Nagorno-Karabakh: A Sleeping Volcano about to Erupt?

The “dormant volcano” provides an excellent analogy for the unresolved geopolitical dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. This protracted conflict over a small region, with an estimated area of 4,400 sq. km, has claimed over 30,000 lives and displaced over 1 million people since 1992. Following on with the analogy, it is now known that the transfer of “fresh, hot magma” into reservoirs of “older, sticky mush” can cause sudden volcanic rejuvenations. Nagorno-Karabakh is a conflict where “new hot” developments, such as the border clashes earlier this June and believe it or not, Azerbaijan’s “hero’s welcome” for an axe killer extradited from Hungary this August can very easily ignite “older, stickier” obstacles to peace. Like the dormant volcano, this dispute can ‘wake up’ a lot quicker than many think and may be on the verge of erupting into full-out accidental warfare.


Image courtesy of pan_Armenian-photo, © 2009, some rights reserved.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict re-emerged as an ethnically-conditioned movement for national self-determination in the late 1980s. Gorbachev’s policies of “glasnost” endorsed freedom of expression for the first time in Soviet history, fostering rising levels of nationalism in the Caucasus. The “silent” dispute over the enclave, dating back to Stalin’s transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s, intensified even more with the weakening of Soviet centralized control. The February 1988 Sumgait pogrom against Armenians revived historical animosities between the Armenian and Turkic peoples, thus leading to further instances of localized ethnic unrest e.g. the Khojaly killings of 1992. With the dissolution of the USSR, the conflict between Soviet ‘minorities’ transformed into full-out inter-state warfare in 1992. Armenia gained almost complete control over the enclave as well as roughly 9% of Azerbaijani territory outside Nagorno-Karabakh by 1994. Russia played an important role in brokering a ceasefire agreement between the two parties in May of that same year, and the conflict gained its “semi-frozen” status as peace negotiations ensued under the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group. Despite the ceasefire, there have been thousands of deaths along front-line military clashes since 1994.

There are several long-term obstacles to peace, or “layers of mush”, that have piled up over the past two decades. As relatively new post-Soviet states, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are ultra-sensitive to nation building. The “maximalist” perceptions of the public-leadership dynamic in both countries are integral to concerns over sovereignty and territorial integrity. Armenians view victory in the 1992-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War as a step towards overcoming a rigid “victim mentality” that continues to shape Armenian-Turkish-Azerbaijani relations. Nagorno-Karabakh is a tool for social cohesion in the young Armenian Republic, and a source for internal self-confidence. Thus, Armenians regard Nagorno-Karabakh’s national self-determination as a “fact” settled by the war. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, came out as the “loser” in material terms, losing 16% of its territory and gaining roughly 600, 000 internal refugees upon independence. Hence, Nagorno-Karabakh is treated as a sign of internal weakness. Azerbaijanis perceive war as an inevitable means for regaining control over Nagorno-Karabakh and improving the state’s prestige in international relations. These maximalist positions make constructive negotiations on a peace settlement an improbability in the near future. This is evidenced in the recent failed attempt at compromise in Kazan (June 2011) under the mediation of the then Russian President Medvedev. Constructive efforts for peace negotiations cannot take place unless both parties let go of their maximalist perceptions. A final peace settlement necessitates both parties to remove the “war option” and to approach the table with the aim of sealing an end package deal.

As war remains a very risky option for both sides, some argue that Nagorno-Karabakh will retain its semi-frozen status. While the regional balance of power acts in Azerbaijan’s favor – its $3 billion military budget in 2011 exceeded Armenia’s total state budget – Armenia benefits from Russian social, political and military support.  In addition to enjoying membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Armenia has received roughly $1.8 billion in arms from Russia since 1994 and hosts the 102nd Russian Military Base in Gyumri until 2044.  Russian intervention in Georgia (2008) is an example to learn from, and Ilham Aliev, the President of Azerbaijan knows that hopes for Russian “neutrality” are unrealistic. Moreover, a repeated Azerbaijani defeat would threaten the absolute destabilization of Aliev’s regime by removing the government’s “Nagorno-Karabakh” card, currently played for domestic consolidation.

To argue that war goes against a rational assessment of both countries interests, however, does not rule out the increasing likelihood of accidental warfare. Using the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as a tool for social consolidation is both dangerous and unsustainable. By projecting each other as “enemies”, both governments unleash irrational sentiment within their respective public domains. Aliev and the Armenian President Sargsyan lead elitist and corrupt governments, and this makes them even more susceptible to influence from the public nationalistic sentiments they actively help generate. On top of this, the long-term military build-up between the two countries means that both actors have the necessary resources to wage war. It is highly unsettling that both countries capitalized on the arms race between 2011 and 2012. President Aliev increased defence spending by 45% between 2010 and 2011 alone. Armenia continues to spend over 4% of its GDP on the defence budget and has maintained focus on improving its small, but highly capable armed forces.

These long-term issues spawn “new hot” reasons for war, for example the clashes along the border this June. Clearly timed to coincide with Clinton’s Caucasus trip, Azerbaijan’s border attacks on June 4 and June 6 show just how unstable the situation has become. As Azerbaijan’s military capabilities expand relative to its counterpart, increasing frustrations over actual power may tempt Aliev into the offensive. So what if these increased border skirmishes lead to accidental warfare? Will the conflict be internationalized? Considering the web of alliances and geostrategic interests bringing the great powers onto the game board, intervention by foreign powers such as the US, Turkey and Russia can be expected.

What will this mean for the international order? The South Caucasus has recently become another region for great power rivalry. As a part of the Russian ‘sphere’ in the heyday of the Soviet Union, Russia still exerts a tremendous amount of influence over both countries. As a transit region for natural gas, both the US and Turkey have high geostrategic stakes as they are actively engaged in the scramble for natural resources. Accidental warfare will probably invite Russian intervention, which will enhance Russia’s leverage over the geostrategic stakes in the Caucasus. As the previous line suggests, the conflict may very well solidify the “spheres of influence” presently in the embryonic stages of development.

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