Nagorno-Karabakh Incident Heightens Armenia-Azerbaijan Tensions

Marianna Gurtovnik

World Politics Review
March 12 2008

On March 4, Azerbaijan’s breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh became
a scene of one of the most controversial attacks there since a May
1994 ceasefire, which established a no war, no peace situation in
the region.

The conflict started in 1988, when the predominantly Armenian
population of Nagorno-Karabakh stated its intention to secede from
Azerbaijan. The resulting war caused severe casualties and massive
population displacement on both sides. Azerbaijan lost control over
the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory and the adjacent seven
regions. Although the Nagorno-Karabakh republic currently enjoys
de-facto independence, no country has recognized it as an independent

Despite decade-long efforts to resolve the conflict, Azerbaijan and
Armenia have so far failed to agree on essential points. Since 1992,
bilateral negotiations have been brokered by the so-called Minsk Group
of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The
Minsk Group is co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France.

On March 4, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian accused
Azerbaijan of using armored troops to launch a series of strikes
from the northeastern part of Nagorno-Karabakh. The attacks are
said to have killed 12 and injured 15 Armenian soldiers; Azerbaijan
has reported the loss of four soldiers. Oskanian told the press in
Armenian capital, Yerevan, that Azerbaijani authorities timed the
attacks so as to take advantage of the current political instability
in Armenia. In recent weeks, Yerevan has been the scene of crowded
opposition rallies demanding the recount of votes cast in Armenia’s
Feb. 20 presidential election. The police opened fire at protestors
and used batons to attack their tents on the Liberty Square in central
Yerevan. Pursued by the police, angry mobs have reportedly burned
and looted office buildings and shopping malls in the downtown. On
March 3, the incumbent Armenian president Robert Kocharian announced
a three-week state of emergency.

According to the Central Election Committee, Armenia’s current Prime
Minister Serge Sarkissian garnered 52 percent of the votes, followed
by former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, who received 21 percent.

The opposition claims that Ter-Petrossian’s votes have been
significantly under-reported and that he has, in fact, surpassed
Sarkissian. While opposition observers reported numerous instances of
ballot-stuffing, monitors from the European Union said the elections
had, for the most part, met international standards.

Azerbaijani authorities have strongly denied the allegation that
Azerbaijan initiated the attacks, and blamed the incident on Armenia.

"The Armenian leadership is trying to distract the attention of its
public and of the international community from its internal political
problems. . . . Armenia uses Azerbaijan as an external enemy," said
Khazar Ibrahim, director of the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry’s press
service, in a March 5 interview with the Russian daily Kommersant.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Eldar Sabiroglu, told the
press in Baku that the Azerbaijani army had successfully thwarted
the Armenian provocation.

The political crisis in Armenia has left Azerbaijani commentators
questioning how, if at all, the deepening animosity between
Armenia’s two major political clans will affect the talks related to
Nagorno-Karabakh’s status. The hardliner Kocharian, who represents the
Karabakh clan, ascended to the presidency by exploiting the hawkish
sentiments in the Armenian political establishment. He insisted that
Azerbaijan must recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence if it wants
to re-establish control over its seven regions. This view is supported
by Serge Sarkissian, who fought for Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence
from Azerbaijan in 1989-1993.

Kocharian’s predecessor Ter-Petrossian, who is associated with the
Yerevan clan, advocated for liberating Azerbaijan’s occupied regions
first and determining Nagorno-Karabakh’s status at a subsequent
referendum in which both the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities
of the breakaway territory would participate. Ter-Petrossian had
to stand down in 1998 after his cabinet refused to back this plan,
which was also favored by Azerbaijan.

Lately, observers have noted that growing numbers of Karabakh clan
representatives in the Armenian government have increasingly annoyed
the Yerevan clan.

The March 4 incident was "an attempt by Armenia’s current leadership
to consolidate the society in which tension between representatives
of the [two clans] has further intensified after the armed forces
brutally suppressed opposition protests," claimed Azerbaijani
political commentator Rasim Musabekov in a March 5 interview with Musabekov said that the border shootings were part of
Armenia’s long-pursued plan to seize the northeastern section of
Nagorno-Karabakh — currently controlled by Azerbaijan — in order to
have full control of the breakaway territory. A military victory such
as this would provide much-needed support to Kocharian and Sarkissian,
whose credibility has been undermined during the recent events. At
the same time, Musabekov expressed certainty that this brief violation
of the ceasefire would not resume the war.

In the meantime, Minsk Group officials hope to host talks between the
two countries in the near future. Negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh
can continue after the situation in Armenia is clarified, said
Matthew Bryza, the U.S. co-chairman of the Minsk Group, during a
March 5 press briefing in Baku.

Marianna Gurtovnik is a freelance analyst based in the United States.

She covers governance reforms, foreign policy, and civil society
developments in the Newly Independent States.