh. The promise means that “Armenia will not make any sudden moves in the negotiation process any time soon”, said another newly elected parliamentarian from Pashinyan’s political alliance, suggesting that there will be no sudden change to its core demand on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.

Courting Azerbaijan

The new Armenian government will have to convince not only its own population, but also Azerbaijan, that a serious path to peace exists. For a number of years, the Azerbaijani government has called for substantial talks that will bring real change – by which it means the return of lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh seized by the Armenian side in the war with Azerbaijan in 1992-1994. Pashinyan would have to find a way to convince Baku that his government is ready to engage in good faith. Many on both sides doubt the other’s intentions and question whether a ceasefire can be maintained. The relative calm since September follows years of steadily increasing casualties along the frontlines and military build-ups in both countries.

There are signs of optimism on the Azerbaijani side too, however. Crisis Group’s interlocutors in Baku insist that Azerbaijan maintains the truce in the hope that the direct line of communication will pave the way for genuine negotiations with the new Armenian leadership. On 5 December, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers held their third meeting since Armenia’s April revolution. Talks between the leaders could follow.

While keeping the frontlines quiet is critical to achieving any ‘reset’ of peace talks, additional confidence-building measures would also help, including opening other lines of direct communication parallel to the military one. High-ranking Armenian officials told Crisis Group that establishing such links between humanitarian actors on both sides, for example, would be helpful. Representatives of Azerbaijan voiced similar ideas.

The new government in Armenia might also bring some fresh thinking on the conflict.

The two sides have already taken steps in this direction, using the military communication channel to discuss the possible release of an Armenian resident arrested in the country’s north-east state border area by Azerbaijani authorities since summer. On 5 December, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities stated that they were ready to consider releasing an Azerbaijani soldier detained in Stepanakert since the beginning of 2017. Such discussions should continue.

A More People-centred Approach

The new government in Armenia might also bring some fresh thinking on the conflict. According to one newly elected Armenian parliamentarian from Pashinyan’s party:  “We can change our approach. Instead of discussing only political demands, we could begin to focus more on people and their needs, from two sides”.

A high-ranking Armenian diplomat also told Crisis Group that he hopes that such a “people-oriented approach” would dominate the negotiation process. Opportunities to discuss concessions may arise, but “it is important to recognise that Nagorno-Karabakh is about the people, not just the conflict”.

The current ceasefire serves the interests of large numbers of people on both sides. 600,000 Azerbaijanis reside within fifteen kilometres of the Nagorno-Karabakh frontlines. Similarly, tens of thousands of people live near the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, including around 40,000 permanently residing close to military zones in Armenia’s Tavush region, where frontline trenches stretch for 230 kilometres through the mountains.

Men play backgammon in Chinari, an Armenian village at the foot of a mountain that separates Armenia and Azerbaijan. CRISISGROUP/Olesya Vartanyan

In places like Tavush, more communication could help the parties coordinate on demining civilian roads and farm plots close to the frontlines, even before issues at the core of the conflict are discussed. The same applies to Azerbaijani villages, including along the frontlines in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. The two sides could start by marking the minefields left over from the early 1990s war. They could then demine any land that has no strategic military value and hand it over to civilians.

New security guarantees would also allow frontline residents to return to work on agricultural plots close to military positions. In the past four years, skirmishes have forced farmers to abandon fields in at least six villages in Tavush, residents told Crisis Group. For many of them, agriculture is the only way to make ends meet.

“This year, for the first time, people began to go swimming in the reservoir”, said Berkaber resident Argam Arzumanyan. Before the war, his village was a favourite vacation spot for people from Armenia, Azerbaijan and even neighbouring Georgia. Now military fortifications start only 20m away from each side of the dam. The last time the villagers had the courage to go down to the water was back in 2004. This year, Argam says, “I looked at the people splashing around in the water and could not believe my eyes and asked myself: are we really starting to live without war again?”