Tense beginning of 2016 for Nagorno-Karabakh

ANALYSIS. The Armenian-controlled breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh seems to be catching international attention again these days. In spite of the ceasefire of 1994 that followed the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory, tensions have been escalating between the two countries. The past two years have seen increased hostility, and the number casualties in the line of contact has been particularly high - although this probably did not get the attention it deserved from the international community. The so-called frozen conflict seems to be slowly unfreezing.

In 2014, fighting left 60 people dead in cross-border violence, including the downing of an Armenian helicopter by Azerbaijani forces (an event that did cause outrage within the international community). Nevertheless, 2015 saw an unprecedented level of violence, including the use of artillery by both sides in September, which was for the first time since the ceasefire in 1994. As a result and in response to 70 reports of ceasefire violations, the OSCE Minsk Group – the body in charge of the peace talks between the parties - visited the frontline in November. This was followed by a meeting in Bern, Switzerland on 19th December. The meeting was arranged to provide an opportunity for the President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsian, and the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, to clarify their positions on the situation, and both presidents confirmed their commitment to continue with the peace talks.

Yet despite their willingness to continue the work towards a peaceful agreement, no progress has been achieved in the past 20 years. Last summer, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found that both countries had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, as many civilians were prevented from returning to homes lost as a result of the conflict in the 1990s. However, no compensation mechanisms were established and things continued as they were.

It seems like 2016 will not be the year when things calm down. Barely a month after the meeting of the presidents, the conflict has come back to surface in the international community this week. In its Winter Session, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) had an item on the agenda concerning the “Escalation of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh and the other occupied territories of Azerbaijan”, based on a report by the British former member of the Assembly, Robert Walter. The report not only showed concern for the escalation of deaths and military activity, but also called on the Minsk Group to take a new approach to peace settlement due to the lack of efficiency of its mission so far. It recalled that upon accession to the Council of Europe, both Armenia and Azerbaijan committed themselves to a peaceful settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh. The report also called on Armenia to withdraw form Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the Minsk Process. In response to the report, the Minsk Group released a statement on the 22nd of January reminding PACE that “the Minsk group remains the only accepted format for negotiations”.

Who knows whether this statement had an impact on the members of PACE. But in the session of 26th January, the motion was put to a vote and was rejected by 70 votes against, 66 in favour and 45 abstentions. After the rejection of the report, the president of Azerbaijan declared that the Minsk Group was ‘applying pro-Armenia pressure', called its work as ‘meaningless’ and regretted that they should be involved in the peace negotiations at all.

This means that things go back to the way they were and the situation continues in a cul-de-sac of meetings of the parties without tangible results. Not only have things not improved in the past 20 years, but they seem to have gone from bad to worse. Maybe this time the somewhat increased international attention will be the first step towards a larger involvement of the international community to put an end to the not-so-frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Or maybe it will remain a footnote in this long peace process, that seems to be permanently stuck.