Institute for War and Peace Reporting
May 12 2004
Karabakh Ceasefire’s Troubled Anniversary
A decade after war ended in Nagorny Karabakh, the peace is still as
fragile as ever.
By Thomas de Waal in London (CRS No. 233, 12-May-04)
Appearances can be deceptive.
The 200-kilometre strip of land that marks the ceasefire line around
Nagorny Karabakh is one of the most peaceful places on earth. In the
last ten years it has become overgrown with wild vegetation and tall
The main sound is of soft birdsong. The main scourge appears to be
the locusts and other insects that range freely here.
Yet no one can set foot here, because the land is heavily mined. And
for ten years, two armies have faced each other across the line. The
Azerbaijani and Karabakh Armenian soldiers looking at one another
through binoculars do not even have telephone or radio contact.
Perhaps only the militarised border between North and South Korea is
a more forbidding dividing line than this one. Although the ceasefire
agreement of May 12, 1994 halted more than two years of heavy
fighting – sealing a de facto Armenian victory – it did not resolve
The ceasefire line continues to scar the southern Caucasus and
prevents hundreds of thousands of refugees from returning to their
homes. Peace plans have come and gone, yet nothing has shifted.
Looking back on a decade of truce, Vladimir Kazimirov, the Russian
diplomat who negotiated the 1994 ceasefire agreement, told IWPR that,
“it really does summon up mixed feelings. It’s good that it’s held
for ten years – that the mass bloodshed has stopped in the gravest
armed conflict on the territory of the former USSR, but it’s sad that
in all that time the mediators have not managed to achieve a
breakthrough in the political resolution of the conflict.
“Back then, I knew it could take several years – but not that it
would take so long.”
Moscow’s original plan to deploy Russian peacekeepers along the
ceasefire line was vetoed by Azerbaijan, with the result that the
conflict effectively has a self-regulating truce with no neutral
troops in between.
“There are pluses and minuses in the fact that the parties to the
conflict bear all the responsibility for observing the ceasefire,”
said Kazimirov. “It means no one but them is responsible for
incidents along the line of contact.”
That makes for a truce that is particularly vulnerable. The last year
has been one of the most difficult of the whole decade. In 2004,
around 30 soldiers died in shooting incidents across the front line,
a reverse in what had been a positive trend. Others continue to be
killed by mines.
International mediators and analysts worry that the situation of “no
war, no peace” is unsustainable in the long-term, and needs to be
buttressed by a proper peace settlement. A second Karabakh war, given
the weaponry that both sides have acquired since 1994, would be far
more devastating than the first.
That war of 1991-94 was tragic enough, resulting in the deaths of
perhaps 20,000 people, the wounding of more than three times that
number, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
“There is a saying that once a year a gun fires itself – there is
always a temptation to use it,” warned Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk in
an interview to IWPR by telephone. Kasprzyk is the personal
representative of the chairman-in-office of the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, with responsibility for the
Karabakh conflict – in other words the international official who
most closely monitors the situation on the ground.
“The Armenian side likes to say that the ceasefire holds because of a
balance of power; that there is no chance for either of the two
parties to win,” said Kasprzyk. “But in a situation where you have
two armies facing each other, there is always a temptation to start
US diplomat Carey Cavanaugh – who convened talks at Key West, Florida
in 2001 that came closer than ever before to a peace plan – noted
that the first thing the mediators did when the talks failed was to
support the ceasefire.
Some in Azerbaijan argue that the coming billion-dollar oil revenues
the country is about to earn from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline
project will change the balance of power, especially if the price of
oil remains at levels of more than 30 dollars a barrel.
In Azerbaijan, there have already been vociferous calls this year for
the government to resort to the military option to reclaim its lost
territories. A pro-war group, the Karabakh Liberation Organisation,
is currently orchestrating a march from Baku to the ceasefire line.
The murder of Gurgen Markarian, an army officer from Armenia, by his
Azerbaijani colleague Ramil Safarov at a NATO language course in
Budapest in February showed how quickly passions can become inflamed
around this issue. As soon as the news broke, defence groups formed
for Safarov in Azerbaijan, while Markarian was given a public funeral
in Armenia and his death provoked angry denunciations of Azerbaijan.
Foreign diplomats point out that Azerbaijan currently has a
poorly-equipped army, which is far from ready to go back to war. It
would take years for that to change – but the perception inside
Azerbaijan that the power balance is shifting could in itself be
enough to halt the peace process in its tracks.
The Karabakh conflict has created a strange world in the south
Caucasus, in which two countries are almost hermetically sealed off
from one another and from the other’s attachments and concerns. That
means that the views that both societies have about each other are
still basically stuck back in 1988.
Two surveys taken in parallel by the Baku and Yerevan Press Clubs in
2001, the year of the Key West talks, suggest why those talks were
doomed to failure.
Asked what would be an acceptable status for Nagorny Karabakh, the
disputed territory at the heart of the conflict, 45 per cent of
respondents in Armenia said they wanted to see Karabakh become
independent and another 42.7 per cent said it should become part of
Armenia. Less than one per cent of those asked believed Karabakh
should be part of Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani poll produced answers that were polar opposites of
the Armenian ones. Fifty-six per cent of respondents said Karabakh
should be “within Azerbaijan, without any autonomy”, and 33.7 per
cent favoured Karabakh returning to Azerbaijan with autonomous
status. Only 0.9 per cent were prepared to countenance Karabakh
becoming independent or part of Armenia.
Yet the bold innovation of the document discussed at Key West was
that Azerbaijan was ready to cede sovereignty over Nagorny Karabakh
to Armenia, along with a land corridor through the town of Lachin
connecting Karabakh to Armenia.
In return, Azerbaijan was to get back the occupied parts of seven
provinces surrounding Karabakh, and a land corridor was to be built
through Armenia to link the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan with
the rest of the country. The town of Shusha, inside Karabakh, which
formerly had a majority Azerbaijani population, was to be placed
under international administration.
One problem with the scheme was that the Armenian side was unhappy
about giving up Shusha. More fundamentally, Azerbaijani president
Heidar Aliev had not prepared even some of his top advisers for the
idea of giving up sovereignty over Karabakh.
Boxed in by public opinion that they themselves had helped entrench,
the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia were unable to build on the
relative success of Key West.
Some observers including Kazimirov argue that it is impossible to
achieve a “package agreement” for Karabakh, in which everything is
decided at once.
However others involved in the process resist this idea, with the
Karabakh Armenians for instance opposing any deal in which their
final status is not determined at the outset. Others say that nothing
will be possible until Azerbaijan opens a dialogue with the Karabakh
Armenians – but it still refuses to do so.
As the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers meet in Strasbourg
in May 12-13, they find themselves as far from a solution as ever.
The silence on the front line is becoming a little ominous.
Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor in London.