The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh and the adjoining regions of Azerbaijan now occupied by Armenian forces is almost invariably discussed in terms of the positions held by Baku, Yerevan and Moscow. But the attitudes and feelings of the people most directly involved—the soldiers on the front, the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the war and, perhaps most of all, the tens of thousands who still live on either side of the so-called “Contact Line,” where Azerbaijani and Armenian forces confront each other and regularly exchange fire—are seldom considered. This disregard persists even though the ability of politicians in the capitals to move toward a lasting settlement depends in critical ways on these groups.
Violence continues on a daily basis, affecting not only the soldiers of both armies but also the populations each is pledged to defend (Kavkazsky Uzel, Sputnik News—Azerbaijani edition, October 2). Yet, even as talks between Baku and Yerevan continue, international monitoring of conditions along the Contact Line focuses almost exclusively on attacks and losses among the armed forces rather than their impact on the civilian populations (Trend.az, September 18). Unlike the soldiers, who are rotated in and out on a regular basis, the populations on both sides largely remain in place—and the effects of 30 years of clashes have been cumulative, making reporting about the sentiments of the local residents especially valuable.
One such report has now appeared. Written by Azerbaijani analyst Zaur Shiriyev on the basis of a five-day visit to the Azerbaijani side of the line, it provides some important insights into how the Azerbaijanis living near that dividing line view the conflict. He concludes that their attitudes will make any settlement even more difficult than it appears to international governments (Crisisgroup.org, September 17).
Shiriyev, who earlier himself served as an Azerbaijani soldier, begins his report by noting that internally displaced persons (IDP) in Azerbaijan still identify with the towns and villages they came from but which are now occupied by Armenian forces. They want to have their remains buried there when that becomes possible, even “though many of them have lived in Baku for decades.” He subsequently focuses his attention on the situation of forces and the population in the zone near where the two armies face off. The “hot” periods of the conflict (1992–1994 and 2016) are seemingly now in the past. But the opposing militaries continue to regularly exchange fire—even though the September 2018 Dushanbe accords, which established a line of communication between the two armies (Civilnet.am, September 30, 2018), has roughly halved the number of ceasefire violations.
“Only those living near the front lines in Azerbaijan and Armenia fully grasp the importance of reductions or surges in ceasefire violations,” the analyst says. “More than anyone residing in the safety of the capital cities, they know the fear of being shot or their kid being killed by a sniper… Only they know the relief when the fear lessens. But the locals have also lived through lulls in the shooting before [and] know it usually restarts” (Crisisgroup.org, September 17).
Moreover, Shiriyev says, the image of the enemy is kept alive by officials and the media. While visiting one border city, he saw posters “advertising a chess tournament” between the world champion and Azerbaijani school children displaced by the war. Villagers in another place pointed with pride to Armenian trenches Azerbaijani forces had quickly taken in 2016; and in still a third, they have built a replica of mosques in Shusha, “the Azerbaijani Jerusalem,” lost to Armenia in 1992. Through all this, local residents find themselves bombarded by official media that alternates between optimism and pessimism about the prospects for a settlement—a pattern that makes such reporting less, rather than more, influential. In his report, Shiriyev makes an appeal for more outside broadcasts to bring a more balanced picture of what is going on.
Although the war is never far from the lives of the people there, they are nonetheless working to make a life for themselves. In Joiug Mercanli, where residents have erected a copy of a Shusha mosque, the number of residents has skyrocketed, from “only one family” before April 2016 to “150 houses and a school under construction.”
One thing that people near the Contact Line do not understand, Shiriyev stresses, is all the talk about “preparing the populations for peace” that has circulated among Armenian and Azerbaijani officials and commentators since Dushanbe (see EDM, April 1; Osce.org, January 16). “No one has explained what it means, leaving it open to interpretation. Some […] think it indicates a bilateral agreement to move quickly toward resolving the conflict, [but] others see it as public relations, a way of delaying negotiations while giving the impression that they’re on the right track.” Regardless, for people near the Contact Line, “this phrase makes little sense” (Crisisgroup.org, September 17).
Shiriyev concluded his visit to the region by going to Gulustan, a city of immense historical significance for Azerbaijanis because it was there, in 1813, that Russia and Persia signed “a treaty that divided Azerbaijan in two,” one half of which is now an independent country while the other is in Iran (Crisisgroup.org, September 17). That division matters to Azerbaijanis. And what happens to ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran may come to interact with what happens along the Contact Line.
In particular, Tehran is now allowing the Azerbaijani minority more linguistic rights, including language classes in three regions where this ethnic group forms a majority (Turantoday.com, September 9; Amerikaninsesi.org, September 25). That development in Iran could affect Baku’s approach to the conflict with Yerevan and the acceptance of that approach by the people living near the Contact Line. On the one hand, Azerbaijani support for their co-ethnics in Iran could reenergize the Azerbaijanis to stand up against the Armenians. But on the other hand—and more hopefully—Iran’s concessions to the cultural rights of Azerbaijanis could provide a model for the treatment of an ethnic minority that both Baku and Yerevan might view as a way forward.