The Azerbaijani leadership is showing its impatience at the continuing diplomatic deadlock over the disputed province of Karabakh. The signals coming out of Baku indicate that the Aliev administration is prepared — at least in words — to try to resolve the long-running conflict with Armenia by forceful means. Yerevan, however, appears content, as ever, to stick to the status quo.
That the perspectives of Azerbaijan and Armenia on how to settle the Karabakh conflict widely diverge is not news. In his recent interview to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian flatly stated that a “serious breakthrough in the negotiation process” should not be expected. “There are serious disagreements in the [strategic] approaches [of the two sides],” Oskanian said. Yet the recent pronouncements by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, pledging to liberate the “occupied national territories,” testify to Baku’s growing dissatisfaction with the existing situation.
In April, the government informed both the Azerbaijani military and Turkish lawmakers in Ankara that Azerbaijan “will never put up with Armenian occupation of Karabakh” and that it “will liberate its lands by all costs.” In July, Aliev specifically stated that his country would make no compromises with Armenia over the dispute. His declaration appeared to mark a hardening of Azerbaijan’s stance over the conflict. “We cannot react positively to calls on us to make compromises. On questions of our territorial integrity we will never make any compromises,” Aliev vowed. He again raised the issue of a forceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict at an August 10 meeting with Azerbaijani ambassadors.
When U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stopped in Baku on August 12, the Azerbaijani leadership seized the opportunity to ask the United States to support its bid to regain control over Karabakh. “What we want from the United States as our ally and partner is for it to support Azerbaijan in this conflict and demand that Armenia immediately withdraws its occupation forces,” Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiev announced at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld. Earlier Azerbaijan, upset by a lack of progress in mediation efforts by the Minsk Group of 11 states, led by France, the United States, and Russia, urged the European Union and other Western powers to get involved directly.
A number of political analysts, particularly in Russia, argue that the toughening of Azerbaijan’s position is likely prompted by the burst of activity in nearby Georgia, as President Mikheil Saakashvili rushes to reclaim Georgian territories. According to one Moscow commentator, the way the Karabakh problem is being currently discussed in Azerbaijan “resembles what is happening in Georgia.” The similarity, the commentary continues, “is displayed, above all, in that Ilham Aliev tries to use the Karabakh problem as an instrument for the consolidation of Azerbaijani society, aping Mikheil Saakashvili’s playing up the card of Georgia’s [territorial] integrity.”
Some Russian analysts contend that Aliev’s tactics imitate Saakashvili’s. While the Azerbaijani leader speaks about the importance of a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict, he constantly makes bellicose statements.
Neither Moscow nor Washington is interested in a violent, sudden end to the Karabakh conflict. During his Baku visit, Rumsfeld avoided responding to Azerbaijan’s call for help. “As you know, the United States supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” he told the news conference, adding that Washington was involved in the Minsk group.
Meanwhile, a week of military exercises by the Karabakh armed forces ended on August 10. The closing ceremony was observed by Karabakh officials and a delegation of senior Armenian military officers, led by Serzh Sarkisian, Armenia’s Defense Minister. Sarkisian noted that the Armenian army serves as “a guarantor of the security of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh,” but added that there is no real threat of a military conflict in the near future. He also stressed, “The leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia have declared more than once that the Armenian side does not intend to resume military operations” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 8; Politcom.ru, August 10; Arminfo, August 10; Zerkalo.az, August 12.).