Can Armenia and Azerbaijan sustain the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Published: Friday June 06, 2008Martin Shahbazyan / Martin Shahbazyan.
Washington - On June 6, Serge Sargsian and Ilham Aliyev will have held their first presidential meeting. While seen as a mere formality, the rendezvous sets up yet another fork in the road in the 20-year history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation.
By now there are few expectations of a negotiated peace deal or even agreement on basic principles for such an agreement. The sides are rigidly dug into their mutually exclusive positions. One side wants to retain Karabakh and formalize its reunification with Armenia. The other is seeking to restore its Soviet-era borders and heal its hurt pride.
While the conflict had violently escalated for the first six years (1988-94) it has been largely conserved for the last fourteen. The main question of today is if this conservation will continue to last or if violence would break out in some form.
The peace process: how much longer?
As has been the case with Armenian-Azerbaijani presidential meetings since after the April 2001 Key West summit dedicated to the Karabakh settlement, this week's meetings takes place on sidelines of a larger international forum the two presidents are attending anyway. This time it is the post-Soviet economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
President Aliyev, Jr. and ex-President Robert Kocharian have had seven such meetings between 2004 and 2007, providing the political blessing for sustained negotiations between the two countries' foreign ministers.
The peace process, while failing to culminate in any agreement, has provided both leaders with added international recognition and domestic legitimacy. And importantly it has helped "explain" why, in spite of all the heated rhetoric, Azerbaijan is not going back to war just yet.
Azeri officials, at least publicly, still hope that Armenians might give up without a fight. That increasingly remote possibility may have taken a new lease on life because Azeris view the return to active politics of ex-President Levon Ter-Petrossian in the context of his past Karabakh policy rather than Armenia's domestic developments.
The second important self-explanation for Azerbaijan is that the next several years would mean more money recovered from Caspian offshore energy and more weapon systems bought and mastered.
This is also the view endorsed by conflict watchers around the world, including the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which in an analysis last year predicted that chances for war may increase significantly in 2012 when Azerbaijan's oil production begins to taper off.
The last, but possibly the most important explanation, on why the cease-fire has held so far, is the Armenian military's capability to retaliate against Azerbaijani interests.
In his remarks on May 23 and again in an interview on June 5, NKR President Bako Sahakian warned that should Azerbaijan launch a military aggression, the Armenian side will be forced to take the fighting "deep into [Azerbaijan's] territory," adding that "expansion of the security zone [comprising former Azeri districts around Karabakh] will be the only way for us to secure peace for our people."
The stark warning is atypical of Armenian leaders and also reflects Azerbaijan's expanded ability to escalate things along the Line of Contact without resorting to an outright war.
Even the mediators' focus appears to be shifting from discussing complicated Karabakh status formulas and territorial arrangements to sustaining the cease-fire and preventing new bloodshed through practical measures along the Line of Contact.
New potential for [localized] military escalation
With conclusion of the on the ground military operations in May 1994, when Baku finally agreed to a cease-fire agreement since then made permanent, the Azerbaijani government has sought to find ways to put foreign diplomatic pressure on Armenians to force them into unilateral territorial compromises. Dubbed the "oil strategy" by then President Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijanis staked their hopes on their relative importance to the West and Armenia's apparently bleak economic prospects.
In that they scored a partial success at the OSCE's Lisbon Summit in December 1996, where Armenia was left alone in not recognizing Azerbaijan's claims on Nagorno Karabakh. Then President Ter-Petrossian's advocacy for unilateral territorial compromises in 1997-98 reflected the peak of the success of the Aliyev Sr.'s strategy.
President Kocharian's ascendancy has helped alter that dynamic. In the ten-year period, Armenia has succeeded in establishing that its economic development and integration with the West can proceed without unilateral territorial compromises in Karabakh. Increased economic affluence of both Armenia and Azerbaijan has also made going to an outright war an increasingly unattractive proposition.
But the Armenian-Azerbaijan confrontation appears to be nearing a fresh turning point. Azerbaijan seems to have exhausted its diplomatic options with the United Nations General Assembly resolution last March. And the very acquisition of new weapons systems makes it tempting for Aliyev to escalate military pressure on Armenia without resorting to costly ground operations.
In the past ten years, tactical military escalation has meant primarily spikes in sniper war and small-scale tactical redeployments along the Line of Contact, with the March 3 skirmish at Levonarkh in Karabakh's northeast as the latest example.
Today, Azerbaijan's acquisition of modern aircraft and longer-range artillery systems may encourage its leaders to resort to new and more dramatic forms of military escalation. These may include attempts to overfly Armenian territory, attacks against Armenian air and ground targets, and even engaging in long-distance artillery duels - all in the effort to put pressure on the population and up the ante for the Armenian state.
The Armenian side has made clear that such steps would be met with retaliation and would risk an all-out war which both sides are so far seeking to avoid. At the same time, such warnings have not been matched by a sustained diplomatic campaign to restrain Azerbaijan.
Judging by Azerbaijan's increased military spending and evolution of similarly protracted conflicts around the world, the fourteen-year peace enjoyed by Armenians and Azerbaijanis increasingly stands out as an oddity rather than the norm and appears to be nearing a tipping point.