Nagorno-Karabakh airport still grounded

By bne IntelliNews June 24, 2011

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

As the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia sat down in Kazan, Russia on June 24 for direct talks over the territorial issue of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, concrete evidence of improved relations between the two foes failed to materialise in the form of the re-opening of the airport in the Nagorno-Karabakh capital Stepanakert, which has now been put off until September.

The planned reopening has already added to the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Yerevan insisting the opening will go ahead, while Baku threatens to shoot down any aircraft flying over Nagorno-Karabakh airspace. Despite the strong words on both sides, however, the issue is most likely to go to international mediation.

Stepanakert airport was due to open on May 9, 2011, for the first time since the Nagorno-Karabakh war erupted between the two countries. The airport opening date has since been put back to September, head of the Nagorno-Karabakh civil aviation department, Dmitry Atbashyan, told Atbashyan said construction work was still underway, and that the decision to postpone had not been prompted by Azeri opposition to the plans.

There have been no flights from Stepanakert airport since the six-year war began in February 1988, when the majority ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Armenia, tried to secede from Azerbaijan. Although a ceasefire was agreed in May 1994, a peace treaty between the two sides has never been signed. Nagorno-Karabakh remains part of Azerbaijan under international law, although it is de facto independent and increasingly integrated with Armenia.

The Nagorno-Karabakh government is currently funding reconstruction of the airport, and plans to operate three flights a week between Stepanakert and Yerevan. Although Armenia's national carrier Armavia has said it does not plan to launch flights to Stepanakert, the Armenian government is strongly behind the reopening. Speaking to journalists on March 31, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said he planned to be on the first flight, and that Armenian Defence Minister Seyran Ohanyan would be on the plane with him. "I declare I will be the first passenger of the first flight," Sargsyan told a press conference.

Other Armenian politicians have been similarly gung-ho about the plans. Galust Sahakyan, chairman of the Republican Party of Armenia, said the airport would open whether the Minsk Group - the body set up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to encourage a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict - liked it or not. Meanwhile, Aram Safaryan, secretary of the Prosperous Armenia group, stressed the importance of the airport for Nagorno-Karabakh's economic development.

Flying in investment

Stepanakert hopes that the reopening of the airport could help to stimulate the Nagorno-Karabakh economy by improving links to the outside world. Investment in road infrastructure within the republic is one of the government's priorities. In August 2010, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh also agreed to increase economic cooperation. In 2010, according to the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, the tiny enclave achieved economic growth of 5.5%, outstripping both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Baku has been angered by the plans and, in a letter to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), threatened to shoot down any planes violating its airspace. Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh is still part of Azerbaijan, and no country - even Armenia - has recognised it officially as a state. Armenia and Azerbaijan are both signatories to the 1944 Chicago Convention on civil aviation, which sets out the measures that need to be taken for an aerodrome to open. "All signatories need to comply with the standards set out in the convention and its annexes, and this needs to be done at state level. It is the responsibility of the state where the airport is located," explains ICAO spokesman Denis Chagnon.

Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group, points out that Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognised by a single country, including Armenia, and under international law it is still part of Azerbaijan. "If Azerbaijan wants to close the airspace, it has the right to do so legally," he says.

Sheets points out that in nearby Abkhazia, which declared its independence from Georgia in 2008, the airport has remained closed even though the republic's independence has since been recognised by Russia and several other countries. According to Sheets, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is "more likely to play out legally", with the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities taking the matter to international arbitration, rather than going ahead and opening the airport.

Chagnon tells bne that the ICAO had not yet been formally requested to start mediation between the two countries. However, he points out that when the ICAO's quasi-judicial mechanism has been used to settle disputes between states in the past, they have always been resolved successfully. "It's an effective mechanism," he says.

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