Time to Shine a Light on a Hidden Conflict: Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011


Inertia can be a powerful force. The ceasefire that halted fighting in the Nagorny Karabakh war in 1994 is now more than 16 years old and many people have come to assume that it is a kind of permanent fixture. A few dozen young soldiers die each year on the Line of Contact that divides Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, but the Karabakh conflict makes no impression on most of the world and is barely covered in the media or even foreign policy commentaries. In a recent quick survey by the respected Foreign Affairs website on potential conflicts to worry about in 2011 (“Next Year’s Wars”) I looked in vain for a mention of Karabakh. It has become an almost invisible conflict, hidden away in the shadows of international affairs.

In this situation, those of us who argue that it is important to redouble efforts to resolve the conflict—or at least make steps towards detoxifying it—face a difficult task building an argument. We must demonstrate that a rather distant theoretical peace is preferable to the status quo and that the current situation, although seemingly stable, is inherently dangerous. Seeking to get others to pay attention, we must be serious without being alarmist and try to talk about the benefits of peace without sounding too utopian.

Where do we get our evidence from as we make the case for greater urgency in dealing with the dispute? The suffering the ongoing non-resolution of the Karabakh conflict causes is mostly out of sight. Naturally—and thankfully—many of those who suffered very badly from the conflict in the 1990s have adapted to the new post-conflict realities. That is true of a large number of Azerbaijan’s displaced people, who are sharing the lot of other long-term refugees round the world. They lost homes and livelihoods in the conflict and suffered trauma and loss. Many of them still live on the margins of society. In common with, for example, Palestinians and Greek Cypriots, they still lack the basic right of not being able to return to their homes and see no prospect of that changing any time soon. Yet, thankfully, the last “tent camps” in Azerbaijan have been dismantled and most of the displaced people now have adequate living accommodation. Many have emigrated to Russia or Turkey to find work. Many now live no worse than other residents of the region. For understandable reasons, these people have become more invisible.

For the other group who suffered most in the conflict, the Armenians of Karabakh, life is not so easy but having visited Nagorny Karabakh in 2010 I can report that Stepanakert now generally looks no different to any other medium-sized provincial town in the Caucasus. The Karabakh Armenians generally respond to any skeptical outsider who tells them, “Your life is hard” by saying, “It is a lot better than it was 15 years ago,” to which they add, “And that is no thanks to you, the international community, who have entirely ignored and rejected us.” The other side of their message comes with the war memorials and ceremonies and military exercises that are part of daily life in Nagorny Karabakh and which are designed to transmit the message “No return to the past, no compromise.”

You could say then that the constituencies who will benefit from peace in Karabakh hardly even know it themselves: they have grown accustomed to the post-ceasefire status quo, despite all its inadequacies, and are not prepared for what a peace agreement will bring, even if it carries many positives. Therefore, as most locals seem reluctant to do so, is mainly up to outsiders to paint a positive vision of the better future of Armenia and Azerbaijan will enjoy when the conflict is resolved. But at the same time we have another more specific task, which is to warn about the dangers of things getting a lot worse.

As we know from other conflicts in this region, an illusion of stability can shatter very quickly. Nagorny Karabakh is often called a “frozen conflict.” This has always been a misleading concept given the precarious nature of the 110-mile-long Line of Contact dividing the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies. Many young men have died in shooting incidents across the line since 1994 and in 2010 nothing could be called “frozen” about the situation. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev gave several belligerent speeches about the conflict, saying he wanted peace but Azerbaijan was getting ready for war. In November Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian, wearing camouflage fatigues, gave a speech to soldiers near the ruins of the Armenian-held Azerbaijani town of Aghdam, telling them that he wanted peace but that they should be ready for war. He said, “I have no doubt that if the time comes, we will not only do again what we did in 1992-94, but will go even further and solve the issue once and for all; the issue will be closed for good.”

2010 was a very bad year for the Karabakh dispute. A former U.S. official involved in the Minsk Group described to me the understanding that persisted between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents for most of the past decade as a “non-aggression pact.” In other words the leaders continued peace talks without great hope of a breakthrough but with the confidence that neither side would surprise the other with unexpected moves. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement which became public in 2008 changed that. Overall it was a positive development because it shook up the dynamics of the conflict, but it also unsettled Azerbaijan—and in my view the major flaw in the process was that no one properly made the case to Baku that the rapprochement was also in the interests of Azerbaijan. When the Ankara-Yerevan normalization process began to unravel in early 2010, it had a very negative impact on the Karabakh peace process. President Sarkisian, having used up much of his political capital with Turkey, had much less to bring to the Karabakh negotiating table. The Azerbaijanis were frustrated at what they saw as Armenian “stonewalling.”

The situation on the Line of Contact is a kind of daily barometer of the situation on the peace process as a whole. 2009 was a good year for the ceasefire, 2010 became a very bad one. The incident on June 18-19 when several Armenian soldiers died in what appeared to be an Azerbaijani incursion across the line was the worst for several years. A hot bloody summer followed. Armenians regarded it as unjustified Azerbaijani belligerence. The Azerbaijanis regarded it as a natural consequence of the deadlock: in other words (although they did not say so openly), they thought that increased military activity on the ceasefire line was their only leverage when the Armenians were refusing to engage at the negotiating table.

The meeting chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev in October in Astrakhan cooled passions somewhat. Dead bodies were exchanged, the temperature went down on the Line of Contact (although the approach of winter may also have been a factor). But Medvedev’s failure to make any progress on political substance also highlighted a disturbing new concern. For years many Western and Caucasian commentators had worried that Russia was too powerful in the Karabakh dispute and was seeking to dictate the terms of a settlement there. Yet in 2010 the president of Russia invested an enormous amount of time and effort in trying to bridge the gap between the two sides in three meetings, in Sochi, St Petersburg and Astrakhan—and achieved almost nothing. This means that in 2011 perhaps we should be more worried about Russia’s inability to exert leverage on the two sides in the Karabakh conflict.

The OSCE summit in Astana reinforced the climate of mistrust and bad feeling between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. President Aliev made a speech listing Azerbaijan’s grievances, all but blaming Sarkisian by name for the current situation. Sarkisian suggested that Yerevan might move to recognize the independence of Nagorny Karabakh (something opposition parties have been calling for).

Unfortunately therefore all the elements are in place for a very difficult 2011: a tired peace process, an atmosphere of mistrust between the parties, a fragile ceasefire, lack of leverage on the part of the mediators. We can only hope that as the winter snows thaw on the Line of Contact there will not be a new upsurge of violence there. My worry is not so much about a full-scale war, which is thankfully a remote possibility as the Azerbaijani military, although much better funded than in the past, is still relatively weak and poorly trained for combat. My worry is that a miscalculation on the Line of Contact could wreck the peace process. A bad incident on the ceasefire line could cause a localized conflict with heavy casualties. Even if this kind of incident was contained, it could cause tragic loss of life. And it could have dire political consequences. A bad bout of bloodshed, could persuade Yerevan to recognize the independence of Nagorny Karabakh or Baku to walk away from the Minsk process.

I fear that it may take a bad incident on the ground to force the international community to pay more attention to the Karabakh conflict. If that happens, the outside powers will be forced to expend heavy resources merely to pull the situation away from the brink and back to the uneasy no-war-no-peace situation we have now. It would be far better surely for the mediators to spend extra resources now on preventative diplomacy and on shining a spotlight on this dangerously hidden conflict.

Leave a Comment

What are your thoughts on the subject?


Phil Gamaghelyan

10 Feb 2011

Thank you, Bjoern, for a very thoughtful comment. I personally find your idea of increasing crisis management skills and development of strategies for turning crisis into opportunity is quite brilliant. All the peace-building initiatives I can think of are now operating on an assumption that we are in post-conflict phase, I would say. Anything specific you have in mind?


10 Feb 2011

On second thought, I guess we should also prepare for the worst moment and develop ideas, programs and networks to use any crisis for a new launch of peace-negotiations. If Thomas de Waals analysis is right (and I think it is) and we have only limited power to prevent it, then we are obliged to prepare for crisis. Its just an idea, but why not organize a series of round tables and conferences to develop ideas and plans for the outbreak of larger hostilities, why not offer trainings to local peace actors how to approach hateful crowds or how to organize underground peace-media, how to keep contact to peace groups in the neighbouring country, how to support each other, how to verify rumours on atrocities, how to help conscientious objectors and draft dodgers etc. We all would be in a much better position, when the crisis started, and maybe, maybe our preparations would even be loud enough to prevent it ... PS.: I am no expert on the Caucasus, but we gathered a fair amount of experience in the support of peace groups during the Yugoslav wars. Maybe you will find this an inspiring reading: www.ifgk.de/download/CSchweitzer_ThesisYU-final.pdf


10 Feb 2011

I also would hope that the international community would play a greater role to "pressure" for substantial peace negotiations. But I wonder what leverage they have. Taken the realities on the ground I am not surprised about Russias (and other international mediators) failure to achieve any kind of progress. And even if they had the leverage I had enourmous doubt that they would be willing to invest even 5% of the efforts nowadays spend on Afghanistan on Nagorny Karabakh. This is just not the world we are living in and I think we should base our strategies on the assumptions that the international preventive support to the peace process will stay the same at its best... (Playing an important role to keep the status quo and to discourage armed adventures.) The key to real progress though stays with the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan. As long as there is no interest in peace, there will be no peace (period). And I am afraid we, local and international friends of peace in NK, can't do much more either, but trying to stabilize the status quo and at the same time working to increase the longing for peace in Azerbaijan and Armenia...


3 Feb 2011

Arguing about whose land Karabagh really is or isn't (which is what the positions on both sides really comes down to) is like debating whose the Kochari is, or which culture can claim possession over Sayat Nova's songs - pointless and in vain. I agree with Mr. de Waal that these comments are disappointing because they don't even try to step out of the belligerent mindset that cripples both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I visited Karabagh two summer ago and it disturbed me to see the hatred that is being imbued in the young generation of Karabakhi Armenians (as well as young Azerbaijanis). In order for peace to happen, there need to be real concessions made on both sides, and the international community needs to be wiling to substantively enforce the provisions of a peace plan (e.g. If Armenia frees the occupied lands, Azerbaijan must not attack). I also think the pressure to negotiate a fair peace plan needs to be initiated by the international community because I doubt whether either side is sincerely interested in compromise.

Tom de Waal

3 Feb 2011

These are disappointing comments. They fail to engage with my argument and just repeat the Armenian position on the conflict. Believe me, we have heard Mark’s list before! I could write the Azerbaijani response to Mark myself–and it would also be partially valid and unhelpful. If the endless repetition of positions were to achieve an effect, it would have done so by now. Armenians tell internationals, “Please tell Baku that they lost the war and Karabakh is ours now.” And Azerbaijanis tell internationals, “Please remind Yerevan that Armenia is an international aggressor and Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan.” Strangely enough, neither of these requests have any effect, because the mediators are dealing with a conflict with two sides. Steve, do I need to repeat that I am highly critical of Azerbaijan’s unstrategic and counter-productive position? It is playing with fire. But Armenians need to look at themselves too. Both sides in the conflict should take more responsibility and ask themselves what they can do to achieve peace. Otherwise they risk either a new war or an internationally imposed peace. On refugees: I have written in the past a great deal about Armenian refugees. Most of the Armenian refugees date from 1988-90, when there were also about 200,000 Azerbaijani refugees who fled Armenia. It is to the credit of the Armenian side that those who came to Armenia then have been fully assimilated. Why when I talk about refugees, do I concentrate on Azerbaijani ones? Because 95 per cent of those from the 1991-4 war are Azerbaijani. But this is not an article about refugees: the point I was actually making in this article was they are not a powerful constituency and are also assimilating into society. I welcome some responses to the article!


2 Feb 2011

Thomas de Waal writes, "Many [Azerbaijani refugees] still live on the margins of society. In common with, for example, Palestinians and Greek Cypriots, they still lack the basic right of not being able to return to their homes and see no prospect of that changing any time soon." How about writing "in common with Armenian refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom fled Azerbaijan?" De Waal's blind spot for Armenian refugees, while focusing an entire paragraph on Azerbaijani refugees is truly perplexing. It should give pause to all, who read his articles with the impression that it will be impartial. The sooner third parties, who want to plunder Azerbaijan's oil, stop coddling Azerbaijan by giving them false hope that they could ever occupy and forcibly rule over the indigenous people of Karabakh, who want to have nothing to do with an Azerbaijan that attempted to murder and cleanse them from the lands, the sooner their will be stability in the region. Armenia won the war and is willing to trade land for peace. Azerbaijan is willing to cede nothing and wants to force Armenians to revert back to Karabakh's status under the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan's position is completely unrealistic and the sooner third parties guide Azerbaijan to realize it, the better the region will be.


1 Feb 2011

Any permanent peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan should consider these facts. 1. Until Stalin unilaterally handed over Nagorno Karapagh to Azerbaijan, the territory had been 85% Armenian, and had been so for centuries. 2. Although Nagorno Karapagh was "autonomous," Baku used every means to empty Nagorno Karapagh of Armenians as it it did in the other Azeri-occupied Armenian territory--Nakhichevan. It failed in Nagorno Karapagh but succeeded in Nakhichevan, where there isn't a single Armenian left. In fact, not finding Armenian to drive out or to slay, last year Azeris of Nakhichevan rampaged through Armenian cemetery khachkars, the Armenian crosses made of stone. They shattered into smithereens thousands of historic/artistic/religious khachkars, dating from the 13th century on. The video tape of their barbarity is available on Google. 3. After seven decades of oppression, persecution, Armenians of Nagorno Karapagh demanded equal rights. Baku's response was pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait and elsewhere, and attacks on Nagorno Karapagh Armenian civilians--both by the Azeri army and civilians. 4. Since they lost the war, Azeri leaders have endlessly threatened Nagorno Karapagh and Armenia. 5. Baku has never admitted its crimes or demonstrated that it was ready for a compromise. 6. Baku has not said or done anything which would inspire, among Armenians, a sense of confidence that there could be peace. Just the opposite, just as their cousins in Turkey have slain millions of Armenians over the centuries and deported or Turkified countless others, Azeris are sharpening their swords, claiming that Yerevan belonged to Azerbaijan! 7. I am surprised that the usually well-informed and impartial author of the article failed to mention Armenian refugees who fled Azerbaijan following the massacres, and still live in dire circumstances in impoverished Armenia.