Talk Of War From Azerbajan, Over Nagorno-Karabakh


July 17, 2008

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

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

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.