Back to Basics: Preventing a New War over Nagorno-Karabakh


Since a 1994 ceasefire suspended hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh, this unresolved or “frozen” conflict has been subject to an international mediation effort aimed at forging a daunting negotiated resolution between Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.  The mediation effort is led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – through its so-called Minsk Group, a tripartite body co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, working in close and effective cooperation with the parties to the conflict.

Over the past six months, however, tension has increased, attacks have escalated, and violations of the ceasefire have culminated into a real threat of a fresh war.  Thus, the main focus of this diplomatic engagement has now gone “back to the basics,” moving away from outright conflict resolution and returning to the more basic need for conflict prevention.  But the outlook is not promising, as the Azerbaijani leadership has only threatened to resume hostilities, warning of a military option to force a resolution to the conflict.  This also suggests that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may quickly move from being a simmering, but manageable “frozen” conflict, into erupting as a new “hot” conflict.

For many people, the month of August is a time for summer vacation.  For world leaders, August 2008 was also an opportunity to participate in the festivities of the Beijing Olympics.  But for Georgia and Russia, August 2008 was a time of war.  The sudden and surprising outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia caught most people completely off-guard.  But there is a similar complacency that seems to ignore the warning signs of a possible renewed war in the South Caucasus- this time over Nagorno-Karabakh, the region’s sole remaining “frozen” conflict.

The warning signs of the possibility of renewed hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh have been only too obvious over the past year, and have included an escalation of attacks and clashes along the line of contact separating Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan.  Although there has been far too little appreciation of the danger of a return to armed conflict over Karabakh, some analysts have recently raised the alarm.  In a January 2011 opinion piece in the Turkish daily newspaper “Today’s Zaman,” Amanda Paul, a Policy Analyst with the European Policy Centre (EPC), stressed that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict now “represents the biggest threat to security in the South Caucasus,” warning that given recent developments, “it would take only one cease-fire violation to spiral out of control and explode into a full-blown warfare-spreading catastrophe over the entire region, including key energy routes.”[i]

The increasing tension and threat of war have also been driven by several factors.  First, Azerbaijan has sparked a dangerous “arms race” in the region, steadily increasing its defense budget over the past several years, from $175 million in 2004 to almost $3.1 billion in 2010.  To date, the impact of such substantial defense spending has been marginalized by the entrenched corruption within the Azerbaijani armed forces and ministry of defense.  More recently, however, Azerbaijan has used a significant proportion of its defense budget for the procurement of new, modern offensive weapon systems, presenting a serious new threat to the balance of power.  In light of this virtual “arms race” of rising defense spending, matched by a new round of rearmament, there needs to be a serious move to curb any further deliveries of offensive weapons.  By enforcing and possibly expanding the existing, but non-binding OSCE-UN arms embargoes now in place, the danger of renewed hostilities may be lessened.  Such a move to restrain all sides from building up their arsenals may also send a significant message that there is no military solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.  It would also help to “re-freeze” both the Karabakh conflict and the military balance of power itself.

Another important factor that has only exacerbated tension is Azerbaijan’s mounting frustration over the lack of progress in the Karabakh peace process.  Since open hostilities were halted in 1994, the unresolved Nagorno Karabakh conflict has been the focus of an international mediation effort aimed at forging a negotiation resolution capable of solving the inherent contradiction between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity.  What makes this current situation much more serious than earlier rounds of increased spending and rhetoric is the fact that for the first time, there is now a direct correlation between stronger threats and greater capability for offensive military action.

But armed confrontation was replaced by an inherently fragile and self-enforcing ceasefire, suggesting that the war itself did not effectively end.  In this way, Azerbaijan has repeatedly stressed that although the battle for Karabakh may have ended in 1994, the actual war was not over.  At the very least, such a position necessitates a new attempt to strengthen and deepen the existing ceasefire agreement by expanding the mission and mandate for OSCE observers.  Given the recent escalation of tension and sporadic clashes, the vulnerability of the current ceasefire regime should be an immediate imperative for the international community.

Hopefully, there is a growing recognition of this imperative.  Recently, for example, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has also added a call for greater concern over the volatile situation, noting that “an arms race, escalating front-line clashes, vitriolic war rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks are increasing the chance” of war over Karabakh.[ii] In that report, the ICG also sought to draw greater attention, and more focused concern, among European Union officials and policymakers.

The ICG report also noted that Armenia was also contributing to rising tension, at times, matching the militant rhetoric emanating from Baku with its own threats and strong language.  Armenia has also been spurred to do its part in the regional arms race, increasing its defense spending in an attempt to at least respond to the more serious spending surge in Azerbaijan.  Additionally, Russia has also reportedly increased its weapons deliveries to Armenia, which is the only member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the region.

Against this backdrop of a renewed threat of war, a stalemate in diplomatic mediation and a fragile ceasefire, there are some measures available to ease tension and “refreeze” the situation.  The first step would be for the European Union to become more directly engaged, not as a replacement or rival for the OSCE, but to only strengthen and support both the mediation effort and the ceasefire observer mission. Such a greater EU role is not only feasible, it is also desirable.

In September 2010, the Brussels-based European Friends of Armenia (EuFoA) released a survey of opinions among Members of the European Parliament regarding Europe’s option in Nagorno-Karabakh.  That survey, prepared by Sargis Ghazaryan, found that “the most relevant finding” was that “sending a permanent non-military EU observer mission to the region and upgrading the EU’s commitment to a peaceful settlement in the region by contributing to democratic capability building are the best ways of avoiding military escalations in Nagorno-Karabakh.”[iii]

Second, an effort of “back to basics” is also needed, designed to address the underlying lack of trust among the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  These measures would include a strategy to create a new environment more conducive to fostering a more active round of negotiations among all parties to the conflict, including representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh.  Such a measure would be buttressed by policies to build confidence and trust, on a basis of “bridging divides” and “spanning generational divisions.”

More specifically, such an initiative would offer a new approach of forging a forward-looking strategy that would go beyond vested interest groups by engaging new stakeholders, including a younger emerging elite consisting of teachers, civic activists and even military officers perhaps; commercial and business leaders, especially those interested in opportunities beyond closed borders; and student groups and faculties, “bloggers” and Internet-based social media users.

Another aspect of this strategy would center on the concept that “all politics are local,” in effect building on shared threats and common resources.  More specifically, one of the more promising areas for pursuing new contacts and even cooperation between all sides to the conflict has been the most neglected.  Specifically, the local level on all sides, including local village and municipal officials, school teachers and administrators and small local civic groups and non-government organizations, offers substantial opportunity for reaching beyond the confines of closed politics.  For example, environmental and economic issues are predominantly local in nature and provide residents in border areas with a chance to explore shared interests with their counterparts across the border, albeit through a neutral third party at the outset.

An interesting approach would be based on a focus on shared threats, such as earthquakes and natural disasters, and shared resources, such as rivers, streams and watershed management.  This approach was illustrated by the “wild fire” issue, for example, which arose in August 2006, when the OSCE responded to a series of brush fires that broke out in and near Nagorno-Karabakh. The largest areas affected were reportedly concentrated in uninhabited areas, which limited the damage and prevented the need to relocate inhabitants, but the fires spread into Azerbaijan.

The “wild fire” issue offers a significant precedent for several reasons. First, the brush fires revealed the shared nature of environmental threats, and confirmed the need for cooperation. Such shared environmental threats, including soil degradation, and air and water pollution, recognize neither borders nor military conflict zones and demonstrate that environmental coordination is in each country’s national interest.  Finding solutions to these environmental problems also offers benefits to all sides and, in this case, also contributed to confidence-building by paving the way for eventual exchanges and cooperation among environmentalists, scientists and experts, and civil society groups.  Moreover, such efforts may also encourage attempts at “track-two” diplomacy and “people-to-people” exchanges that may even be supplemented by ongoing efforts between Turkish and Armenian groups.

Thus, there is an obvious need for a new focus on Nagorno-Karabakh, to ease tension, prevent war and reinvigorate a seemingly stalled peace process.  This requires a new, “back to basics” strategy, capable of ensuring that Nagorno-Karabakh does not move from being the region’s sole frozen conflict to its most serious “hot” war.

[i] Paul, Amanda, “Nagorno-Karabakh: more dangerous than ever,” Today’s Zaman, 23 January 2011.

[ii] International Crisis Group Europe Briefing No. 60, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War, 8 February 2011.

[iii] Ghazaryan, Sargis, “Europe’s options in Nagorno-Karabakh. An Analysis of views of the European Parliament,” European Friends of Armenia (EuFoA), September 2010, P. 4.

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