Post-Soviet Tensions: What will 2018 Bring to Nagorno-Karabakh?

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Konstantin Tasits

The spikes in violence and instability in Nagorno-Karabakh are far from over, however, experts believe that 2018 will be more stable for the region than 2016 and 2017. Are there any grounds for a diplomatic resolution of the long-standing conflict?

In the early January, the U.S. Department of State warned Americans against visiting Nagorno-Karabakh. The U.S. included Azerbaijan in the list of countries of “increased caution” due to the rise of terrorism threat and the incessant Armenian-Azeri conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Transcaucasia, which is controlled by the Yerevan-backed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, but located at the territory of Azerbaijan.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the situation around the Nagorno-Karabakh zone is not stable, with the ceasefire regime sporadically violated. As a result, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have casualties among military personnel and civilians.

“Casualties continue to occur in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Intermittent gunfire and occasional use of artillery systems, including land mines and mortars, result in deaths and injuries each year. Avoid roads near the ‘line of contact’ and roads near the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” reads the statement at the website of the U.S. Department of State. “The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Nagorno-Karabakh as U.S. government employees are restricted from traveling there.”

Getting worse and worse

Indeed, the first half of the last year was full of ill-omened events for the regions. In the early 2017, a number of international experts pointed to the risks of a new military escalation around Nagorno-Karabakh. Carnegie Center’s research fellow Thomas de Waal warned that the situation in 2017 might get even worse than in 2016. Likewise, experts from the International Crisis Group wrote, “storm clouds are gathering around Nagorno-Karabakh”.

New Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Thomas Greminger expressed his concerns about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh in a 2017 interview to RBC Daily. “Of course, we follow very closely [the events in Nagorno-Karabakh] <…> We were worried about the outbreak of the conflict in the recent past. My role as Secretary General is to support the work of the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group, whose efforts are aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”.

In 2016-2017, the shootings in Nagorno-Karabakh were in the media spotlight. Last year, three incidents took place in the conflict zone, and the OSCE Minsk Group had to respond to these events while calling both sides to stop the further escalation. For example, on Feb. 25, the ceasefire regime was violated on the line of contacts, which resulted in the casualties from both sides.  The mid-May saw another military escalation in the zone of Nagorno-Karabakh: Azerbaijan used a guided missile “Spike” to shoot down a unit of the Armenian military equipment (supposedly, the Osa anti-aircraft missile system) on the line of contact. In response, the Armenian forces launched a mortar attack on May 16-17. In July, another spike in violence took place in an Azeri countryside, which led to new casualties, including among civilians.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict started in 1988, after the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh expressed its aspirations for independence from Azerbaijan. In December 1991, a referendum took place, with 99.89% of the population voted for independence. Thus, the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic emerged, with Baku having launched a military campaign against the breakaway region. All this aggravated the conflict and had about 25-30 thousand people killed, while approximately one million civilians were forced to abandon their houses.

On May 1994, Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, on the one side, and Azerbaijan, on the other side, signed a ceasefire agreement, which is supposed to be observed today. However, sporadically it is violated, with the spike in violence and shooting taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh from time to time. For example, one of the most violent clashes between Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic took place in April 2016. Russia, France and the U.S. have been trying to resolve the problem of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the OSCE Minsk Group format since 1992.

Reinvigorating negotiations 

Nevertheless, despite the cautious pessimism in expert community about Nagorno-Karabakh, the second half of 2017 saw a decrease in tensions in the region. In this period of time there were no spikes in violence.

To a great extent, it is the result of the OSCE Minks Group’s robust diplomatic activity. Thanks to its effort, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan met in Geneva on October 16, 2017. The presidents of two countries agreed to intensify the negotiations and undertake some additional steps to decrease tensions on the line of contact.   Russia’s OSCE Permanent Representative Alexander Lukashevich believes that 2017 was very important for Nagorno-Karabakh, because Baku and Yerevan reinvigorated their dialogue and prevented a dangerous escalation in the region. According to him, Russia will do it utmost to foster the peace process and persuade Azerbaijan and Armenia to come up with a compromise as soon as possible.

Likewise, Farhad Mammadov, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Azerbaijan, looks at the possibility of the resumption of the Azeri-Armenian high-profile dialogue in 2017 with optimism. At the same time, the expert admits that there were no any breakthroughs in resolving the conflict.

“Unfortunately, some co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group have been repeating the Armenian theses about so called Vienna and St. Petersburg agreements as if it is a sacred mantra,” said Mammadov. In May 2016, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group initiated the meeting between Azeri and Armenian presidents after the April military escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result of this meeting two sides confirmed their adherence to the diplomatic resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs — Russia, France and the U.S. — having released a joint statement, in which they warned against the use of military forces in the region. They also called for observing the 1994 ceasefire treaty.

On July 20, 2016 another trilateral summit took place: Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan re-confirmed their adherence to observe the Vienna agreements.

What to expect in 2018?

Farhad Mammadov argues that a number of meetings between Azeri and Armenian leaders give a reason to believe that the confronting sides are likely to come up with a compromise and start implementing the Vienna and St. Petersburg agreements in practice. At the same time, the expert doesn’t rule out the negative scenario: the stagnation in the negotiation process might lead to another large-scale escalation, which will have very grave implications.

Meanwhile, Armenian expert David Petrosyan argues that 2018 will be much more peaceful than 2017, because both countries will focus on domestic agenda — the presidential elections. In Armenia, the election will take place in March, while Azerbaijan will elect a new president in October. Of course, the OSCE Minsk Group will try to alleviate the conflict, but Russia will remain the key player in this process, with France and the U.S. trying to help Moscow and contributing to the Baku-Yerevan negotiations. After all, despite numerous differences over Ukraine and Syria, the West doesn’t see Nagorno-Karabakh as another platform for the confrontation with Russia.

Konstantin Tasits is an expert on Caucasus at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS).

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