Once again, the Karabagh conflict prominently appears on the political radar of the Caucasus, raising for some the possibility of a breakthrough settlement and for others, the specter of a renewed war.
The situation is so fluid that the issue can veer in any direction unexpectedly.
“This is a war and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violations,’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire any more,” announced Armenia’s Defense Ministry Spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan to reporters in December.
That was right after the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met once again in Bern, Switzerland, to spin their wheels. Someone close to Azerbaijan’s ruling circle characterized the meeting as a routine formality.
And indeed, the intensifying border hostility looks like anything but a ceasefire violation, especially when Azerbaijan has moved the battleground from its border with Karabagh to the sovereign territory of Armenia proper, leading many citizens to wonder what good is Armenia’s strategic alliance with Russia, if the treaty does not cover the entire territory of Armenia.
In reality, Karabagh is once again caught in a tug-of-war between forces which have been trying to consolidate their positions in a renewed cold war.
The US ambassador to the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), James Warlick, has used wording to describe the situation which is very similar to that of Armenia’s Defense Ministry. He said, “This is not a ‘frozen conflict,’ but is a forgotten conflict, with a real risk of spinning out of control.”
The explosive situation has precipitated as a result of dynamic changes in the region: Russia’s confrontation with the West has forced Moscow to resolve conflicts its own way — the 2008 war with Georgia, the Crimean referendum, the Syrian war and the standoff with Turkey. And since Moscow holds the key to resolving the Karabagh conflict, the West, and in particular, the US, was concerned that it would be outwitted in the game. Therefore it intensified its diplomatic activities. The European Union announced that there is only one way to solve the Karabagh conflict — peaceful settlement. On the other hand, the United States Congress held closed hearings on the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) and the leading Democrat on the committee, Eliot Engel, have recommended that snipers from both sides of the contact line move back and that monitoring equipment be installed to detect ceasefire violations. That has been Armenia’s request for the past several years, to no avail. Azeris have been asking for the removal of all “occupying” forces from Karabagh.
The US State Department has moved in parallel with Congress by dispatching a senior diplomat to Baku and Yerevan. Charles Kupchan, senior director for European Affairs at the US National Security Council, met with President Serge Sargisian and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian last week. Although the substance of the talks were not made public, it is known that the Armenian side thanked the US profusely for its assistance and support.
Also, Kupchan thanked Armenia for providing peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan and Kosovo, under NATO command.
In yet another warning signal to Azerbaijan, the US Congress began to draft a resolution to condemn President Ilham Aliyev and his regime for its persecution of NGOs, journalists and human rights activists. Although the draft resolution was not brought to a vote, the Azeri government got the point.
While the tension between the regional powers has contributed to the political dynamics, Azerbaijan’s domestic woes also play a role in exacerbating the situation.
In a major piece, Thomas de Waal, senior associate with Carnegie Europe, analyzed the reasons behind the increasingly belligerent rhetoric of the Aliyev regime. Seventy five percent of Azerbaijan’s budget is based on the country’s oil revenue. The drop in the oil prices to a level below $30 a barrel shocked the country’s economy and triggered a downward spiral in the valuation of the country’s currency, the manat. The shock hit the middle class and hampered the government’s appetite for expensive and sophisticated armaments.
The sputtering economy has also caused a social shakeup. With Azerbaijan now suddenly strapped for cash, its rulers are not able to quiet domestic concerns with the economic stability that wealthy state coffers bring.
The first political casualty in Azerbaijan was Eldar Mahmudov, the country’s long serving national security minister. He was sacked, along with most of his circle, being accused of conspiracy. Mr. De Waal asks in his article, “At what point do economic protests become political? It is a blurry line.”
Iran’s nuclear deal had both an economic and political impact on Azerbaijan — Tehran’s entry in the energy market hit Azerbaijan’s treasury hard. Even yesterday’s ally, Georgia, began negotiating with Tehran to buy gas. Also, the West had been supporting Baku against Tehran, especially in its strategic designs. At one point, Baku was even aspiring to conquer northern Azerbaijan from Iran and expand its territory. All these dreams seem to have gone belly up with Iran’s change of course.
These developments are adding up and driving the Aliyev regime to desperation, thereby forcing it to look for scapegoats. That scapegoat could not be anything other than Armenia, so Mr. De Waal concludes: “The increasing worry is that an Azerbaijani regime that is in desperate straits might choose to ‘play the Karabagh card’ — the one grievance that can rally all Azerbaijanis around the flag — and start a military operation, large or small, to recover lost territory. In that case, the Armenians would be bound to strike back and a new and potentially catastrophic conflict in the Caucasus would break out.”
Turkey in its turn has had a role in this chess game. The Erdogan government had been arrogantly chasing a neo-Ottomanist role in the entire Middle East. It played its hand recklessly and it has been licking its wounds ever since. In a desperate move, Ankara is extending a friendly hand to Israel to revamp the relations it damaged so gleefully. Turkey is trying to put together an alliance of sorts linking itself with strange bedfellows Saudi Arabia and Israel to counter Iran’s influence in the region. Ankara is desperately looking to mend its broken relations with Cairo, playing the Sunni card. The same card has no currency in Azerbaijan, where the majority belongs to the Shia branch of Islam, and the population tends to be secular. A different card is used by Ankara in Azerbaijan — “One nation, two governments” — full of empty platitudes.
To boost morale in Azerbaijan, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu recently visited Baku, where he announced, “the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations is not possible without the liberation of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”
Of course, Çavusoglu could not dare go beyond his traditional mantra, given Turkey’s standoff with Russia and the recent concentration of Russian armaments in Armenia.
Some voices in Moscow have been suggesting a breakthrough in Karabagh. Thus, Dmitry Savelyev, a member of the Russian State Duma and head of the Russian-Azerbaijani inter-parliamentary friendship group, recently expressed hope that a breakthrough would take place, noting that contrary to the deadlock over some issues, the work is progressing properly. He also echoed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s earlier statement that “seven occupied Azerbaijani regions” attached to Nagorno Karabagh should be returned to Azerbaijan.
While the OSCE Minsk Group mediation is working to achieve the Madrid Principles, which call for the release of those seven regions, ensure the rights of all internally displaced person and refugees to return to their former places of residence, allowing Nagorno Karabagh to hold a referendum to determine its future status.
It is said that the Chinese word for crisis has a double meaning, connoting also opportunity. Therefore, if the Chinese formula works in the Caucasus, maybe a breakthrough will be achieved soon.