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Tensions between the two nations have escalated dangerously

Originally published on Global Voices

Peace keeping forces in Nagorno Karabakh. Screenshot taken from Al Jazeera report, “How fragile is the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan? | Inside Story.”

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement.

Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have recently escalated to their highest point since the signing of the Russia-brokered peace agreement that ended the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War on November 10, 2020.

Dozens of clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces near the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact have left at least six soldiers dead since May. Tensions have also risen on the diplomatic side, with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev regularly referring to territory inside the Republic of Armenia with Azerbaijani names and vowing to reacquire them.

Armenia, meanwhile, has bristled at Aliyev’s comments and has begun purchasing new weapons from Russia — as symbolized on August 11 when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gifted Armenian Defense Minister Arshak Karapetyan a dagger.

While Azerbaijan’s independent experts have shared various perspectives on the causes of the ongoing ceasefire violations — there appears to be a consensus that the recent tensions are dangerous.

Russia and Armenia

Arzu Abdullayeva, who heads the Azerbaijan Office of Helsinki Citizens Assembly, told OC Media that Russia is likely behind the recent escalations.

All the clashes that have taken place in recent days are in fact Russian provocations, because Russia’s interests are always at the forefront, as always.

Having said that, Abdullayeva does not think renewed military actions are likely.

According to Abdullayeva, Azerbaijan’s main post-war interest remains “opening of the corridor mentioned in the tripartite peace agreement.” The Zangezur corridor is of key geopolitical importance, said Abdullayeva, as it will provide Turkey with direct access to central Asia via Azerbaijan.

Abdullayeva added that to maintain the peace, Azerbaijan must tone down its heated language, as it cannot “achieve any results with harsh rhetoric” and should “offer real diplomatic rhetoric and solutions.”

Ahmad Alili, the director of the Caucasus Center for Political Analysis, a Baku-based independent think tank, told OC Media that he thinks that the priority for Baku is the delimitation and demarcation of borders. In particular, he said, Baku has an interest in seven Azerbaijani exclave villages under Armenian control.

Control over this territory, located in northeastern Armenia and which overlaps with the main thoroughfare connecting Armenia to Georgia, would allow for “the safer operation of gas and oil pipelines from Azerbaijan to Georgia.” Additionally, it would allow Baku to “control all communication lines from Yerevan to Tbilisi.”

But Armenia is unlikely to sign any document that demarcates and delimits borders, Alili told OC Media. If such a document were signed, “it will be a recognition of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, that is, Nagorno-Karabakh will be accepted as an integral part of Azerbaijan.”

As a result, Alili argued, Armenia is “trying to postpone” negotiations or document signing.

“Decent and dignified”

Speaking to OC Media in a private capacity, Eldar Mammadov, a foreign policy advisor for the Socialists and Democrats Group at the European Parliament, said “Although Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev declared [the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict]  is solved, the facts on the ground contradict these statements.” He added:

You can declare that this question is closed and that there is no such a thing as “Nagorno-Karabakh”, but only “Karabakh”. But this assessment neither reflects the realities nor is it shared by major powers like the U.S., Russia, France and the European Union (EU).

Mammadov also pointed out that part of Nagorno-Karabakh is presently under the protection of Russian peacekeepers and that Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the territory has not been fully re-established.

These forces are there because the rhetoric and actions of the government in Baku do not reassure the local Armenians about their future as part of Azerbaijan.

Baku “can try to impose its will by force,” said Mammadov but that would “pit it against the West and Russia.” Azerbaijan would also need to be prepared to “ethnically cleanse the whole Armenian population” from the territory — a move with a very “high cost” to Azerbaijan’s international reputation.

The best Azerbaijan can do, Mammadov argued, “is to offer a decent and dignified deal to the Karabakh Armenians to convince them that they have a future in Azerbaijan.”

A “mutually acceptable solution”

As for “unblocking the trade and transport communications in the region” as spelled out in the tripartite peace declaration, Mammadov agreed that Baku has a particular focus on what he said Azerbaijan calls, the “Zangezur corridor.”

But the stress on the “corridor” Mammadov said, is misleading.

The trilateral statement made on November 9, 2020 says nothing specific about this “corridor”. [The statement mentions] Only the general principle of establishing direct communication between the western regions of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan.

Establishing such a direct line of communication, according to Mammadov could “in principle, foster economic interdependence and shared prosperity in the region” but this possibility is “consistently undermined by Baku’s talk of Zangezur as a ‘historical Azerbaijani land’ as it fuels fears on the Armenian side” that establishing this link would be a cover for the annexation of southern Armenia.

Any viable long-term solution requires a buy-in from all parties concerned, including Armenia. Azerbaijan should not repeat the miscalculation made by Armenia in the early 1990’s that it could keep its military gains forever, without finding a mutually acceptable solution.

Who benefits?

According to Mammadov, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev is the “main beneficiary” of the ongoing tensions as they are allowing him to leverage some “key provisions” of the trilateral agreement “such as the re-opening of the trade and transport communications” that have not yet been implemented.

It is designed to put pressure on Armenia to deliver on the opening of the “Zangezur corridor”, and also on Russia as the sponsor of the trilateral statement. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the latest round of tensions on the Armenian–Azerbaijani border occurred just before Aliyev’s visit to Moscow.

Additionally, the tension allows Aliyev to keep Azerbaijani society mobilized around the conflict and divert attention from rising social and economic problems.

But Aliyev likely is not the only beneficiary of the escalations.  They might also benefit Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who is using the conflict to “portray Azerbaijan as the ‘unreasonable party’ and try to build international support around this assertion,” Mammadov explained.

“This explains Pashinyan’s latest maneuvering in securing the support of the West — the U.S. and the EU, mainly through the French,” said Mammadov.

The danger is that now “in the absence of a meaningful political track” there is the possibility the conflict will escalate “unless international players impose a political process.”

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