Nagorno-Karabakh dispute threatens regional war

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh (in yellow). [Wikimedia]

The war in Syria should be a sober reminder to countries in and around the South Caucasus, and further-flung stakeholders, about what can happen when a local conflict explodes into much wider one, writes Irada Guseynova,

Irada Guseynova is a political analyst and media critic. She is a member of the Russian and Azerbaijani union of journalists and the former editor of Oasis, a periodical offering in-depth political analysis of Central Asia and the Caucasus from the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

The conflict between Azerbaijan and separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh flared up over the weekend into the worst loss of life since 1994. The escalation has underscored the threat that this once-frozen conflict poses for EU security.

Azerbaijan, the ethnic-Armenian separatists, Armenia — which backs the separatists — and bigger powers in the region and beyond, particularly Europe, need to try harder to achieve a permanent settlement of the stand-off.

Too much is at stake if the players fail to defuse the dispute. One spark could lead to a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that could suck other powers in, particularly Turkey, which supports Baku, and Russia, which supports Yerevan.

Others with strategic interests in the South Caucasus region where Azerbaijan and Armenia lie include Iran, the EU and the United States. They could also be drawn into a regional conflict — probably not directly but indirectly, such as by becoming arms suppliers to the combatants.

Thus, an Azerbaijan-Armenia war could turn into the kind of international conflict the world is seeing in Syria today.

The number of skirmishes between Azerbaijani troops and forces of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has jumped in recent years, with a concomitant rise in dead and wounded on  each side.

The combatants have blamed each other for starting those clashes, as they have in the most recent flare-up, which killed 18 Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani soldiers and one civilian.

On Sunday (3 Aprl), Azerbaijan announced that it would stop firing on separatist forces to try to give peace a chance. The separatists’ response was to accuse Azerbaijan of continuing to shoot at its troops.

Azerbaijan has made strategic gains in the current fighting, capturing high ground from which it can shell separatist forces or launch attacks.

The separatists say they will discuss peace only if the Azerbaijanis return the territory.

That is unlikely to happen. The high ground gives Azerbaijan both a strategic advantage and a bargaining chip in peace talks.

Since the 1994 truce, the separatists have shown absolute intransigence on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, refusing to discuss the return of any of the 14% of Azerbaijani territory that they seized in the war. That land includes all of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven areas of Azerbaijani territory outside the enclave that the separatists turned into buffer zones.

Armenia’s blind support for the separatists has cost it economically. Both oil and gas rich Azerbaijan and Turkey closed their borders to landlocked Armenia long ago, severing vital trade routes for Yerevan.

The Turkish closure has been particularly incapacitating, since Turkey has ports on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean which could be used to ship Armenian products around the world and bring in goods that Armenia needs.

An important consequence of Armenia’s commercial isolation is that Russia has tightened its stranglehold on Armenia’s economy. Russian companies, for example, now own most of Armenia’s gas-distribution network and its entire electric grid.

The Russian grid owner’s decision in the summer of 2015 to raise Armenian electric rates by 17% sparked nationwide protests. The Armenian government stepped in to cover the difference, but has said the rate increase will have to take effect eventually.

Russia’s military presence in Armenia — it has both an army and air force base — has given the separatists and Armenia the confidence that Moscow would intervene to prevent other powers from overrunning Armenia in a regional war.

But Russia has shown duplicity in the Azerbaijan-Nagorno-Karabakh-Armenia standoff. It has armed Azerbaijan and Armenia — a situation that both have complained about.

Many political analysts believe that the arms the Kremlin has sold to Azerbaijan are an attempt to prevent Baku, which has strong economic ties with the European Union and has cooperated with NATO, from getting closer to the West.

Hopes for a Nagorno-Karabakh peace rose when Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met face to face in 2009 to discuss the possibility of laying the groundwork for a settlement. The discussions got nowhere, however.

Neither have talks sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe aimed at creating a settlement road map. Those negotiations, known as the Minsk Process, have been co-chaired by Russia, the United States and France.

After the breakdown of the Azerbaijani-Armenian talks in 2009, a frustrated Baku repeated its longstanding vow to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force, if necessary.

It has backed its rhetoric up with action, buying $4 billion in arms in recent years.

No one knows whether the latest outbreak of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh will taper off or grow.

What is certain is that as long as the dispute simmers, there is a chance it will explode into a regional war that draws in great powers.

The conflagration raging in Syria should be a sober reminder to countries in and around the South Caucasus, and further-flung stakeholders, about what can happen when a local conflict explodes into much wider one.

It is vital for countries in the South Caucasus, and the world, to get serious about achieving a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute — and the sooner, the better.

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