EUROPEINTL CONFLICTSOPINION

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: walking a tightrope

By Dr. Esmira Jafarova

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has dragged on for about three decades. The very recent escalation along the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the direction of Tovuz district once again became a terrifying proof to the fragility of the situation. The ceasefire that is in place since 1994 is very tenuous and the notion of “peace” is often manipulated by the leadership of Armenia to solidify occupation, and maintain the dangerous status-quo. “Peace” without justice will always be akin to walking a tightrope of the next violent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbajan has been lasting for three decades without a progress on the part of the mediators to achieve a fair and durable conflict resolution. The active military hostilities that happened in 1988-1994 resulted in the occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region as well as seven adjacent regions of Azerbaijan by Armenia. The negotiation process between the two countries has continued since the establishment of the OSCE Minsk Group in 1992, that is co-chaired by the United States, France and Russia. However, the solution to the conflict has so far remained elusive and the frequent violations of the ceasefire has become habitual.

Although in 2019 relatively less ceasefire violations happened along the Line of Contact between the Armed Forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the year also did not see any progress in the peace negotiations. Furthermore, the new leadership of Armenia led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan repeatedly demonstrated hostile rhetoric firstly, through infamous declaration during the pan-Armenian games held in Khankendi on August 5, 2019, when he said that “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia, and that is all”. Later, through holding the so-called “presidential and parliamentary elections” in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region and organizing an “inauguration ceremony” of the puppet regime in Shusha – the city of immense cultural significance for Azerbaijan – Pashinyan regime dealt another blow to the peace process. It was clear that these moves added up to the hostile build-up. The Tovuz provocation on 12-14 July was therefore the logical conclusion of the downward trend in the peace process and the accompanying belligerence by Armenia.

On 12-14 July, 2020 border clashes between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan made headlines again. Armenia embarked on a military assault, this time not along the Line of Contact between Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, but on Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the direction of Tovuz district of Azerbaijan. As a result of military hostilities, the worst since the four-day war in 2016, Azerbaijan lost more than 10 servicemen, including one general and a 76-year-old civilian. While Armenia reported that four soldiers were dead and 36 wounded,Azerbaijani sides reported about killing more than 100 Armenian personnel, and destroying military equipment of Armenia. International actors, including the European Union, OSCE Minsk GroupUnited NationsUnited States, and the Russian Federation called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. As of today, although the situation is more or less stable, Azerbaijan expects provocationsby Armenia at any time along the border.

There are several motives that support the idea that Armenia has effectively embarked on such a provocation on the front. One of them is related to the efforts of incumbent Armenian leadership to distract the public’s attention from its failures internally and externally. Armenia’s economic problems are looming large, particularly now with COVID-19 sweeping across the country and resulting in the highest per capita daily infections among the three countries of the South Caucasus region. Azerbaijan’s economic development, increasing international stance and continuous success of its foreign policy have generated discussions that it might qualify to be named as a middle power on a global scale. Azerbaijan’s increasing success threatens Armenia and its regional ambitions.

Another motive behind Armenia’s provocation in Tovuz is related to its attempt to invoke Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) against Azerbaijan. Armenia is the only CSTO member in the South Caucasus. The very article 4 of the CSTO Charter states: “if one of the States Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, then this will be considered as aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty”, which potentially duty bounds CSTO members to protect Armenia in case the latter is attacked. Against Armenia’s expectations CSTO, however, merely confined itself to issuing a declaration calling the parties to “immediate ceasefire”.

Last, but not the least, Armenia aimed at targeting critical energy and transport infrastructure, including the Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan, Baku-Supsa oil, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines, the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad that are implemented by Azerbaijan and its international partners and pass through the famous “Ganja Gap”, thereby also jeopardizing the energy security of the greater European continent.

But the two countries have not always warred with each-other. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have lived side-by-side in the Caucasus for many decades, have a shared history, and many similarities in anthropological and cultural domains. Intercultural interaction, marriages were normal state of things between Armenian and Azerbaijan population in the region. After the arrival of Tsarist Russia into this soil in the 18th century and in line with its “divide and rule” policy, the Tsarist regime employed population transfers as a tool to increase the number of Christians in the region, thus changing the demographic balance and creating potential hotspots for ethnic conflict. This entailed transfer of Armenians from neighboring countries (Turkey, Iran, etc.) to Azerbaijani territories, including in the territories that today constitute the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan both became independent in 1918 – 1920 before being annexed this time by Soviet Bolsheviks and became fellow Soviet Socialist republics until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The two nations enjoyed mostly peaceful and cooperative relations during their common history in the Soviet Union. However, when the latter was on the brink of collapse at the end of the 80s, the emerging modern Armenian statehood was unfortunately influenced by Armenian nationalist and radical ideology, who through employing violence as a method to achieve their ultimate goals also prioritized acquisition of new territories at the expense of its neighbor – Azerbaijan – through utilization of the ethnic card created by the Tsarist Russia. Unfortunately, politicization and instrumentalization by Armenian nationalists of the artificially created ethnic issue between Armenians and Azerbaijanis during the Tsarist Russia resulted in the so-far unresolved conflict between modern Armenia and Azerbaijan.

However, Armenia can still turn the tide of violent nationalism and opt for more cooperative and peaceful existence with their immediate neighbor Azerbaijan. To achieve this, it needs to de-occupy the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan, i.e. the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts in compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions (822, 953, 874, 884) and other relevant international norms, principles and documents, thus allowing the return of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Azerbaijani to their places of origin. Peace should start with bringing justice to those who have been stripped of their basic rights to live in their motherlands. Paying lip service to peace as is often done by Armenia’s leadership, will bring neither peace, nor justice. Ultimately, “peace” without justice will always be akin to walking a tightrope of the next violent conflict.

Dr. Esmira Jafarova is a Board Member of the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center), Baku, Azerbaijan.

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