Almost a year has passed since fierce fighting broke out for four days in April 2016, between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops in Karabakh. However, the situation along the Line of Contact (LoC) remains tense and explosive to this day.
According to the February 26 statement released by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group Co-Chairs, a serious breach of the ceasefire occurred along the LoC in the early morning of February 25, resulting in casualties. Both sides accuse each other of an incursion attempt (Osce.org, February 26). At the same time the press service of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense reported the death of five Azerbaijani servicemen. The soldiers were reportedly killed while preventing Armenian forces from infiltrating Azerbaijani-held areas and seizing favorable positions on the Khojavand-Fuzuli part of the frontline (Trend, February 27). The bodies of the Azerbaijani servicemen were evacuated from the battlefield only after the intervention of international mediators on February 27 (Azertag.az, February 27).
Russia has remained diplomatically active on the Karabakh conflict. Moscow’s role was instrumental in achieving the ceasefire agreement of April 5, 2016. And Russia played a pivotal role in arranging two consecutive meetings of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Vienna and St. Petersburg, in May and June 2016, respectively (see EDM, July 7, 2016). Nonetheless, popular anti-government rallies following a hostage crisis at the police station in Yerevan halted any further movement forward in the Karabakh peace process. At the same time, the appearance of Russian Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems at a military parade in Yerevan, in September 2016, represented both the hardening of the Armenian position in the negotiation process and the potential for a new arms race in the region (see EDM, September 28, 2016; October 5, 2016).
Various experts have expressed diverse views to explain the recent outbreak of violence in Karabakh. Five points should be taken into consideration in this context:
First, Russian political analyst Sergey Markedonov has argued that the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies became, in a way, hostages of last April’s events. He has called the current state of play “stable instability.” According to him, the status quo over Karabakh has become dynamic and is periodically tested, including attempts to use the military option. However, despite concerns about the potential outbreak of a new war, there remain many restraining factors, Markedonov asserted (Haqqin.az, February 27).
Second, the latest outbreak of violence occurred while preparations were under way in Azerbaijan for a nationwide commemorative march devoted to the 25th anniversary of the capture of the Karabakh town of Khojaly. On the night of February 25–26, 1992, 613 Azerbaijanis—including 106 women, 63 children and 70 elderly people—were killed in Khojaly at the hands of the Armenian Armed Forces, with the assistance of the Russian (formerly Soviet) 366th Motor Rifle Regiment. On February 26, 2017, more than 40,000 people, led by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, took part in this march (APA, February 26). Additionally, leading Russian military expert Colonel (Ret.) Igor Korotchenko noted that, President Aliyev’s official visit to Qatar, which was also scheduled on the same day, signifies that Azerbaijan could not have been interested in violent escalation along the LoC at this time (Haqqin.az, February 26).
Third, according to Hikmat Hajiyev, the spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the recent violence on the frontline is a continuation of Armenia’s political and military provocations aimed at “undermining the efforts for a solution of the conflict via the substantive talks, diverting the attention of the international community on the eve of the Khojaly genocide [sic] from the responsibilities borne by Armenia for Khojaly, and strengthening [the government’s] already-lost social support base and the position of Armenia’s ruling regime in the forthcoming Armenian parliamentary elections” (Azertag.az, February 25). Some experts also believe that Armenia is striving to regain positions around the village of Talish and Leletepe Hill, which it lost in April 2016, in order to demonstrate “the efficiency” of the Armenian Army’s new leadership. This is particularly significant since Armenia’s former defense minister, Seyran Ohanyan, has moved into the opposition against President Serzh Sargsyan (Kavkavzsky Uzel, February 26).
Fourth, the illegal “referendum” in Azerbaijan’s separatist Karabakh region, held on February 20, is a vivid violation of Azerbaijan’s constitution as well as of the norms and principles of international law. Today, no countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, recognize Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, meanwhile, stated that they do not accept the results of this “referendum,” adding that the “results also in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” (Osce.org, February 17).
Fifth, the late-February violence notwithstanding, other recent developments around Karabakh have brought new perspectives for pushing the conflict resolution process forward. On the one hand, the Belarusian authorities’ arrest and extradition to Azerbaijan of travel blogger Alexander Lapshin, a citizen of Russia, Israel and Ukraine, may become a precedent to prevent others from visiting the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” (NKR) in the future (see EDM, February 13). On the other hand, some limited recapture of Azerbaijani territories by Azerbaijan’s forces last year have created a unique opportunity to restore the village of Jojug Marjanli (Jabrayil region). More than 190 out of the 400 families who once lived in the village have already expressed a desire to return to their homeland. And in a Presidential Order, signed on January 24, 2017, Aliyev allocated four million manats ($2.05 million) from the president’s 2017 Contingency Fund for the restoration of this village. Two trips were organized to acquaint nearly 30 representatives of foreign media outlets and almost 60 heads of diplomatic missions of foreign states accredited in Azerbaijan with the ongoing de-mining and construction work in the village so far (Azernews.az, February 7, 15).
Thus, it seems that the potential for peace has not yet been exhausted. But a significant political and diplomatic commitment will be needed from the mediators’ end. One possibility might be to convene a Minsk Conference on Karabakh, at the level of the foreign ministers of all members of the OSCE Minsk Group. This ministerial could be tasked with evaluating the work done so far, over the past nearly 25 years, toward a comprehensive peace agreement.