What is next for Nagorno-Karabakh?

OPINION. Just a couple of months ago, Nationalia explained in an article how Nagorno-Karabakh was catching international attention after an increase in hostilities between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. That article pointed out the risk of reaching a situation where the parties would be stuck in a loop of pointless meetings without any meaningful outcome. Nevertheless, the situation has gone beyond that and the hostilities have increased even further, this time making it to the headlines of major international newspapers.

On 2nd April there was a violent outbreak that seems to have halted for the time being after a ceasefire agreed on 5th April, but it seems only a matter of time before it breaks out again. Violent episodes have been increasingly happening in the past years, with particular regularity in 2015 (for a summary of the major events in Nagorno-Karabakh, see Nationalia, April 2016). However, this last one is by far the worst since the truce reached in 1994, leaving 30 soldiers dead and some civilian casualties.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been stockpiling military arsenals during the past years (in both cases, mostly purchased from Russia). The economic situation of each country has certainly made a difference on the amount allocated to military expenditure. Azerbaijan has a much more comfortable economic position, fuelled by oil revenues, which has allowed the country to spend no less than 1,300 million US Dollars per year since 2011, this number reaching USD 2,110 million in 2014 and 1,738 million last year (RFERL, April 2016). Armenia’s economic situation, on the other hand, has been more difficult. However, this has not served as a pretext to stop purchasing weaponry: it has spent an average of USD 391 million for the past five years (RFERL, April 2016). The parties are clearly aware of the potential outcome of the situation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and have been therefore preparing for it. On his meeting with the Ambassadors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) participating states that took place in Yerevan on 4th April, the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, warned that "[f]urther escalation of the military actions may result in unpredictable and irreversible consequences, including an all-out war."

So, what is different this time?

Violent outbreaks are becoming the norm, rather than the exception. The conflict has been labelled as ‘frozen’ for a long time and it has therefore been undermined by international actors. The tension between the parties is clear and explicit, and international actors are reacting. Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan stated on Turkish television that "Karabakh will one day return to its original owner. It will be Azerbaijan's." This does not come as a surprise, as Turkey has been a long-standing ally of Azerbaijan. However, these comments are inflammatory towards its neighbour, Armenia, and they are certainly counterproductive for peace talks, as they create further hostility. 

An all-out war over Nagorno-Karabakh could potentially make Ankara and Moscow involved in the region. There have been talks about a potential deployment of Russian peacekeepers, which would grant it greater geopolitical advantage in the region, and therefore about the role the Russia sees itself playing in the conflict. Baku seems to think that Russia could bring a change in the so far unsuccessful talks over Nagorno-Karabakh carried out by the OSCE Minsk Group (that Azerbaijan has previously described as "absolutely meaningless"; Nationalia, February 2016), and it would be in favour of a modification of the situation by allowing Moscow to lead the talks (at present co-chaired with France and the United States). Nevertheless, it has to be taken into account that the recent fall-out between Russia and Turkey emerged as a result of the Syrian war and could affect the geopolitics in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the balancing of powers in it.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are facing economic difficulties that are bringing discontent among the populations. On the one hand, the Western sanctions on Russia have lowered the remittances from this country to Armenia (a great source of national income), and on the other, the drop in oil price has devaluated Azerbaijan’s currency. It may seem that, especially for Azerbaijan, flaring up the national feeling of anger and hatred over Nagorno-Karabakh could work as a distraction for the population, as well as a way of uniting them under a fierce feeling of nationalism.

In the meantime, the Minsk Group met on 5th April in Vienna and published a statement similar to the ones we have seen before, and its role is once more being put under scrutiny. Engagement at the highest political levels is necessary in order to bring about meaningful change. A reform of either the format or the political efforts put into it are paramount at the present time.  It is clear is that the risk of an all-out war is greater than ever, so bigger steps must be taken. The Minsk Group should prove that it is up to the task, or alternative platforms will have to be developed in order to create alternative ways to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict and ensure security in the South Caucasus. In any case, there has to be a quick and meaningful response, so that the already unstable South Caucasus does not fully destabilise, which could bring consequences not only for regional players, but also for the West.