Azerbaijanis increasingly see the recent wave of cease-fire violations in Karabakh as an attempt by Yerevan to divert attention from the domestic turmoil that has erupted since Armenia’s February 19 presidential election. Reportedly, four soldiers from the Azerbaijani side and eight from the Armenian side have died as a result of the worst cease-fire violations in a decade. Although both sides have pledged to observe an agreement on the cease-fire, shootings continue to occur, and reports from March 10 indicate that one more soldier from each side has died.
Both the U.S. State Department and the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, have expressed deep concerns about this unusual outbreak of cease-fire violations. The Armenian and Azerbaijani sides blame each other for starting the fight. Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian told a press conference that “We condemn the acts of the Azerbaijani army, which wanted to utilize the right moment, capture some territories” (Armeninfo, March 4.) Azerbaijani officials have reacted in a similar manner. “The leadership of Armenia is utilizing provocations in order to distract attention from its domestic problems,” said Ali Hasanov, the chief of the political department in the President’s Office.
Anar Mammadkhanov and Asim Mollazadeh, members of Azerbaijan’s parliament, as well as political scientists Rasim Musabeyov, Alimammad Nuriyev, Akif Nagi, and Mubariz Ahmadoglu all put the blame on Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, who won the disputed vote. “Kocharian and Sarkisian, who have butchered their own people in the streets of Yerevan, badly needed a provocation on the front line,” said Mammadkhanov (Day.az, March 4.)
While Azerbaijanis are convinced that the cease-fire violation was linked to the bloodshed, political chaos, and turmoil in post-election Armenia, many now wonder what the implications will be. In a March 6 interview with ANS Radio, Eldar Sabiroglu, the press secretary of the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, rhetorically asked, “What were the soldiers from Armenia doing in Nagorno-Karabakh?” Political scientist Vugar Seidov, in an op-ed for Day.az on March 6, continued the similar theme, stating, “The fact that Kocharian created a provocation in the front line in order to divert attention from domestic affairs proves that Armenia is directly involved in the conflict.”
The situation presents a very dangerous precedent. Although cease-fire violations are a regular occurrence along the front line in Karabakh, most of the incidents in the past were minor and not linked to political events in a particular country. This latest case, however, shows that the stability in the Caucasus is very fragile and how the domestic developments and needs of a particular country can shake the seemingly solid balance of power in the front line.
Azerbaijanis blame the international community for once again applying double standards toward both the incident and the overall election situation in Armenia. The soft criticism from the OSCE, Council of Europe, and U.S. Department of State to the brutal crackdown against the peaceful protestors in Yerevan – the official death toll is eight persons – has shocked Baku. A well-known diplomat, who preferred to speak to Jamestown on the condition of anonymity says, “Just imagine the reaction if something like that happens in Azerbaijan. What would happen if our police brought out tanks, shot eight people, and introduced emergency rule, including open official censorship?! The West’s sudden warm attitude toward pro-Russian former warlord Sarkisian is surprising. Many in Azerbaijan have already made up their minds that the only reason why Armenia’s authorities are being treated so mildly is the Armenians’ ethnicity and religion. This strongly undermines any credibility of the OSCE and Western observers in case of future criticisms of Azerbaijan. Moreover, this plays directly into Moscow’s hands, where talk about the West’s insincerity is at the top of Kremlin’s talking points. Ironically, Azerbaijan did not support Moscow’s effort, by the way endorsed by Yerevan, to end OSCE election and democracy monitoring in the region.”
There are also analysts who believe that the cease-fire violation was caused by broader geopolitical games unfolding in the Caucasus. Independent political analysts Ilgar Mammadov told Day.az on March 6 that the “cease-fire violation has allowed Moscow to scare off the potential consumers of the Azeri and Turkmen gas.” Previously Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev traveled to Hungary and expressed Azerbaijan’s interest in joining the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which is designed to deliver Caspian gas to European markets. Gudrat Hassanguliyev, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament, went even further in his thinking regarding the cease-fire violation, by informing journalists that “it was an attempt by Moscow to show to the participants of the NATO Rose-Roth seminar in Baku who is in charge of security issues in the region.”
Observers may never know if Russia was directly involved into this cease-fire violation or not. But the double-standards from the West and the clear provocation from Yerevan are increasingly pushing Azerbaijanis more and more toward a military solution to the long-running conflict.