Dangerous Games in the Karabakh Dispute

By Fuad Huseinzadeh
The reconstructed airport of so-called Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert (Khankendi, in Azeri version), was officially launched on Monday, September 1, the Haykakan Zhamanak paper reports, citing Dmitry Abashyan, the head of the “country’s” General Department of Civil Aviation (GDCA)(https://www.tert.am/en/news/2012/10/02/chvert/?sw). The airport was built in the Soviet period and served mostly flights between the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region of Azerbaijan and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, but was demolished during the Karabakh war in the early 1990s.
According to Abashyan, the airport was given a certificate late in September, which confirms that the airport complies with international standards and has a right to serve arrivals and departures. The exact starting day of the first flights has not been decided upon yet, the newspaper notes, referring to Adbashyan’s earlier statement on a scheduled pilot flight for Saturday.
Responding to an inquiry about the possibility that Azerbaijan might respond to this action by downing aircraft flying to Stepanakert and the avenues to prevent this, the head of the General Department of Civil Aviation (GDCA) in Karabakh stated that this refers to civil airplanes. “Civil airplanes do not plan to hide; they will have all the recognition devices,” he said (https://www.news.am/eng/news/123240.html), implying that Azerbaijan would know that the aircraft was a civilian plane and not an aircraft used by the Armenian military.
Armenia has postponed the opening of the airport for over a year. It was set to open the airport in the occupied internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory a year ago, back in May 2011 (https://www.newsland.ru/news/detail/id/668226/). At that time Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan proclaimed that he would be the first passenger to fly from Stepanakert to Yerevan. His announcement sparked a protest from Baku, who warned that Azerbaijan might attack aircraft over its occupied lands, and subsequently the airport never opened.  It appeared that officials in Armenia were just using the issue to annoy Baku, as it does with the intention, time after time, to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.”
However, it seems now, that the recent “Safarov case” has altered the situation and put Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan on the defensive as a result of the Safarov case.  According to the Armenian expert Richard Giragosian, the decision to reopen the airport in Karabakh appears to be a direct response to the case of Azeri officer Ramil Safarov, who murdered an Armenian military officer in a NATO exchange course in Budapest in 2004. Safarov was extradited back to Azerbaijan and immediately pardoned upon his return (https://www.news.am/eng/news/123312.html). Carnegie Endowment senior specialist Thomas de Waal, however, does not see the likelihood that Azerbaijan will attack airplanes at the airport should it start operating because of the fear that any military attack on the airport could cause a backlash in the international community. However, De Waal believes that the opening of the airport will only deepen the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan and heighten the state of military friction that exists between the two sides in Karabakh (https://news.am/rus/news/123188.html).