On September 26-27, OSCE Minsk co-chairs Bernard Fassier (France), Yuri Merzlyakov (Russia), and Steven Mann (the United States) met in Vienna to discuss further steps in the Karabakh peace process.
Before the meeting, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, declared, “The peace process has not yet exhausted itself,” but he also added “there is a need for a parallel increase in the military expenditures of Azerbaijan.”
Meanwhile, Merzlyakov, the Russian co-chair, expressed his concern about the fact that both Azerbaijan and Armenia have increased their military budgets and said, “Bellicose statements and calls for using military force in solving the Karabakh problem do not contribute to a resolution of the conflict.”
Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov reacted to Merzlyakov’s speech on Monday, September 26. “The increase in [Azerbaijan’s] military budget is normal and it is in the country’s national interest,” he declared. “This is Azerbaijan’s internal affair [and] the [military] budget will be raised as much as needed.”
Azerbaijan has doubled its military budget to $300 million in 2005 and is expected to double again in 2006, as new oil and gas export profits arrive.
Referring to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s possible involvement in the peace process, Merzlyakov commented, “PACE may contribute to mobilizing public opinion in the two countries to achieve the compromise needed for conflict resolution.” However, Merzlyakov’s desire to boost public support for potential agreement may be too little, too late.
For years, the OSCE Minsk co-chairs disregarded the potential domestic reaction in Azerbaijan and Armenia to an agreement reached without public input. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) titled, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict from the Ground,” outlines the potentially ominous outcomes of this neglect.
“Whatever progress is occurring around the negotiations table, on the ground a resumption of war still seems all too possible,” reads one of the conclusions in the report. “We are tired of ten years of peaceful negotiations that lead us nowhere [and] brought us nothing,” says one Azerbaijani refugee, voicing his frustration about unfulfilled promises.
The ICG team reports that some 13% of all Azerbaijanis surveyed “unconditionally supported a military solution, while 53.3%s supported such a solution if peaceful means failed. However, 84.2% of [internally displaced persons (IDPs)] respondents called for the use of force.” According to the report, “The majority of the public [in Azerbaijan] demands unconditional return of all occupied territories including Nagorno-Karabakh and places little hope in a negotiated settlement and peaceful outcome.”
The survey illustrates that it is not only the Azerbaijani government calling for a military solution in case the negotiations fail, but also a large portion of the general public and IDPs in Azerbaijan believe that the military option may be the only available alternative to change the current status quo.
As a result of the war, some 800,000 Azerbaijanis became refugees and IDPs; most are from the districts surrounding Karabakh. Armenia still occupies these districts as a buffer zone. The ICG report argues that before any of these districts could be returned, Azerbaijan should give “strong military and political security guarantees.”
Ironically, a component of hard security — a buffer zone used against a possible offensive — directly affects the very livelihood of the IDPs, who in turn have an indirect affect on their government’s position in the negotiations, by making it even more hardline. In other words, by continuous occupation of the districts surrounding Karabakh, Armenia increases the potential for the use of force on Azerbaijan’s side.
Speaking at the Ministry of Defense on September 16, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev declared, “Azerbaijan is a country in a state of war. Our lands are under occupation. The country has pursued a peaceful policy for many years. But the conflict has not been resolved. Then what should Azerbaijan resort to? That is why the reinforcement of our military potential is quite natural.” Furthermore, “Increasing our country’s military budget is our sovereign right and this should not trouble anyone. This is our internal affair and we will pursue this path as long as we deem it necessary. I have set the task: our military budget should reach the entire budget of Armenia, or even exceed it,” Aliev concluded.
Yet, the ICG report suggests that there is still a window of opportunity. “Moderate civil society actors and average Azeris and Armenians could play a key role in ‘developing a new language of dialogue’… to help deconstruct the inherited history of myth and symbol that fuels confrontation’.” Although “IDP populations [are] the greatest victims of the war,” says the report, they are also the ones that are “the most open to coexistence.”
“The majority of Nagorno-Karabakh population, current and former, remembers common life before the war. The memories of the past, while including tremendous pain, also encompass warm memories of shared life in a multiethnic Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, ‘where life was good’.”
Nonetheless, as Azerbaijan and Armenia continue to increase their military expenditures and public opinion in Azerbaijan, especially among IDPs, turns against the OSCE-sponsored mediation process, no one can rule out the possibility of a new war between the two states in the near future.
(www.crisisgroup.org, AssA-Irada, Zerkalo, AzerNews, 525ci.com, September 16-28)