Military build-up reported in Nagorno Karabakh as Yerevan distracted by protests

Military build-up reported in Nagorno Karabakh as Yerevan distracted by protests
By bne IntelliNews April 23, 2018

Officials in both Baku and Yerevan claimed on April 23 that the security situation has worsened along the line of conflict in the disputed breakaway Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR). 

The reports from the troubled enclave indicate there could be a fresh outbreak of fighting at a time when the Armenian government is distracted by mass protests against the appointment of former President Serzh Sargsyan as prime minister. On the afternoon of April 23, Sargsyan finally bowed to pressure from the street and stepped down, his decision most likely influenced by the defection of hundreds of soldiers to swell the ranks of the protesters. 

Armenia’s Defence Minister Vigen Sargsyan (no relation of the prime minister) claimed at a press conference earlier on April 23 that there had been a large scale military build-up on the Azeri side of the line of conflict, local media reported. 

The previous day, the defence ministry issued a statement on the situation in Yerevan, warning that instability at home would weaken Armenia in its ongoing conflict with its neighbour. 

The statement claimed that the current domestic instability “is a factor that can only adversely affect the implementation of defence tasks”.  The protests “are fraught with unpredictable developments that can seriously affect the aggravation of the border situation, which is already noticeable,” it added.

“According to intelligence data, Azerbaijan's military-political leadership views the developments in the country as a significant factor for the new military adventure against the Republic of Artsakh [Nagorno Karabakh]. The further aggravation of the situation contributes to it,” the ministry hammered the point home. 

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said the same day that Armenian troops had violated the ceasefire along the line of conflict no less than 104 times in the last 24 hours. It reported numerous instances of Armenian and Nagorno Karabakh forces firing on Azerbaijani positions. 

The Armenian capital has been rocked by mass protests for the last 11 days, as tens of thousands of Armenians sought to force Sargsyan out of power. They objected to the changes his ruling Republican Party made to the constitution, which allowed Sargsyan to step smoothly from the presidency, after completing his second and final term, to a newly powerful prime minister position. 

Tensions over Nagorno Karabakh had already escalated ahead of the presidential elections in Azerbaijan earlier this month — bellicose rhetoric invariably plays an important part of any election campaign in either Armenia or Azerbaijan. In March, Azerbaijan enraged the Armenian side by launching large-scale war exercises involving 25,000 troops, 1,000 artillery units and 250 tanks without notifying the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), sparking a formal complaint from Yerevan. 

Nagorno Karabakh is still part of Azerbaijan under international law but broke away from Baku’s control in a bloody war in the early 1990s. Since then the mainly ethnic Armenian enclave has been de facto independent, and closely integrated with Armenia.