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Analysis & Opinion
23.06.10 Dangerous Defrosting
Comment by Sergei Markedonov

Special to Russia Profile

The Increase in Military Confrontation Between Armenia and Azerbaijan Means Political Dialogue Between the Two Is Becoming Hostage to the Will of Soldiers

As Kyrgyzstan plunges into chaos and the threat of a second Afghanistan in Central Asia looms large, the situation in the Greater Caucasus seems less pressing. The Russian attempt to “replace the regime” of Mikhail Saakashvili, expected by many in the West, has not taken place. Neither have the attempts from the West (the United States, NATO) and others to “nudge Georgia into a rematch,” which were expected in Moscow. Nonetheless, the recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh show that peace in the Caucasus is still “just a dream.”

In June there was a sharp increase in the number of infringements on the ceasefire regime at the points where Armenian and Azeri forces have contact (which both in Baku and in Yerevan is referred to as the “front line”). On the night of June 18 to 19, a group of Azeri saboteurs tried to assess the fighting ability of the Armenian divisions by penetrating the territory of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKP), and on the night of June 20 to 21, 200 instances of ceasefire infringements were recorded (ranging from small incidents to exchanges of fire).

On the one hand, it is difficult to be surprised at infringements of the ceasefire. Last year there were roughly 4,300 such infringements of varying degrees of gravity (ranging from single shots fired to full-on duels with artillery). In 2008 the number of infringements equated to 3,500 and in 2007 – 1,400. In 2006, in comparison with successive ones, things were really peaceful, with only 600 registered. On the other hand, in the context of the numerous changes in the Greater Caucasus and its neighboring regions, the incidents taking place today require the utmost attention.

This “hot spot” on the territory of the former Soviet Union stands out sharply from the others. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the most intense of the armed conflicts in the post-Soviet Caucasus (which began in 1988 as an inter-republic conflict, becoming interstate in 1991 and continuing for another three years). It was in Karabakh that the highest number of deaths, refugees and temporarily displaced persons were recorded in comparison with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnestr. In Karabakh there is no peace-keeping operation for separating the conflicting sides (everything is contained in the agreement on ceasefire, signed in May of 1994), and the sides themselves demarcate the “front line.” The single mediating force here is the Minsk Group, which has already become legendary for its ineffectiveness. The most effective peacekeeping achievement to date is the aforementioned May agreement of 1994.

The sides regularly test the limits of each other’s patience, and only the regional conventional arms race (not yet, thank God, a nuclear arms race) is a real stabilizing factor. Both sides fear a big war. It is not just a fear of loss of human life, but a fall in the image of the authorities, the legitimacy of which in many ways hinges on the Karabakh factor. Consequently, the strain on the situation can provoke much more serious results for the South Caucasus and the entire CIS.

However, June’s “military clamor” in the Karabakh is essentially just a continuation of the trend that began several years ago. It can be called the “unfreezing” of ethno-political conflict. This “unfreezing” resulted in the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and also in a new status quo in the Greater Caucasus. August 2008 showed that reliance on the dynamics of Russia-Georgia relations does not suit Yerevan. It explains the current growth in interest in the normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations which hasn’t been observed since 1991 to 1993. Armenian-Turkish dialogue has become a serious factor influencing the regulation of the Karabakh process, though it is not only thanks to Turkish diplomacy. The effectiveness of the Azeri president should also be recognized (along with his diplomatic office) for having managed to not allow the Karabakh problem to completely “detach” itself from the process of Armenian-Turkish normalization.

In contrast with the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdnestr or in the Balkans, it would seem that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has become a point where the positions of Russia and the United States for all these years, starting with the agreement on an indefinite ceasefire, have not deviated too seriously. Both sides, (each in its own way) have been interested in maintaining the status quo and avoiding an “unfreezing” of the conflict. And today Moscow and Washington would not want to raise “the stakes in the game” with Karabakh. Moscow has plenty of problems in other places in the Greater Caucasus, and the United States has got bogged down in the resolution of the Middle East (from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to Turkey, and Palestine with Israel). However, both would like to improve relations with Turkey. For Moscow, this is an important economic and political-psychological subject. For Washington, the prospect of utterly losing Turkey as a strategic ally is fraught with many side effects.

But Ankara is extremely interested in maintaining its normalization with Armenia, which corresponds to its interests. Among these interests, the Azerbaijan factor is far from the last. So how can Turkey be made more insistent on dialogue with the United States and the Russian Federation? And how can partners interested in relations with Turkey be forced to be tractable in the dialogue with Ankara? This is easiest achieved by reminding people of one’s presence. Not only by using warlike rhetoric (which everyone is already well acquainted with and rather fed up with), but also with military demonstrations, which contravene the rules.

It is interesting to note that a spokesman for the Azeri Foreign Ministry, Elkhin Polukhov, commenting on the incident on the night of June 18 to 19, clearly stated that “Azerbaijan will never accept the fact of the occupation of its territories.” Consequently, in Baku’s tactics, the negotiations (the same ones which were going on in St. Petersburg with the participation of Dmitry Medvedev literally the day before the infringements to the ceasefire regime) will alternate between fierce warlike statements and now already warlike demonstrations of force.

Probably, these same demonstrations of force will not lead to a new war by themselves. But the more frequent use of this instrument makes politics a hostage not of the president’s will, but rather of the will of sergeants. Only in layout do military operations seem logical and thought through. In reality, on the “front line” too much is being decided by emotions and irrational actions. Relying exclusively on this means leaving too much to chance.

Sergei Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on the Russia and Eurasia Program in Washington, DC.
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