Conflict On Ice


A sore in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan still festers

Nov 12th 2011 | STEPANAKERT | from the print edition

It’s lovely in the summer .

“I AM almost full for next summer”, boasts Mike Aghjayan, an Armenian
from Lebanon who is managing a new hotel in the town Azeris call Shusha
and Armenians Shushi. Visitors, mostly diaspora Armenians, will come
from the United States, Canada, France, Russia, Lebanon and Iran.

In 1988 this was a pleasant hilltop town, home to 15,000. Today barely
4,000 live on amid the ruins of war. His guests, Mr Aghjayan explains,
“want to see the land people gave their blood for.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is often described as one of several post-Soviet
“frozen conflicts”. However, as the war in 2008 between Russia
and Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia showed,
ice can melt quickly. In Soviet times Nagorno-Karabakh was a mostly
Armenian-populated autonomous enclave inside Azerbaijan, some 4,000
square kilometres (1,540 square miles) big. Conflict erupted in 1988
as the territory’s Armenians sought to secede from Azerbaijan. By the
time the war ended in 1994, the victorious Armenians had doubled the
enclave’s size and carved out a land corridor to Armenia proper.

Between 1988 and 1994 more than 1m Armenians and Azeris fled from
both countries and Nagorno-Karabakh. Azeri-populated towns in the
region were left devastated.

ReprintsOutsiders have worked on peace plans since 1995 but none
has stuck. Yet the outline of a deal seems clear. Nagorno-Karabakh,
which declared independence in 1991, will return to Azerbaijan much
of the land it won in the war. Then, after an “interim” period, the
people of the territory, including Azeri refugees living outside,
will vote on its final status.

Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh say there can be no deal without their
agreement. This is not bravado. The president of Armenia and his
predecessor are from the region. Ara Haratyunyan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s
prime minister, says he doubts Azerbaijan will ever accept his
territory’s independence. Still, he cheerfully points out, GDP has
doubled in the past four years (largely thanks to transfers from
Armenia and the diaspora).

In contrast to the war years, Azerbaijan is flush with cash from
oil and gas. This year 16.5% of its budget has been set aside
for military spending: this is roughly equivalent to the entire
budgets of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh combined. Yet officials in
Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, seem relaxed. Russia is
committed to Armenia’s defence. And a strategic pipeline pumping
oil to the West from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan passes just 12 miles
from Nagorno-Karabakh-controlled territory. Shelling could quickly
cripple it.