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New reality in the South Caucasus: Why did Aliyev trigger the “Karabakh detonator”?

President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev

“Since peaceful diplomatic options are no longer effective, Azerbaijan is bound to use military force,” Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia Polad Bülbüloğlu said on Apr 3, when asked by Dozhd TV channel to comment on the renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The president and the defense and foreign ministers of Azerbaijan stated on the same day that the Azerbaijani armed forces had launched a massive attack on the positions of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. They used tanks, guns, flamethrowers and drones. By doing this, they have broken the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Will there be a new one? Time will show.

By saying “diplomatic options” the ambassador means the OSCE Minsk Group, comprising diplomats from Russia, France and the United States. For many years already a group of OSCE observers led by Andrzej Kapsrzyk have been monitoring the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh. And throughout these years the Azerbaijani leaders were displeased with their work and at some point even stopped showing them their positions.

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have refused to sign the peace plan suggested by the mediators. The Minsk Group’s Madrid Principles stipulated a sequence of measures for stopping the bloodshed: the Armenians withdraw their troops from the buffer zone (security belt) – Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh; refugees are brought back to their homes; Nagorno-Karabakh is given a temporary status to be later confirmed by a referendum; peacekeeping troops are deployed in the zone.

But this plan has failed. Why? The Armenian president was ready to discuss the return of the Azerbaijani districts if Azerbaijan recognized Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to independence, wasn’t he? But Ilham Aliyev never took this referendum thing seriously. He once suggested organizing it “in some 100 years or maybe never.” His position is that a new referendum on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh should be organized all over Azerbaijan, which is nonsense for the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians – an autonomous minority in the territory of former Azerbaijani SSR. Thus, the Armenians’ readiness to give back territories in exchange for a status has never been supported by Azerbaijan. Without this the Minsk Group’s plan made no sense. So, the key reason it failed was Azerbaijan’s uncompromising attitude.

But the OSCE Minsk Group was not the only “diplomatic option.” There were also calls by the co-chair presidents: statements by Medvedev, Sarkozy and Obama in L’Aquila on July 10 2009 and Muskoka on June 26 2010. And there is also Maiendorf Declaration signed by Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev in 2008.

On June 24 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev organized a meeting in Kazan in hope that his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts would sign a road map for Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. The basis of the document was the same - Madrid Principles.

In June 2012, during a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Putin, Obama and Hollande adopted a joint communiqué on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where they expressed firm commitment to see it settled peacefully. “Military force will not resolve the conflict and would only prolong the suffering and hardships endured by the peoples of the region for too long. Only a peaceful, negotiated settlement can allow the entire region to move beyond the status quo toward a secure and prosperous future,” the president said.

So, as we see, Aliyev has ignored the warnings of the three co-chair presidents and has waved off all the recommendations by the OSCE Minsk Group. “The parties to the conflict should not further delay making the important decisions necessary to reach a lasting and peaceful settlement. We regret that the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia did not take the decisive steps that our countries called for in the joint statement at Deauville on May 26, 2011,” Putin, Obama and Hollande warned in Los Cabos.

In Apr 2016, their warnings were ignored. So, the Minsk Group can no longer work the way it did before. By opting for force, Azerbaijan has “prolonged the suffering and hardships endured by the peoples of the region.”

What's next?

Today there are two scenarios here: either the mediators will manage to stop the bloodshed and find new “diplomatic options” or there will be a long and bigger war.

Aliyev urged the Armenians to stop where they were on Apr 5 after his army had changed the frontline. He suggested stopping and restarting the talks. But now he has quite new positions, which will allow him to attack again! And what then? A new ceasefire? Will they in Yerevan and, most importantly, in Stepanakert accept such a turn? It seems they will not. Very soon we will see.

It will be a very hard job to build NEW diplomatic options as there will already be another level of confidence.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict smoldered for a so long time that it could not help blowing up – especially given the deadlock in the peace process. Most of the politicians and political experts in Russia and Armenia denied this possibility. They denied it even when Russia and Turkey, the security guarantors of Armenia and Azerbaijan, began quarrelling. They even hoped that the oil crisis in Azerbaijan would make that country more peaceful. But reality has proved to be different.

The Karabakh detonator was triggered by Aliyev when he was in the United States. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also there and he later was one of the most active supporters of his Azerbaijani colleague. “Karabakh will one day return to its original owner. It will be Azerbaijan’s,” Erdogan said on Apr 4 as if it was he who was commanding the campaign. Turkey’s support is a very alarming fact for Armenia. By its active attitude, Turkey is embarrassing Russia, who is the guarantor of Armenia’s security.

Second: Aliyev set off the “Karabakh dynamite” at the time of a serious social crisis in his country. This is a chance for him to appear as a winner and a strong president rather than a person who is just trying to guess what a future his country will have. From now on military force will be the only option for him in Nagorno-Karabakh.

For Aliyev, this is a chance to stay in his office at best or to go away with dignity at worst. It is hard to say if he received any guarantees from Erdogan, who is also facing serious problems. But Turkey’s guarantees are not enough here – even if they are backed up by the Americans - for oil producing Azerbaijan and warring Azerbaijan are two different countries and with different countries other countries, including neighbors like Russia and Iran, build different relations.

In the meantime, the military actions in Nagorno-Karabakh are being paused by calls for truce just to be followed by new skirmishes and subversive attacks. The frontline has been broken, “diplomatic options” have been lost. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has woken up and will soon wake up people in Armenia, Azerbaijan and... Russia.

Vigen Akopyan, Chief Editor of EADaily

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