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.