28 June 2010
I write this column from Armenia, where I have spent a week meeting with representatives from the government, the opposition and civil society.
Two issues dominated the discussions: the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the failed rapprochement with Turkey. As one senior official put it, “Things are really screwed up now.”
For Armenia the rapprochement with Turkey broke down because of Ankara’s decision to link it to Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan considers itself blameless, saying it made big concession, with one official stating, “Armenia made Turkey a very generous offer, we did not even ask them to recognize the genocide,”. but that, “once again,” Turkey cheated them. For Armenia this was the first time they had the opportunity to be a regional player and Yerevan believes that Armenia has proved to be a proactive rather than a reactive player and they have gained from the experience, including now having a far higher number of experts on Turkey.
Little hope was expressed at new life being breathed into the rapprochement any time soon. First there will be parliamentary elections in Turkey in 2011 which will be followed by elections elsewhere in the region. While President Abdullah Gül is still viewed positively, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not. He is seen as becoming increasing unreliable and racist. Ahmet Davutoğlu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” is seen as being only partially successful, with suggestions that Turkey has no idea where it is heading other than that Turkey is trying to get the best of both worlds and endeavoring to be the leader of the Muslim world.
The failed rapprochement also unhinged the Karabakh talks. On the one side, Armenia’s leadership has felt unable to make progress in fear of being seen as making concessions in order to get the border with Turkey opened; on the other hand, it now seems that Azerbaijan feels cheated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which has resulted in Baku upping its war rhetoric. In an apparent move to produce some progress in the Karabakh talks, the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs (Russia, US, France) produced an updated version of the Madrid Basic Principles in Sochi in January 2010. Azerbaijan accepted this document, Armenia did not.
Azerbaijan has since been insisting that this again shows Armenia’s lack of interest in a settlement and that the international community should do more to push Armenia into accepting. This has not happened. Rather, the co-chairs re-jigged the document and represented it a few days ago in St. Petersburg. Azerbaijan, not surprisingly, was not happy. Armenia believes this led Azerbaijan to leave the meeting early and to the subsequent violation of the cease-fire agreement and tragic deaths of four Armenian and two Azerbaijani soldiers. They view this as Azerbaijan displaying its readiness to resort to war to get back the seven provinces that Armenia continues to occupy in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh. They also believe that Aliyev has lost control of his armed forces.
The increase in military clashes has left many believing that Azerbaijan is planning a “short war” in light of the forthcoming Azerbaijani parliamentary elections. Apparently this would boost President Ilham Aliyev’s popularity. This would be highly risky, not least because once a war is in the offing it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to limit it to a couple of days. It would escalate into a full-fledged bloodbath with catastrophic consequences.
With both sides now having very advanced military technology, it is possible for Armenia to hit Baku and the nearby Caspian oil fields as well as quickly destroy pipeline infrastructure (the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan [BTC] pipeline passes just 15 kilometers from the line of contact) and important Azerbaijani cities, including Ganja. It would also be easy for Azerbaijan to hit Armenia. Armenia also does not rule out carrying a pre-emptive strike, which they consider fair game if they are convinced Azerbaijan is on the verge of launching an attack. I am skeptical Azerbaijan would do this. Implications for the region would be massive, including reactions from both Russia and Iran, not to mention the US. There is no guarantee Baku would win; their international reputation would be in tatters and it could result in Aliyev’s fall. As history has shown, all previous Azerbaijani presidents have been brought down by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Armenia also believes the international community is too soft on Azerbaijan and continues to contribute to its isolation. One particular case they cite is the Nabucco gas pipeline, which would cut out Armenia -- as the BTC did before it. They believe that by backing such projects the EU is simply supporting the isolationist policies of Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, while Armenia continues to occupy around 17 percent of its neighbor’s land, it is unthinkable that it should be allowed to take part in such initiatives.
However, the EU, at the same time, disregards the realities on the ground, which is very dangerous. The EU should stop limiting itself to “balanced” statements and seriously discuss with both countries the deployment of a peacekeeping/monitoring mission in order to have first-hand knowledge of what is happening on the ground. Presently, the tiny OSCE monitoring mission is only allowed to monitor the line of contact with the agreement of the Azerbaijanis and Armenians and not on a daily basis. According to the Armenian side, this is something they would welcome, but Azerbaijan does not. This region is a time bomb waiting to explode. It is time to take action now before it is too late.
27 June 2010, Sunday .