Saturday, March 08, 2008

Armenia: Aftermath of Karabakh Clash

By Karine Ohanian in Stepanakert, Samira Ahmedbeyli in Baku and Seda Muradyan in Yerevan (CRS No. 434, 07-Mar-08)

This article originally appeared in Caucasus Reporting Service produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Some ask whether front-line skirmish was connected with political turmoil in Armenia.

As the dust begins to settle from a firefight between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces earlier this week, their respective politicians have reverted to verbal warfare as international mediators work to contain the damage to longer term prospects for peace.

Accounts differ as to who fired first. But all agree it was the most serious breach of the ceasefire in a decade, and one that could have alarming consequences if it were repeated.

The uneasy ceasefire on the frontline held by Armenian forces from Nagorny Karabakh and the Azerbaijani military was broken early on March 4.

Azerbaijani defence ministry spokesman Eldar Sabirogli said Armenian units broke the ceasefire by firing on Azerbaijani positions near the villages of Cheliburt, Talish and Gapanli in the Terter district, and the Tapgaragoyunli settlement in neighbouring Geranboy district. Both districts are to the north and east of Nagorny Karabakh.

Armenian sources confirmed that the fighting was in this general area, adjacent to the Mardakert district of Nagorny Karabakh.

Sabirogli said four Azerbaijani soldiers were killed and two civilians injured.

Senor Hasratian, spokesman for the defence ministry of the unrecognised Karabakh government, also cited a figure of four Azerbaijani dead and said two Armenian soldiers were injured, although in neither case were the wounds life-threatening.

He dismissed the accusations coming out of Baku, saying, “They are deliberately distorting things. If we had launched an attack, the bodies of the four Azerbaijani soldiers who died would not be lying on territory held by the army of Nagorny Karabakh.”

The two sides agreed on these casualty figures, although according to Reuters, the Azerbaijanis also claimed that the Armenians lost 12 soldiers, which Hasratian denied.

The defence ministry of Armenia itself, which treats Nagorny Karabakh as a separate and independent entity, came out with a statement blaming the Azerbaijanis for starting the firefight.
Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian said Azerbaijani forces seized an important defensive position held by the other side, which then responded with gunfire, regained the territory, and forced their opponents back to their original lines.

Major Hachik Tavadyan, one of those injured on the Nagorny Karabakh side, confirmed this account of events from his hospital bed, adding, “I was there and I know how it started. I cannot tell a lie – they attacked us first.”

Anar Mamedkhanov, a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, told IWPR that President Ilham Aliev was visiting that part of the country, so it would hardly have made sense to launch military operations near to where he was.

“Basic human logic would tell you that for reasons of security, it wouldn’t have been in the interests of the Azerbaijani armed forces to mount a provocation that day, since the president was in a neighbouring region that day. Why create a risk to his life?” asked Mamedkhanov.

The incident was undoubtedly the most serious of its kind in many years. Since a truce was signed in 1994, leaving Armenian forces in control of Nagorny Karabakh, there have been sporadic shooting incidents but the ceasefire has by and large held. The OSCE, the international mediating group, operates a limited monitoring mission which visits the front line periodically.

The OSCE’s “Minsk Group” of international diplomats has tried repeatedly to broker an end to what is effectively a frozen conflict, but has found it impossible to devise a formula acceptable to all.

The Nagorny Karabakh authorities, along with Yerevan, say their de facto independence should be recognised by the international community. Azerbaijan insists that it has been deprived of control over large swathes of territory within its international boundaries, and that sovereignty must be restored as a precondition for discussions on autonomy for the Armenians there.

Predictably, this week’s skirmish gave rise to belligerent talk from officials on both sides.

“The Azerbaijani army is responding to the Armenians as they deserve, and we are fully capable of defending our country’s independence,” Lieutenant-General Najmeddin Sadigov, chief of the Azerbaijani general staff, told ANS television.

Nagorny Karabakh’s foreign ministry said, “The Azerbaijani side has sought to use such incidents of this kind to destabilise the situation in the entire region as well as on the [front] line of contact,” and warned that Armenian forces would respond to such actions robustly.

The ministry demanded that the OSCE mission conduct “a thorough investigation into the causes and circumstances of the incident”.

OSCE monitors were due to visit the line of fire on March 7, but the trip was postponed.

The international community was quick to call on all sides to avoid a repetition of the violence.

Finnish foreign minister Ilkka Kanerva, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, who had visited the region only the week before, urged everyone concerned to “exercise maximum restraint, and observe the terms of the ceasefire".

“At this critical juncture in the negotiations to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, any action leading to a destabilisation of the line of contact can only have a negative impact on the overall situation,” he said. “I urge the parties to avoid actions that could lead to further unnecessary loss of life."

He noted that the OSCE chairman’s representative for the Karabakh conflict, Andrzej Kasprzyk, was currently in the region and was “in close contact with the parties".

A senior OSCE official told IWPR that "the situation is very dangerous; there is a risk of escalation", calling this “the worst incident in the last ten years”.
"Fortunately, on this occasion, there was a political decision not to escalate," he said. "The worry is that this kind of skirmish could become a common occurrence."

The United States, one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, also had a senior diplomat - Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza - talking to top politicians in the region

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters that the US was concerned about the incident, which only served to underline the need for a negotiated settlement.

He noted, “There has not been a repeat of the incident and we hope that continues.

Azad Isazade, a defence expert at the Institute for War and Democracy in Baku, said ceasefire violations were fairly common at this time of year, when the snow melted and it became easier to move around. “Of course, on this occasion the shooting was on a larger scale,” he said. “But I don’t think it will lead to full-scale war.”

Other commentators in Azerbaijan, Nagorny Karabakh and Armenia tended to identify internal political factors which might have prompted the opposing side to deliberately seek a confrontation.

David Babayan, a political analyst in Nagorny Karabakh, speculated that the Azerbaijani leadership might have been probing their opponents’ defences at a time when Armenia itself is in political turmoil.

A second possibility, he suggested, was that Baku was seriously concerned that Nagorny Karabakh’s aspirations for independence had moved a step forward following the declaration of independence by Kosovo, another former autonomous territory within a Communist state.

“Azerbaijan is seriously worried about the right of nations to self-determination, and it chose to react by using force,” he said.

A common theme among analysts across the region was that the exchange of gunfire was in some way connected with the domestic political strife in Armenia, where opposition protests over the results of the February 19 presidential election ended in bloodshed on March 1. Eight people were reported dead after running battles between police and demonstrators in the capital Yerevan.

Azerbaijani political scientist Rasim Musabekov believes the administration of outgoing president Robert Kocharian and his elected successor Serzh Sarkisian stood to gain from creating a diversion to distract attention from their own problems.

Armed forces chief of staff Lt-Gen Sadigov made a similar point, saying the ceasefire was a direct consequence of Armenia’s internal troubles.

Armenia’s foreign minister Vardan Oskanian, meanwhile, accused Baku of “taking advantage of the exacerbation of the internal political situation in Armenia".

Despite the exchange of recriminations between Azerbaijan and Armenian politicians, and the flurry of international efforts to smooth over the crisis, not everyone was so exercised about it.

In Baku, Zamin Haji of the opposition Yeni Musavat fulminated about what he said was the “disgusting” disregard that Azerbaijani television stations showed for the clash by showing light entertainment rather than breaking news on the fighting.

In Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh, economist Ruzanna Petrosyan was dismissive of the media coverage of the fighting.

“I read on the internet that military activities had resumed. That’s all down to you journalists – you make a world war out of a common-or-garden clash, anything to be sensational,” she complained to IWPR. “It’s all untrue. As you can see, life goes on as normal.”

Karine Ohanian works for the Demo Newspaper in Stepanakert. Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR contributor in Baku. Seda Muradyan is IWPR’s editor in Yerevan.

Note: While every effort has been made to use neutral language in this language, the terminology here was chosen by IWPR editors in London and may not reflect that preferred by the authors.