ARMENIAN UNREST THREATENS PEACE IN NAGARNO-KARABAKH – FEATURE
March 6 2008
Moscow/Yerevan – Border fighting between Armenia and Azeri troops
in the disputed region of Nagarno-Karabakh turned to heavy artillery
shelling this week in the worst clashes since a 1994 ceasefire that
ended a six-year, full-scale war. Between 15 and 16 soldiers died
and dozens were injured in Wednesday night clashes according to
conflicting casualty claims by Armenian and Azeri officials.
Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov on Thursday accused Armenia
of initiating the battle to distract from violent post- election
opposition protests at home that led the president to impose a 20-day
emergency rule over the capital Yerevan.
But Armenian President Robert Kocharian hit back Thursday: "The Azeris
thought that the situation in Armenia had dulled the vigilance of
our armed forces in Karabakh, that all our large military divisions
had been relocated."
The unresolved status of Nagarno-Karabakh, an Azeri province controlled
by ethnic Armenian separatists, was the hottest topic in Armenia’s
February 19 elections and daily protests since then have led to
clashes with police in which eight people died Sunday.
The opposition’s leader, Armenia’s first post-Soviet president Levon
Ter-Petrosian, pledged to "correct" what he called "his biggest
mistake": bringing into government top military officials from
Nagorno-Karabakh such as incumbent Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh
Sarkisian, whose presidential election win he now refuses to recognize.
Ter-Petrosian accuses the Karabakh Clan, as his supporters have dubbed
them, of widespread corruption and nepotism, including signing over
control of crucial economic sectors to Russia, thereby transforming
a long-time alliance into a "vassal-sovereign" relationship.
Coming three weeks after Kosovo’s declaration of independence from
Serbia, Russia and the United States fear escalating tensions in the
region and have called for restraint.
The mountainous Caucasus region where Nagarno-Karabakh lies has
emerged as strategically important as it lies along gas routes from
the energy-rich Caspian Sea region to Europe.
Western powers fear further instability could disrupt gas routes and
further undermine a fragile security situation in the neighbourhood,
which is host to a Russian military base and borders Iran.
The United States and NATO declared Thursday that Kosovo’s independence
from Serbia could not serve as a precedence for Nagarno- Karabakh or
any other region.
Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region on Wednesday asked for
the European Union, the United Nations and Russia to recognize its
independence, bearing out Russia’s claim that Kosovo’s independence
would lead to a "parade of sovereignty" in the Caucasus.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev firmly rejects Kosovo’s independence
as illegal and has upped rhetoric about using any means to achieve
unity ahead of October presidential elections.
"We have been buying military machinery, airplanes and ammunition to
be ready to liberate the occupied territories, and we are ready to
do this," Russian newspaper Noviye Izvestia quoted Aliyev as saying
"The conflict will come to an international solution when Armenia
feels Azerbaijan’s force," he said.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan has increased its military spending to more than
1 billion dollars in 2008, provoking a mini-arms race with Armenia,
which in turn has hiked its military spending by 20 per cent in the
Thomas Gomart, head of the Russian/CIS programme at the Paris- based
Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, voiced concern over
the "evolution of the rhetoric" in a recent interview with Deutsche
"The disproportion in the two countries’ military spending is
worrying. Azerbaijan’s expenditure could be compared to the total
Armenian budget," he said.
bservers also fear that Armenia’s post-election instability could
aggravate relations with Turkey which has allied with fellow Muslim
state Azerbaijan to blockade landlocked Armenia along its borders.
Ter-Petrosian, who was forced from power by the current leadership in
1998 for his proposal to compromise in peace talks with Azerbaijan,
has argued the blockades are killing Armenia’s possibilities for
growth. "Russia cannot be Armenia’s only road to the outside world,"
he has said.
But a construction boom and a healthy economy spoke in favour of
the established leadership in the recent elections, and despite
rallying thousand-strong opposition protests Ter-Petrosian remains
widely unpopular among those who recall the economic hardships of
the post-Soviet transition.
Nagarno-Karabakh native and war hero Sarkisian is expected to keep
up the hawkish stance set by his political mentor Kocharian during
his decade at the helm, perpetuating fears of a new war along the
border where gunfire breaks out regularly.