Tag Archives: nagorno-karabagh conflict

Is Nagorno-Karabakh Caught in a New War?

Eric Grigorian photo for Hetq Online
Eric Grigorian photo for Hetq Online

A new armed struggle to maintain the integrity of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic began in the early hours of April 2. Azerbaijan has admitted that it launched an all out attack long the line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh, although Baku has subsequently denied that.

Many of us following the events during the last few days have been frustrated by the lack of information from the front lines. Often the same news was reported for eight hours or more on Facebook and Twitter feeds by users based in the region, most notably the supposed ceasefire initiated by Azerbaijan that proved to be disinformation. Official statements from the Nagorno-Karabakh government reveal the number of soldiers dead as well as the amount of destroyed military equipment. Until late April 3 few professional photographs taken along the line of contact were circulating in the press. Amateur as well as some professional video footage taken from a distance was also posted on various news sites.

As of this writing on April 4, this is what we know:

  • Contrary to earlier reports Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it has no intentions to initiate a ceasefire. The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry reported that massive shelling along the line of contact is continuing. In northern Karabakh Azeri forces are reportedly retreating and vital strategic positions have been recaptured by the Nagorno-Karabakh military.
  • Azerbaijan is continuing its offensive with “mortar and grenade attacks” all along the frontlines with the southeastern and northeastern points taking the brunt of the assault. Other equipment used in the assault include 152 mm cannons, Grad missiles and tanks.
  • The town of Martakert in the northern part of Nagorno-Karabakh, which resides virtually on the line of contact with Azerbaijan, was severely shelled throughout the day on April 2.
  • Nagorno-Karabakh forces have reportedly destroyed a total of 4 drones, two helicopters, 21 tanks (estimated) and multiple armed vehicles. Nagorno-Karabakh has reportedly lost one tank and three military trucks.
  • On April 3 Karabagh officially claimed six wounded, including two children, and four dead civilians, including one child. Hetq Online reported that in Martakert Azeri soldiers killed an elderly couple in their own home and cut off their ears. It is not clear whether that couple was factored in the official number of deaths. Official numbers on April 2 were 18 soldiers killed and 35 wounded, according to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. As of this writing there are no new reports of casualties.
  • Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has promised Turkey’s full support of Azerbaijan in the conflict “to the end.”
  • US Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Robert Dold (R-IL) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) have condemned Azerbaijan’s aggression in official statements. The Organization of American States (OAS) has also condemned Azerbaijan.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is purportedly working on a new plan to cease the hostilities. The Co-chairs of OSCE Minsk Group is due to meet today—we can expect a statement from them by the evening or on Tuesday.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of updates.

Let’s be clear: this is a new conflict. This fighting is not a violation of the 1994 ceasefire brokered by Russia; it demands a new legally binding agreement to end the hostilities. And although there have been skirmishes along the line of contact over the last 20 years, with even micro-battles being waged on occasion, there has been relative peace between the Nagorno-Karakakh Republic and Azerbaijan. This is essentially a new war—if we can indeed call it that only three days in. The Azeri offensive should not be seen as a “frozen conflict” suddenly thawed overnight.

I have not seen an official declaration of war from either side. The Nagorno-Karabakh forces have been on the defense by holding the line and reclaiming posts that had been taken by the Azerbaijani army “blitzkrieg,” as it’s been described by the Armenian press, of April 2.

For two days I refrained from writing about these clashes. Although I don’t think I’m alone in having expected a new conflict to erupt, the sudden events of the weekend have certainly been surreal given the relatively peaceful situation of the last 20 years.

‘Karabakh Is Ours’

we_are_our_mountainsDuring a visit last weekend to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, commonly known as Artsakh to Armenians, some thoughts came to mind about the current state of affairs, the “no war, no peace” situation as it is sometimes referred to.

Initiatives have been undertaken to bring youth from both sides together, on neutral ground like Georgia, to discuss issues related to the conflict in the hopes that some understanding of the “enemy” can be reached. These efforts should be applauded, as non-governmental representatives of the two opposing sides naturally need to talk one another to exchange ideas and try to work out differences in thought and opinion on the public level. But no matter how much discussion takes place, no matter the friendships forged in such workshops between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, both sides are always likely going to walk away saying the same thing: “Karabakh is ours.”

It’s been 18 years since the cease fire, and Azerbaijanis have still to come to grips with the reality that Nagorno-Karabakh will most certainly never be part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. That the people of Artsakh will agree to hold a referendum as part of a peace deal to decide upon their status — when they had already determined it in 1991 by declaring independence — is an absurd expectation. The bonds between Armenia and Artsakh are tightly wound together; there is no separating the two without another senseless, brutal war. And despite Baku’s biweekly threats of renewed hostilities, that’s certainly something no one wants.

In my view, it is not the OSCE’s Minsk Group that will force the two sides to sign a peace agreement. Indeed, if the three group member states really wanted to settle this matter once and for all an agreement would surely have been found in the last 15 years. These meetings being held, the discussions behind closed doors, and the subsequent statements issued are all part of an elaborate charade, a long-running theatrical production that is becoming more tiresome with every season.

Ultimately, it is Russia that is going to decide when the deal has to be made and under what conditions, something that not too many people following the issue want to believe. A recent “extremely frank” meeting held between Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev may lead the two sides closer to agreeing upon the principles of a peace deal, although given Baku’s stubborn, backtracking track record that seems unlikely. We have to keep waiting for an agreement in the meantime.

The Armenians of Artsakh, on the other hand, made their decision in 1991. For them, there’s nothing, not one inch of land, to give. And they’re not even being asked to.

Journalism used to spread hatred

I just read a blatantly pro-Azeri, potentially dangerous article about the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict on the front page of the New York Times Web site. Not one Armenian interviewed. Biased and dubious information throughout. The article casts Armenia in a bad light overall. Specifically, Armenia is to blame for the squalid conditions Azeri refugees from Karabagh live in when the blame should be cast on the Azerbaijani government for taking advantage of their miserable plight so that such poorly written stories can be written. Once again, the country that started the war in the first place, an important point the article does not mention and that many seem to forget/not understand, is portrayed as the victim state.

It should be obvious to anyone who follows this issue that the reporter, Ellen Barry, who is also apparently the Moscow Bureau chief for the Times, has clearly not done her homework. Case in point:

Azerbaijan sees little way forward: though it could easily drive out Armenian forces, Russia could send its army to help Armenia, its ally in a regional defense alliance, just as it did in South Ossetia.

That point would be good to make in a blog post for instance since it is essentially a speculative opinion, but not on the pages of a reputable newspaper with international clout. It’s obvious that Barry either knew about and chose to ignore or was clueless about confidential memos brought to light by Wikileaks back in February — go here to read the full text, but scroll down to see it. In a July 2, 2009 cable former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse wrote the following:

Azerbaijan, even with its focus on improving its military capability, is unlikely anytime soon to structure a force large or well-equipped enough to overcome the terrain advantages enjoyed by the NK Self-Defense Force and the Armenian army.

Couldn’t Barry have actually traveled to Karabagh via Armenia (the only way in) to interview the authorities, or made a phone call to the Armenian Foreign Ministry for comment? There were and should still be four flights operating from Moscow to Yerevan daily, so transportation shouldn’t be an issue, especially with all expenses paid by the paper. So why is it so hard to tell the whole story?

The entire piece was written from Baku using the opinions of Azeris, some of whom seem borderline fanatical with their calls for renewed war. Why not get Moscow’s opinion — doesn’t she think a single Russian diplomat has anything to say about one of the worst, if not the worst, Soviet-born simmering regional fiascoes? She’s based there!

I’d like to know who’s actually behind this story, and why the editors at the Times approved it.

Irresponsible, very disappointing journalism from what is considered to be one of the most celebrated, respected newspapers in the world. This is only adding fuel to the fire of animosity and hatred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. It’s counterproductive, aggravating rhetoric at best.

Things Happening (or not) in Armenia

The summer is upon us, which means that things will begin slowing down in Yerevan politically and socially, but not necessarily culturally. There’s always plenty to do for social butterflies in the summer months, plenty of cafes to visit, concerts to attend and distractions to take your attention away from things that really matter.

Liberty Square has become a giant playground for preschoolers–the authorities are doing everything possible to prevent peaceful political demonstrations from happening there. In the meantime, cafes galore where you can watch the World Cup soccer games while drinking a beer or two and even place bets with the “international bookmakers” doing business here. We have another few weeks of that to go.

In the meantime, political life will begin to drop off for the summer, on both ends of the spectrum. The entire government even shuts down during late summer for a couple of weeks, something that really perplexes me. Even the press takes a break–all newspapers and even online news sources stop working because there’s nothing apparently to report. That is of course absurd but that’s the way things work in a tiny country of barely 3 million people.

The Karabagh peace process will not go anywhere this year after the Azerbaijani-initiated skirmishes on the border on Saturday, half a day after both Presidents Serge Sarkisian and Illham Aliev met with Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg. Yet on a positive note, I’ve been reading about conferences being held where Armenian and Azerbaijani university students meet to get to know one another and share experiences, in an effort to reach out and find some kind of solution to the conflict through the channels of civil society. Based on what they have written, in other words their own personal accounts, their efforts are naive and impractical at best.

Indeed, there should be discussion between the two societies, but at the end of the day, the Azerbaijanis expect things to go back to the status quo of the Soviet era–in other words for Karabagh to once again be placed under Azerbaijani control (naturally with the Armenian-occupied lands returned) in exchange for “the highest level of autonomy,” and I am pretty sure that the younger Azerbaijani generation expects the same, having been thoroughly brainwashed. So don’t necessarily understand what the Armenian and Azerbaijani youth groups are aiming to achieve through casual dialogue and partying (again, according to what I read).

Having said that, I really have no grounds for criticizing the youth because there needs to be discussion, the two sides must talk to one another through unofficial channels, now more than ever. My concern is–to what end?

I couldn’t find any more news about Gohar’s case. If anyone reading this blog has, please leave a comment with a link to the article you’ve found.

Should Armenia Have Withdrawn Its Signature?

Should Armenia Have Withdrawn Its SignatureA week after President Serge Sarkisian announced that the National Assembly would put the ratification process of the Turkish-Armenian protocols on the backburner, harsh criticism is coming to light from the opposition and even former government heads.

The comments I’ve read that are perhaps most troubling come from former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vartan Oskanian, who seems convinced that Armenia is now doomed in its new position, claiming that Turkey has more ammunition to meddle in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.

In a statement that appears on the Civilitas Foundation web site he expresses the following:

I am astonished by two things, however. First, the government is openly acknowledging that for one whole year they watched as Turkey placed preconditions before them, Turkey exploited the process for its own benefit, and they not only tolerated this, but continuously insisted that this is not happening and that this whole process is a big success and an unprecedented diplomatic victory.

Second, if there were half a dozen possible exit strategies from this situation – from doing nothing to revoking Armenia’s signature – the government has chosen the option least beneficial to us… The Armenian side did that which is most desirable for Turkey: neither ratified the protocols nor revoked them thus giving Turkey the opportunity to continue to remain actively engaged in the Karabakh process.

Criticism by former heads of government is a normal thing, but Oskanian seems a bit too emotional in his text and offers no new approaches for how to move forward. He advocates that the government acknowledge its mistakes (he instead craftily used the phrase “avoid accepting the truthfulness of the criticism”) first, in language akin to a naughty child being scolded by his mother.

The Armenian National Congress last week said:

“By suspending the ratification process and at the same time expressing readiness to continue it, the regime is, in effect, acknowledging that it has found itself in deadlock … and is trying to save face before the domestic public and the international community with deficient, unprincipled and inconsistent actions.”

The last part is a bit perplexing to me. Just how was suspending the ratification process “deficient, unprincipled and inconsistent?” Would that action have been described that way had Levon Ter-Petrosian been in Sarkisian’s position and done the same? Who can say whether the situation would have been any different?

I think that it was a wise decision for Yerevan to at least suspend the ratification process. But I disagree with the former Foreign Minister—the worst thing the government could have actually done was to relent to Turkey’s preconditions and open the border on Ankara’s own terms. It would have been better perhaps as the opposition points out for Armenia to withdraw its signature in light of the circumstances, but you can take that sentiment a step further and say that Armenia should never have signed the protocols to begin with, and none of the opposition forces should have ever allowed that to happen when they had plenty of time to stop it. Instead, they remained divided and disorganized.

By suspending the ratification process Yerevan casts Ankara in shadow of doubt, making the Turkish side look totally uninterested in opening the border at all—this is fairly obvious by now to the international community, and for me at least it was a long time ago.
Also regarding speculation being expressed in the media, I don’t see how the OSCE would allow a Turkish diplomat to become a member of the Minsk Group given that the reconciliation process is frozen, and how Armenia would ever go along with Ankara becoming a player in the peace negotiations to begin with. Then again, I am not a political analyst nor am I a politician looking for a future role to play in government.

Oskanian, the Congress and other opposition parties can say what they want, but rather than simply cast blame, let them propose new initiatives in the National Assembly for the governing authorities to consider moving forward. You see both sides criticize each other separately in press conferences and written statements, but very rarely do you see them engage each other in the public eye through debate and an exchange of ideas.

The Sarkisian administration and the opposition need to see eye to eye on the future steps towards reconciliation, because the longer they ignore one another, the ever more confused and disillusioned the public will be. Without some practical consensus on the Turkish-Armenian state of affairs the Armenian position will never appear to be very strong. The Armenian government needs to weigh the position of its foes on this issue before it makes any more decisions.

Photo credit: Andrew C.