Spring typically revives the lingering conflict over the Karabakh enclave. But according to Azerbaijani military expert Uzeyir Jafarov, “The tensions on the front line happen every spring, but this year something unusual is happening” (Echo, March 16). Jafarov’s observation accurately describes the situation on the Azerbaijani-Armenian cease-fire line in the past several weeks.
According to Azerbaijani media outlets, the cross-border shootings and cease-fire violations, which have been taking place regularly between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops during the past few weeks, have resulted in several dead and wounded soldiers on both sides. On March 15 alone, the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan reported two deaths from the Azerbaijani side and three deaths from the Armenian one (Echo, March 16.) According to a Ministry of Defense press release, Azerbaijani troops came under fire in villages in Agdam, Gazakh, Ter-Ter, Geranboy, and Fizuli regions. In addition to military casualties, ASN TV reported civilian casualties, including some shepherds in Ter-Ter region. Ministry of Defense spokesman Ramiz Melikov also alleged that the Armenian side always instigates the cease-fire violations.
The shootings usually last about two hours and utilize both guns and machine-guns. The situation has become so intense that Andrzej Kasprzyk, the special representative of the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has announced plans to convene an emergency meeting on front-line monitoring on March 17.
The Azerbaijani side cites several motives to explain the recent intensification of the cease-fire violations in the past several weeks. The most official — and most ordinary — explanation was given by Melikov: “What is happening is nothing more than the outrage of the aggressor who does not respect any international rules” (Echo, March 16.) Melikov believes that the lack of discipline in the Armenian army and drunkenness on the part of officers led to the irresponsible shooting. “The leadership of Armenia closes its eyes to it because it diverts attention from the political situation inside the country.” In past years, the “shooting for fun” was indeed one of the primary reasons for the cease-fire violations. This time, however, it has gone on too long to be dismissed as isolated acts of drunken officers and soldiers.
Some analysts believe that the cease-fire violations are related to the almost finished construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. “There are foreign powers that are not interested in this pipeline and try to sabotage it,” one high-ranking official from the government told Jamestown. BTC, which should be completed by summer 2005, will carry up to 1 million barrels of Azerbaijani oil to the world markets through an area that is only 30 kilometers away from the Armenian-controlled Karabakh territory of Azerbaijan.
At the same time, many independent analysts believe that Yerevan’s negotiating stance has somewhat hardened in the past several months and that the cease-fire violations might be part of that policy. Several weeks ago, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian refused to attend a scheduled meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, in Prague citing illness. Oskanian has since requested that the meeting be moved to Paris, where Armenians traditionally have a strong community. It was in Paris in the spring of 2001 where Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev met and allegedly agreed on the so-called “Paris principles” that Yerevan now wants to revive.
Similarly, Yerevan seems to have hardened its negotiating stance due to Baku’s recent diplomatic victories. Last month, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution acknowledging Karabakh as an “occupied territory of Azerbaijan.” Meanwhile, the OSCE has launched a fact-finding mission in Karabakh to verify the Azerbaijani claims that Armenian families are being illegally settled in the occupied territories (see EDM, February 1). The mission is expected to deliver its report on March 16 (ANS, March 16).
OSCE special representative Kasprzyk believes that Russia, the United States, and France, the co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which was established to help negotiate a peaceful settlement, should step into the fray and calm the recent tensions. American representative Steven Mann has informed the Azerbaijani media that he has personally called Kasprzyk to discuss the problem. Meanwhile, military analyst Jafarov claims that more than 10 persons from the Azerbaijani side and four from the Armenian have died since the beginning of the year, giving 2005 the bloodiest start of any recent year.