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Between peace and war: what is behind snap election in Azerbaijan?

Presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Alyiev talking in Geneva on Oct 16, 2017. Photo: armeniasputnik.am

President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has charged conducting a snap presidential election on April 11. The regular presidential election was supposed to be held on October 17, 2018.

Aliyev has been re-elected as president of Azerbaijan thrice since 2003. Nothing holds him from being re-elected for a fourth term as well. Meantime, Azerbaijani leader’s decision to set a snap election was unexpected even for the government.

Perhaps, the Karabakh issue was the dominating reason for Aliyev to announce the snap election. The domestic opposition was surprised and placed before an accomplished fact, which was not important, however. After all, there is no serious opposition to Aliyev or his system of government established within 15 years of his tenure. Neither has Aliyev had any reasons to surprise the foreign partners of Baku. They are busy with their own problems and do not care for the date of the presidential election in Azerbaijan.

The situation around Karabakh is a different matter. It could require Aliyev to outshine his rivals. There are two key scenarios, and both are closely connected with the plans of Azerbaijan’s political leadership and military command regarding the Karabakh issue.

We have earlier expressed our assumptions based on data received from our sources in Baku saying that Azerbaijan is seeking to step up efforts to implement the so-called “Madrid Principles” of the Karabakh peace process. According to these principles, at the first stage of the settlement, Armenian troops shall be pulled back from the regions around Nagorno-Karabakh for their further transfer under control of Azerbaijan. Baku insists on prior and unconditional implementation of the given provision of the “Madrid Principles.” Yerevan suggests its own option – package settlement of the issue with the territories and interim status. That is, the Armenian sides (Republic of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR)) are withdrawing troops in exchange for an interim status of Nagorno-Karabakh and guarantees of non-resumption of military actions. Such status will be granted to NK until a referendum planned there during one of the stages of the peace process takes place.

Armenians have been recently calling this algorithm “a stage-by-state approach to the package settlement scheme.” This is an evident effort to find a concession for the divergent stances of the conflicting sides.

The political future of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan will become certain approximately as soon as Aliyev is elected president for a fourth term. The Armenian leader chose a different way to remain in power. Unlike Aliyev, he did not amend the constitution to get “presidency for life.” Sargsyan has just amended it to change the system of governance in the country. Thus, in April, Armenia will finally shift to the parliamentary system from the semi-presidential one. The prime minister will have the prerogative of “determining and waging foreign-policy line.” The Armenian authorities have already decided who will be the nominal head of the state. It will be former prime minister Armen Sargsyan. The suspense over Serzh Sargsyan’s appointment as prime minister is still growing. Actually, he will remain Aliyev’s counterpart during future meetings on Karabakh.

On October 16, 2017, Aliyev and Sargsyan had a talk in Geneva. At a certain moment, the two presidents held a tete-a-tete meeting, which has not resulted in any sensational statement. The Armenian leader has just reaffirmed the arrangement with Aliyev to take measures to de-escalate the situation on the Line of Contact, “to prevent casualties on the frontline.”

However, it is not ruled out that in Geneva, they decided to achieve certainty on the key issue on the domestic policy agenda of Armenia and Azerbaijan and speed up development of specific arrangements within “stage-by-stage approach to the package settlement-scheme.” In this light, Aliyev’s decision to speed up the presidential election fits into the logic of paving the way to peace not war, and to conditional “road map” for the coming few months, in case of possible arrangement between Baku and Yerevan with the participation of international mediators, Russia, U.S. and France.

One can hardly believe in this, however. Such arrangements need a sufficient level of trust between the conflicting parties, which is not observed so far. As to de-escalation of the situation on the Line of Contact in Karabakh, the Geneva meeting of Sargsyan and Aliyev proved efficient. The tension has been defused certainly.

The second scenario is worrisome, as it leads to war, not to peace. Aliyev finds his position until summer when Baku may unleash a new (after April of 2016) large-scale military attack in the conflict zone. On June 26, Azerbaijani army will mark its 100th anniversary. It will be a good opportunity for the leadership and military command of Azerbaijan to mark the anniversary not just with military parade and marches. In June-July, the situation will escalate in the front line in Karabakh. The question is whether it will grow into longer (than the ‘four-day war’ in April of 2016) and more intensive war.

2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (June 14-July 15) will play in the hands on Baku’s “party of war.” The attention of Russia, the external force in the Karabakh conflict, will be focused on the sport “event of the century”. In the summer of 2008, a Transcaucasian leader also tried to take advantage of the Olympic Games to implement his own revanchist plans. His blitzkrieg failed then. Meantime, Aliyev has never given any serious reasons to suspect him in political and military adventurism. However, “now or never” sentiments are reaching a critical level in Baku. The president and supreme commander and entire Azerbaijan need to settle the key problem of their political reality and this summer appears to be the best chance to do it.

With his decision to set snap election, Aliyev has “reserved the right” to both the scenarios. The “Madrid” algorithm of settlement, which we think meets Azerbaijan’s interests, implies certain diplomatic actions after April. If the “road map” scenario is failed, this may spark military actions. In any of the scenarios, the April-July period seems of critical importance for further vector in the Karabakh conflict for the coming years.

(1) Even receiving a document signed by an Azerbaijani official saying that Baku agrees on interim status of Nagorno-Karabakh, on referendum in the unrecognized republic, on deployment of peacekeepers in the conflict zone, the Armenian sides will not get peace. They will face an inevitable war and much worse position along the front line. The areas yielded to Azerbaijan under “Madrid” documents will not become a peace and security zone for Armenia. They will be used as a staging area for the Azerbaijani army to launch the crucial attack.

The Madrid Principles do not provide for demilitarization of the 5 regions (Jebrail. Zangelan, Kubatli, Aghdam and Fizouli – the last two are controlled by Armenian troops partially) to be transferred to Azerbaijan. Even if Armenian diplomats somehow manage to have such condition included into the final texts of the Madrid Principles, it will not safeguard them against war. Any serious violation of the ceasefire will lead Azerbaijani tanks and infantry into the demilitarized zone and they will not leave it any time soon.

Vyacheslav Mikhailov for  EADaily

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