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 Youtube
What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?
What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan
Armenia Elections Boost Hopes for Peace with Azerbaijan
Ethnic Armenian servicemen in the town of Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, 3 April 2016. AFP/Vahram Baghdasaryan

What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has long been regarded as a tinderbox in the heart of the South Caucasus – with serious implications for the wider region including Russia, Turkey and Iran. Each spring, when low-level violence tends to break out, policymakers worry about incidents spiraling out of control due to miscalculation or escalation by leaders in Azerbaijan or Armenia. But familiarity breeds complacency, if not contempt, which is why the international community was largely unprepared for the heavy fighting that erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh on 1 April, claiming dozens of lives.

There still is little verified information about the fighting and how it was unleashed. Each side claims it has inflicted heavy losses on the other. Azerbaijani authorities say they have reclaimed control of some strategic heights, and declared a truce on 3 April. Ongoing fighting has been reported.

This is the most serious escalation since the 1994 ceasefire in the conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory fought over in a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the Armenian majority community of this former autonomous oblast of Soviet Azerbaijan sought to unite with Armenia. For more than 20 years, the ceasefire arrangement has been fragile, with a symbolic presence of six unarmed monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The monitors are deployed in support of the Minsk Process, an OSCE-led effort to resolve the conflict, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.

Meanwhile, the past decade has witnessed a dramatic arms race between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Emboldened by its oil and gas windfall, Azerbaijan increased its military expenditure more than twenty-fold between 2004 and 2014. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has boasted that the 2014 defence budget was twice as large as Armenia’s overall state budget. Most significant arms acquisitions came from Russia. Armenia, Russia’s traditional ally, has tried to keep up, despite being economically squeezed by a lack of development and closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan. But ethnic Armenian forces have maintained control of strategic heights in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, which has given it a strong advantage and rendered the overall imbalance less acute. If Azerbaijan has now taken some of these positions, this could change the balance.

European policymakers have decried the absurdity of the parallel armament. According to a high-level diplomat, Moscow seems to have been selling arms at a higher rate to Azerbaijan to effectively subsidise the lower-cost supplies to Armenia – a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, host of a Russian military base in Gyumri, and close partner on air defence and other military arrangements, which include a commitment by Russia to defend Armenia’s international border, if necessary.

Since summer 2013, security incidents have become significantly more frequent and more serious in intensity, including the use of artillery in and around civilian areas.

To understand the security situation, one has to scrutinise both the local and the regional politics. As in other conflicts in the European Union’s eastern neighbourhood, they are closely intertwined.

Azerbaijan has been desperate to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh, or at least the surrounding seven districts also controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since the 1990s. Hard hit by the drop in oil prices and the devaluation of its currency, Azerbaijan faced protests last winter registering a level of dissatisfaction among ordinary citizens. The government may feel the need to rally support around the flag. Baku is also less and less convinced that diplomatic solutions will deliver results: its frustration with the Minsk Group is no secret.

Armenia itself has been under serious economic strain, especially given the economic downturn in Russia, a key trading partner, and the drop in remittances. However, for Yerevan, the status quo on the ground has been advantageous. Any diplomatic efforts to change the situation, such as via the return to Azerbaijan of at least some of the districts under Armenian control, would have to be accompanied by significant security guarantees and gains toward determining Nagorno-Karabakh’s future political status.

The recent months have seen a lot of diplomatic activity, mostly fairly opaque, by Moscow. European and OSCE diplomats say this is only coordinated with the other two co-chairs of the Minsk Group, France and the U.S. – but only in part. Moscow is exploring options that draw on the basic principles for resolution defined by the Minsk Group but is likely to look for opportunities to enhance its own standing in the region. There has been discussion about a possible deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Azerbaijani diplomats have said Russia may support efforts to shift the status quo slightly and allow for some new openings, especially if Baku agrees to a closer alignment with Moscow, such as through observer status in the Moscow-led EEU.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been largely preoccupied with engagement in other theatres, not least in Syria. Turkey, despite its traditional alliance with Azerbaijan, is also stretched thin dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war, the refugee crisis and conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Iran’s re-entry into the region’s politics heralds a change, though the implications are still unclear. On 7 April, the Azerbaijani, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers will meet in Baku to discuss energy issues and possible railway connections.

European diplomats involved with the Minsk Process have been worried about a serious escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh since last year. Indeed, Federica Mogherini – EU high representative and vice-president of the European Commission – raised the issue in Baku and Yerevan during her recent visit to the region. But without a formal role in the Minsk Group and with limited traction in its ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the EU’s leverage is not sufficient.

Russia may have more influence, although it does not control Baku or Yerevan and their respective militaries, and has been unable to push through a solution in the past several years despite investing domestic capital. But Moscow is more closely involved than the other outside actors, and seems to pursue its own strategic interests. Key among them is a closer link with Azerbaijan and proving its own indispensability on the regional stage as a mediator and security guarantor. Moscow will likely use its leverage to enhance its own standing in the region.

As the Minsk Group meets on 5 April to discuss de-escalation, the first priority is to stop the violence. But it is essential to get beyond the logic of damage limitation. The risks over the past years have not diminished but in fact have grown. Complacency in the face of long-understood risks should be replaced by strong political will and effective mechanisms to prevent further escalations in Nagorno-Karabakh – and indeed elsewhere in Europe and Russia’s shared neighbourhood.

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?”