Just as the Armenian and Azerbaijani heads of state and ministers of foreign affairs were heading to New York late last week to attend the UN General Assembly and hold bilateral peace negotiations, violent attacks erupted at the border between the two countries, killing three Armenian civilians, one Azerbaijani civilian and more than 10 soldiers on both sides.
Border clashes have been a regular occurrence since the two countries signed a ceasefire in May 1994, ending a six-year conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But the current flare-up could indicate that Azerbaijan now feels confident enough to pursue a tougher line, after mending bridges with Russia, according to regional experts. This new outbreak of fighting raises the risk of a descent into full-scale war by accident and makes it even more difficult to reach a permanent peace deal.
Normally fighting breaks out in August, according to Richard Giragosian, director at Yerevan’s Regional Studies Centre, because that is when "discipline tends to break down, and we see a marked increase in sniper fire". Beside, clear skies and good visibility in the hot summer month make military operations easier. Such was the case in 2013 and 2014, but August 2015 was a relatively peaceful month. The escalation in September "does not come as that much of a surprise", Giragosian says. "Every year we have seen a steady increase in clashes and military attacks."
The timing of this year's escalation was more driven by the diplomatic calendar, and not by military logic, Giragosian believes, as "it is an attempt on the Azerbaijani side to garner greater negotiating power before the meetings in New York and before a presidential summit scheduled to take place in the coming months”.
Two conflicting tales
The current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out in 1987, after the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast, which was part of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan but was populated by an Armenian majority, voted to join Armenia. The Azerbaijani minority boycotted the vote, as well as a subsequent referendum on the creation of an independent state. Violent fighting ensued, leaving 30,000 casualties and up to one million displaced persons.
Supported by Moscow, Armenia defeated Azerbaijan and occupied not just Nagorno-Karabakh, but seven surrounding regions, thus effectively isolating Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan region from the rest of the country.
Since 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh has been functioning as an independent republic with strong support from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, although it remains a de jure part of Azerbaijan, with three UN Security Council resolutions (853, 874, and 884) and two General Assembly resolutions (49/13 and 57/298) placing it within Azerbaijan's internationally-recognised borders.
Azerbaijan Baku has been left with an 800,000-strong population of internally displaced persons that has been living in government-built compounds for two decades and are given state pensions.
Armenian media was the first to report casualties at the border with Azerbaijan last week- three civilians were killed on September 24, according to Arka news agency. The account was disputed by Baku, which confirmed on September 28 that three of its soldiers had died in clashes, after inflicting seven casualties among the Armenian military; it also reported an Azerbaijani civilian casualty.
While such incidents do not necessarily increase the risk of outright war, they raise the risk of a war by accident, "based on miscalculation and overreaction on both sides", Giragosian says. The violence also disrupts the peace negotiations that are overseen by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)'s Minsk Group, by derailing discussions from their main aim of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict, and forcing them to deal with more urgent, minor attacks.
Azerbaijan is the aggressor and Armenia adopted a "defensive stance" on this occasion, Giragosian believes. A Baku-based security expert told bne Intellinews that he agrees with this account. "Lately, Baku has turned to Russia because of the criticism over human rights it has been receiving from Europe. It seems that our government has reached a level of cosiness with Russia" which has allowed it to become "more aggressive on the frontline", he says.
Both Giragosian and the Azerbaijani security expert share the view that the changing balance of power in the region – notably Russia's involvement in Ukraine and Syria – is an opportunity for Baku to up its pressure on Armenia to achieve its goals of unconditionally recovering Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions, areas that are now populated by Armenians. Contained violent attacks is how Azerbaijan communicates its frustration with the diplomatic stalemate, despite the fact that it has not been willing to adjust its peace terms in over two decades.
No solution in sight
While the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a thorn in Baku's side for over 20 years, recovering it would grant "natural legitimacy" to Ilham Aliyev's administration, to the point where political scheming would no longer be necessary.
"Both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani governments have had problems maintaining domestic stability", the Azerbaijani security experts notes, saying that he could only envision a war between the two sides when "either one of them was in the desperate position of losing its grip on power".
Retiring from politics would not an option for the two administrations, the expert continued, because they would likely face prosecution and jail terms, and in that situation they might resort to a full-fledged war. At the moment that scenario seems highly unlikely, given how both Yerevan and Baku have resorted to cracking down on civil society this year and are closing ranks on any form of dissent.
For the time being, regular meetings within the framework of the OSCE should ensure that they stay away from the brink. "This week's talks will be focused on de-escalation", Giragosian concludes, and on convincing the Azerbaijani side to accept OSCE ceasefire violation monitoring. "This will be the main focus of the meeting, and back to basics diplomacy by OSCE, aimed at convincing Azerbaijan that the use of force is not an adequate response to a deadlock in diplomacy."
"A peaceful resolution of the conflict within the framework of the Minsk Group is not realistic", says the Azerbaijan-based security expert. So this week's round of negotiations will " fail in the sense that they will not find any solution to the conflict, but they will succeed in allaying the tensions and in giving a sense to both sides that there are ongoing efforts to settle the conflict", he says.