Economist: Aggressive Azerbaijan: Talk Of War From Azerbaijan Over N


July 17, 2008 Thursday


Having spent heavily on its military, Azerbaijan has raised the
possibility of recovering Nagorno-Karabakh and its other occupied
territories by force. Although the forthcoming presidential election is
a factor, this more aggressive stance is not mere bluster. Azerbaijan
is frustrated at the failure of 14 years of negotiation and has
concluded that a credible military threat might be the best way to
force the Karabakh Armenians to make concessions–or, if that fails,
to drive them out.

Talk of war

OSCE observers carried out an unscheduled monitoring of one section
of the ceasefire line by Nagorno-Karabakh on July 16th, following
allegations from both sides of violations. The atmosphere has been
tense ever since Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, said in early
June that although Azerbaijan would continue to take political steps to
recover Karabakh and neighbouring territories under Armenian control,
"we should be ready to liberate our lands in a military way at any
time." He added that Azerbaijan’s army was the strongest in the region.

In the wake of Mr Aliyev’s remarks there has been considerable
debate in Azerbaijan’s press regarding a military solution to the
Karabakh problem. Armenian politicians have been deeply critical,
seeking to draw international attention to Mr Aliyev’s remarks and
to generate support for their position. Within Karabakh itself, the
response has been less diplomatic. On July 16th the entity’s defence
minister claimed that he had sufficient military capability to repel
any Azerbaijani attack.

As the exchanges of gunfire across the ceasefire line in recent
weeks attest, Karabakh is not really a frozen conflict–nor has it
been for much of the time since the 1994 ceasefire. For Azerbaijan,
moreover, the stakes are enormous: some 15% of its territory is
under occupation. In addition to Karabakh, seven other regions within
Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders are being held by the
Karabakh Armenians, only two of which are needed to maintain a land
connection to Armenia. The occupation of the seven regions arguably
arouses more ire within Azerbaijan than the occupation of Karabakh
itself, because there is no political justification for it.

The major change in the situation in recent years has been on
the Azerbaijani side: the army that lost the war is undergoing a
transformation funded by the country’s oil windfall. Mr Aliyev said
recently that defence spending had risen tenfold since 2003 and now
stood at $2USbn annually. Already this is far in excess of Armenia’s
defence budget and it is set to rise still further. The military
hardware that Azerbaijan has acquired is not on its own regarded as
sufficient to recover the occupied territories, but it is a statement
of intent. The crucial element is understood to be the quality of
Azerbaijan’s troops. Pointedly, Mr Aliyev said in early June that
their professionalism is increasing daily.

Welling frustration

The more bellicose tone adopted by Azerbaijan’s government is probably
connected in part to the presidential election due later this year,
which Mr Aliyev is all but certain to win. However it is wrong simply
to ascribe the increase in war talk to electoral factors.

Azerbaijan is deeply dissatisfied with the work of the OSCE’s Minsk
Group, which comprises the US, Russia and France and is charged with
seeking a solution to the conflict. Since 1994, the Minsk Group has
achieved little or nothing. In Azerbaijani eyes, Russia prefers to
keep the conflict frozen in order to preserve its own influence in
the Caucasus. France is regarded as passive and biased in favour of
Armenia because of the Armenian diaspora among its citizenry. Most
hope is invested in the US, but it is viewed as having failed to
overcome Russian obstructionism (and the US too has an influential
Armenian diaspora).

Muscular diplomacy

The frustration with the Minsk Group is understandable, but perhaps
misses the point. The conflict has remained frozen not because the
mechanisms are wrong, but because there is insufficient political will
on both sides to compromise. The conflict is deadlocked because, while
the status quo is unacceptable to Azerbaijan, the Karabakh Armenians
are broadly satisfied with it–or rather, they prefer the status quo to
a compromise that would involve the loss of a land-bridge to Armenia
or the acceptance of substantial autonomy in Azerbaijan. Hence the
failure to reach a negotiated solution.

Until recently, the threat of Azerbaijani military action was not
sufficiently serious to sway Karabakh Armenian calculations. Baku
seems to have concluded that the best way forward is to change the
other side’s calculations by posing a more credible military threat.

It is therefore wrong to dismiss Azerbaijan’s re-armament and more
aggressive stance merely as pre-election bluster. It is a response
to the failure of conflict resolution, and it betrays a belief that
a change the balance of power in the region is one way to force the
Armenian side to be more flexible in negotiations. For Azerbaijan’s
leadership, this course of action has the added attraction of creating
an option to seek to recover the territories by force if its more
muscular diplomacy fails.