Vulnerable Status Quo in South Caucasus

By Vahan Dilanyan , Euro-Atlantic Quarterly , August 2010

The Caucasus region has not yet recovered from the consequences of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. Nagorno-Karabagh, farther south, is another breeding ground for an armed confrontation between Armenians and Azeris. In fact, the 16-year conflict regarding Karabagh is the most significant obstacle to security in the Caucasus.

By Vahan Dilanyan , Euro-Atlantic Quarterly , August 2010

The Caucasus region has not yet recovered from the consequences of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. Nagorno-Karabagh, farther south, is another breeding ground for an armed confrontation between Armenians and Azeris. In fact, the 16-year conflict regarding Karabagh is the most significant obstacle to security in the Caucasus.

The Obama administration saw the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, and the opening of their borders, as a critical step in establishing trust in the region, which would affect Armenian-Azeri relations. However, as US National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair stated, “Turkey-Armenia rapprochement has affected the delicate relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and increases the risk of a renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh”.
 
The ceasefire signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabagh in 1994 has been frequently broken. Most recently, an Azeri reconnaissance group trespassed into Nagorno-Karabagh the night of June 18-19, in the northern part of the line of contact between Nagorno-Karabagh and Azerbaijan. As a result of the firefight, four Armenian troops were killed and another four woudned, while the Azeris had a single casualty, and left behind significant amount of ammunition. This was the fourth serious incident in the contact line between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabagh since March 2008.
 
Thanks to oil exports, Azerbaijan has upgraded its armed forces and increased military expenditures from $300 million in 2005 to about $2billion in 2009. The current military budget of Azerbaijan is more than the total state budget of Armenia. If the military balance between the warring sides is broken, the possibility of war becomes more likely.
 
Because the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan gas pipeline is important to the western nations, they have not condemned Azeri military policy. It should be noted that the Martakert region of Nagorno-Karabagh is slightly more 50 km from the pipeline, and in the case of confrontation, the pipeline could become vulnerable.
 
One could question the idea of excluding a military initiative in light of existing realities (oil and gas security being vital to Azerbaijan, Turkey and EU; the aforementioned rise in Azeri military budget), but it’s not a sufficient” factor to discount hostilities, if one takes into consideration the unpredictability of Azerbaijan.
 
After agreeing to the principle of the renunciation of the use of force (Meindorf Declaration in Nov. 2008 and the Helsinki Agreement in Dec. 2008), Azerbaijan continued to broach the ceasefire line with Nagorno-Karabagh. One such incident occurred during the tour of the OSCE mission monitoring the conflict zone in Feb. 2009.
 
The Azeri attack on Nagorno- Karabagh, in June 18, took place a few hours after Karabakh peace talks between Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in St. Petersburg.
 
Bellicose Azeri statements against Karabakh have been active recently, thus ruling out an appropriate response by the Azeri people to conflict resolution.
 
In June 25, 2010 Defense Minister Safar Abiyev announced “the military option has never been ruled out” in the Karabakhi case. In one of his recent statements, Abiyev also said, Azerbaijani “armed forces are capable to terminate targets throughout Armenia as a result of the installation of new armament systems”.
 
Experience has shown that the war rhetoric could get out of hand if precautionary measures are not taken.
 
Armenia is the main threat facing Azerbaijan, according to the latter’s June 8, 2010 military doctrine. The Milli Mejlis MP Zahid Oruj described the doctrine as “liberating the occupied Azerbaijani territories”.
 
The situation is becoming more tense because of the absence of a peace agreement.
 
Early in March of this year the Armenian president “appealed to Azerbaijan to sign an agreement and not to use force”, which could “instill trust in the Armenian people of Karabakh and Armenia”. Baku welcomed this call, but included the proviso of withdrawal of "Armenian troops from the Azerbaijani occupied territories”.
 
The parties publicly agreed the peaceful solution of the conflict under the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs mediation, but none has displayed the needed political will to settle the conflict.
 
The “Madrid principles” offered to the antagonists by mediator states (US, France, Russia) in Nov. 2007 as basic principles for the negotiations are not in the interest of either side. Thus the instability between them. The document seems to be a “model of inconsistency” as it repeats the principle of a nation’s self-determination on one hand while giving a nod to the Azeri proposal for Nagorno-Karabagh autonomy on the other.
 
Last year’s updated “Madrid principles” had no impact on public opinion in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Karabagh.
 
The joint statement issued by the presidents of the United States, France and Russia on the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict on June 26, during the G8 Summit in Canada, underlined the urgency of completing the work on the offered basic principles.
 
However, in the absence of public will for concessions, even compromises through political will would increase the possibility of an armed confrontation.

Vahan Dilanyan teaches International Relations at European Regional Educational Academy in Yerevan, and since 2006 has chaired the Political Developments Research Center NGO, Yerevan.

He is a contributor to Euro-Atlantic Quarterly in Slovakia.

 
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