Friday 22 June 2012

Nagorno-Karabakh: Slowly thawing a frozen conflict

Joanna Christou

The Nagorno-Karabakh borders with Azerbaijan are now heavily militarised and prone to outbreaks of violence. Pictured here, Karabakh soldiers. Photo from Asbarez.
As far as places go, Nagorno-Karabakh is likely unknown to most people outside of the former Soviet territories. However, this little piece of mountainous land has been the cause of a serious and unsolved dispute between Azerbaijan – in whose territory it officially lies – and the majority ethnic Armenian population which resides there, backed by the neighbouring state of Armenia.  
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this conflict is in fact the lack of attention it has garnered. This is mostly due to its current status, which commentators, journalists and politicians alike have dubbed as a ‘frozen conflict’. This term applies to a number of other disputes in the post-Soviet space and tends to characterize ethnic or territorial conflicts which coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union. Following a period of violence, such conflicts were taken off the boiler with a Russian-led truce which halted hostilities, but failed to resolve the cause of the fighting in most cases. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, this unrecognised territory was left in Armenian hands by the settlement, much to the disgust of Azerbaijan.  The results of this frozen status have been heavily militarized borders and an unworkable status-quo for both sides which continues to express itself through border violations.

The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan, declared its independence in 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union. Photo from Euronews.
Recently however, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has started to heat-up again. While hostilities have been kept to a minimum in previous years, there is now a growth in tensions accompanied with occasional outbursts of violence. Just last week ago a shoot-out between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers resulted in three deaths, the second such incident in recent months to result in the loss of life. The best indication of the seriousness of the situation is the growth in interest from international observers, media and politicians. Just last week, US secretary of State visited the region, holding talks with both sides. Meanwhile, informal discussions on the situation have taken place at the United Nations, while Irish Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore has stated that resolution of this conflict will be a prime aim during Ireland’s Presidency of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE).
Such international attention can only be a good thing. For one, it could provide an incentive for the two sides to talk. This will obviously be a challenge, with some commentators suggesting that violence has only been spurred on by the attention, particularly as tensions seem to have flared in the lead-up to Hillary Clinton’s highly publicised visit, with many seeing this an opportunity for both sides to seek a resolution favouring them. Arguably, Clinton’s visit also suggests that the more major powers have finally understood the importance of seeking to resolve this situation.
Having done little during the last 24 years to help bring stability, the US for its part is hopefully realising that its humanitarian assistance to the region, amounting to approximately US$32 million, probably represents a bottomless pit if efforts are not made to promote a long-term solution and lasting peace. Such thinking can only be encouraged by events in the last year where long-term recipients of US aid such as Egypt have descended into instability, threatening the entire region. This is no doubt thanks to the US’s willingness to accept questionable governance in return for another ally in the Middle East.
Obviously, any attempt at a solution will have to involve Russia, Armenia’s largest patron, and will as a result have to take into account the wider context of US-Russia relationship, as well as the fact that the two regimes involved suffer from a deficit of democratic standards and practices, with Armenia classified as ‘partly free’ by freedom house and Azerbaijan as ‘not free’.
For its part, Russia brokered the ceasefire agreement in 1994, and former president Dmitry Medvedev sought to mediate between the two sides without success. Arguably this is more hands-on involvement that the US has managed to muster across the last two administrations, and, despite Clinton’s visit, the Obama administration’s interest here seems rather lacking. 
If the last year has proven anything, it is that instability in one area can cause the dynamics of an entire region to change. The Middle East is case in point. As such, the heating up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should come as a warning and an opportunity for everyone involved. It is a warning that Armenia and Azerbaijan are still miles apart on the issue, while it is also an opportunity for the major powers involved to take the initiative and work towards peace on the ground, which could in turn translate into overall stability in what has always been a volatile region. Furthermore, it represents an opportunity for both the US and Russia to work together on an issue where peace and a solution could ultimately favour both, possibly resulting in better relations not just between the Armenians and Azeris but also between the Americans and the Russians. What now waits to be seen is if the thaw of Nagorno-Karabakh will be peaceful or violent. This will very much depend on whether the Obama administration decides to proactively build on Clinton’s visit and if the Putin administration finally accepts that the 1994 cease-fire is both unsustainable and a threat to the region overall and Russia itself. 

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