The recent outbreak of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan is the most serious in more than two decades, since the cease-fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia was established in 1994. It is a tragedy, as many lives have been lost on both sides. However, it is also something that cannot simply be explained away as something that “just happened.” There are many reasons and motivations for what has just occurred.
First, it came at the exact time that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington at the invitation of President Obama, in a further sign of U.S. recognition of the growing and strategic role that Azerbaijan is playing in both global nuclear security and infrastructure, as well as the fight against global terrorism.
Azerbaijan, with its stable government, sound economy and ethnic tolerance, is a stabilizing force in the South Caucasus region — an area that has known too much instability in recent times, and this trip to America could only be viewed as highly successful. Yet that image of a strong and strategically important Azerbaijan on the world stage plays very much against the image that the authorities of the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region would like the world to see.
Instead, Armenia’s attacks on settlements near the front line of the region were designed to provoke a response from the Azerbaijani military forces, which they did. It was meant to divert the positive attention Azerbaijanis had been receiving in the news, and instead paint them as aggressors.
One would also do well to remember that Armenia does not always act of its own accord. In an interview on Russian television last year, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan stated that he wanted Armenia to coordinate its foreign policy with Russia. Many analysts took this to mean Armenian independence would begin to evaporate and be subjugated to the rulings of the Kremlin in Moscow rather than the National Assembly in Yerevan. This was already illustrated when Armenia supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and backed Russia in the United Nations General Assembly vote on Ukraine’s territorial integrity — making it one of only 11 states to support Russia — states that included such notorious regimes as North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
For the sacrifice of its political and economic independence, and its pro-Russian stance in the international arena, Armenia gets the benefit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, under which Russia obliges itself to defend Armenia in the case of armed activities. However interestingly, this only relates to Armenia’s international borders and not the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region.
It has also recently become a member of the Eurasian Customs Union, a sort of opposition to the European Union and opposed by the United States, which sees it as a Russian attempt to re-establish a Russia-dominated USSR type of union among former Soviet states.
Russia has also loaned $200 million to Armenia in order for it to buy sophisticated Russian military equipment. At the same time, it’s sold about $1 billion worth of equipment to Azerbaijan. This is an arms race that Armenia and its economy can ill afford.
The 20 percent of Azerbaijani land, including Nagorno-Karabakh, that Armenia occupies is an economic drain on the country and one that will only continue to affect it negatively. Armenia may dispute its status, but it is land that is recognized as sovereign Azerbaijani land in the international community, through U.N. Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions and even the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The U.S. State Department has condemned the violence and called for negotiations, but once again it seems to shy away from its own position of a few years back when it acknowledged that “Armenia continues to occupy the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories.”
In this recent outbreak of violence, Azerbaijan has responsibly shown its commitment to a peaceful resolution by declaring a unilateral cease-fire, allowing both parties to step back from the brink — all be it temporarily.
The Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the United States and set up to lead a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, has proven itself to be a failure. More than 20 years later, Azerbaijani lands are still occupied and violent conflict is still rife. A new mechanism needs to be found to deal with the conflict that allows Azerbaijani sovereignty to be restored as well as consideration for those Armenians living there.
The urgency in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is clear. A solution needs to be found soon, or the violence from the last few days could merely be the prelude to something worse.
• Justin Amler is an Australian writer and commentator on international issues.