by Richard Giragosian
While Armenia was gripped by a series of demonstrations and protests in the wake of its February 19 presidential election, Karabakh seemed a far-away concern for most Armenians. But while Armenia's capital was under an internal siege of its own in early March, the turmoil created an opportunity that resulted in an outbreak of hostilities, which sparked renewed concern over the security and stability of Karabakh.
The concern for the security of Karabakh came from a series of limited engagements between Azerbaijani forces and the Karabakh defenders along the so-called "line of contact" separating Karabakh from Azerbaijan. The hostilities began on March 3-4, when an Azerbaijani military unit launched an unexpected attack targeting defensive positions along the Azerbaijani border with Karabakh. That opening attack, in which two Karabakh army officers were wounded, resulted in the seizure by the Azerbaijani forces of two military posts near Levonarkh, located along the northern part of the line of contact in the Mardakert district. (There were also casualties on the Azeri side, though officially unconfirmed.)
The Azerbaijani offensive was also backed by sporadic small-arms fire and limited artillery rounds directed against three villages in the Tartar and Geranboy districts of northeast Karabakh. The clashes were a significant expansion from the more common exchanges of occasional sniper fire or limited probes of Karabakh's defensive positions. And because the Azerbaijani forces were able to seize territory and use artillery weapons, both rare occurrences, the clashes were viewed as some of the most serious fighting since the signing of a ceasefire agreement in May 1994.
In response to the Azerbaijani offensive and their seizure of the Karabakh positions, the Karabakh authorities called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which not only manages the Karabakh peace process but also monitors the ceasefire agreement in effect, to "reinstate the status quo" and prevent further hostilities. But neither the OSCE military monitors nor their mediating diplomats could pressure Azerbaijan to retreat. In turn, the Karabakh Army launched a strong counter-offensive and, after a brief but intense skirmish, succeeded in repulsing the Azerbaijani units and retaking their defense positions.
For its part, the Armenian response was also strident and swift. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian asserted that Azerbaijani forces were responsible for initiating what he characterized as a "serious challenge to Armenian forces" and suggested that the use of artillery by Azerbaijani forces was a significant concern. Oskanian further accused Baku of launching the offensive at a time when Yerevan was viewed as particularly vulnerable, referring to the introduction of a state of emergency on March 1 after violent confrontations between riot police and demonstrators in Yerevan.
After the initial success of the Azerbaijani offensive was replaced by an effective Karabakh counter-attack, the official Azerbaijani response was to accuse the Armenian side of launching the attack. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim charged that the hostilities were "a clear provocation by Armenia," adding that the authorities in Yerevan were "trying to divert the attention of their citizens and population from the internal and domestic issues in order to seek an external enemy."
But the root cause of the violence is more clearly related to the aggressive rhetoric and militant posturing by the Azerbaijani side, serving only to foster an underlying tension. For example, only one day before the outbreak of hostilities, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev warned that diplomatic efforts at resolving the Karabakh conflict were "not enough" and threatened that "to resolve the Karabakh conflict, we have to be strong, we have to be ready to liberate our lands by military means, and we are ready." Such bellicose language, bolstered by three years of an annual defense budget well over $1 billion, strongly suggests that Baku is more interested in a solution to the Karabakh issue based on force than on diplomacy.
There is also an interesting set of reasons explaining the timing of the attack, with Azerbaijan prompted by three specific factors.
The first factor behind Baku's recent offensive stems from domestic political concerns in Azerbaijan. More specifically, the Azerbaijani leadership saw a need to reassert its threats to "retake" Karabakh, especially in the wake of last month's 20th anniversary of the Karabakh movement (when the Karabakh regional government legally petitioned the appropriate legislative and governmental bodies of Azerbaijan and Armenia on February 20, 1988 to transfer the region from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia).
With elections in Azerbaijan set for October, President Aliyev needs to boost his nationalist credentials and strengthen his domestic standing in order to ensure a smooth and peaceful reelection. The Azerbaijani leader's need for greater nationalist credibility is natural, given his lack of popularity and limited legitimacy within the country.
The second factor contributing to a more aggressive and threatening Azerbaijani stand on Karabakh comes from Baku's increasing frustration with the peace process. For many Azerbaijani strategists, the realization of their view of a wealthy, powerful and proud Azerbaijan has been frustrated by a lack of progress over Karabakh. This frustration also fuels a sense of disappointment with the OSCE's Minsk Group in general, and with its three mediating co-chairmen in particular. This is also reflected in recent official statements from Baku, accusing the French and U.S. co-chairs of a "pro-Armenian bias" and criticizing them for not supporting Azerbaijani diplomacy within the United Nations.
But it is the third element of Azerbaijan's more assertive policy on Karabakh that is the most worrisome for both Karabakh and Armenia. More specifically, the sharp and sustained rise in defense spending, the attempts at developing formidable military capabilities and a broader strategic effort to emerge as a regional military power are all powerful motives for a shift in Azerbaijan's approach to both Karabakh and Armenia.
(Re)Building an Azerbaijani Military
Over the longer term, the rise of Azerbaijan as a military power seems assured. Its rise is based on an influx of oil (and gas) wealth used to finance a new, modern armed forces, enhanced with both training and equipment, and a political will in Baku that seems set to exercise a newfound self-sufficiency based not on Turkish or even American patronage, but relying on its own national power. For both Karabakh and Armenia, such a strategy is obviously not only a threat to their own security but will also result in a dramatic shift in the already delicate regional "balance of power" in the South Caucasus.
As the recent fighting confirmed, the Azerbaijani government has resolved to implement an assertive and ambitious effort aimed at forging a new and robust military.
First, Azerbaijan sought to develop its own defense industry. Established as early as 2005, Azerbaijan's Defense Industries Ministry, headed by Yavar Jamalov, took over the State Departments for Military Industry and for Armaments and the Military Science Center, each of which was formerly a separate agency within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. This new ministry has an annual budget of between $60-70 million and has already started to create an indigenous defense production capability, bolstered by assistance from both Ukraine and Pakistan, with some Russian technical expertise as well.
A second development has been the return of a role for the Turkish military. This Turkish role in developing Azerbaijan's military capabilities is no longer simply about providing Turkish arms or training, but comprises a much more strategically significant role by senior, high-level Turkish military advisers. News of this enhanced Turkish role first surfaced in January 2007, and included reports that a senior Turkish military officer would be appointed to a post within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry. Those early press reports claimed that senior Turkish military leaders selected an unnamed Turkish Army general to assume the position of a deputy minister within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, endowed with sweeping power and authority, including direct and sole control over a team of lower-ranking Turkish military officers serving as military instructors and advisers.
But this plan for a direct Turkish military role in Azerbaijan, marking a reversal of the deterioration in Azerbaijani-Turkish military ties over the past few years and a return of Turkish military advisers following their departure from Baku in 1995, was never carried out. In addition, to the surprise of many analysts, Turkey was unable to restore its traditional military alliance with Azerbaijan. And throughout 2007, Baku actually moved farther away from, not closer to, Western security structures and NATO.
But in light of its commitment to building modern and powerful Azerbaijani armed forces and after several years of substantial defense budget, why has Azerbaijan failed to embark on serious military reform?
Interestingly, the main obstacle preventing Azerbaijan from building a powerful new military is the very man who heads the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. The Azerbaijani Defense Minister, Colonel General Safar Abiyev, is today the longest-serving defense minister in the world. Yet his position does not stem from military competence but rests on his personal loyalty to the Aliyev family. And his tenure as defense chief has been defined by a long period of neglect, underinvestment, and marginalization of the Azerbaijani armed forces, not to mention a record of miserable conditions for front-line soldiers and even an unacceptable high rate of death for conscripts.
Specifically, the late President Heidar Aliyev was firmly convinced that the one true threat to his power came from a strong military and, in response, kept the Azerbaijani armed forces weak, corrupt and incompetent. Aliyev senior also ensured that the military was denied essential training and equipment, a policy maintained by his son and successor, the current president. Both leaders also utilized the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense as an important vehicle for corruption. This ensured that the military would always be weak and divided, undermined by the cancer of corruption from within.
Thus, the real potential for building modern and powerful armed forces in Azerbaijan remains little more than a distant promise. And even with the enormous annual state budgets for defense, a relatively small proportion of defense spending has actually been spent on arms, training and essential equipment. Moreover, although the future trajectory of Azerbaijan as a regional military power seems assured, most experts believe that it will take between 5-10 years of sustained and serious military reform before Azerbaijan can meet this potential.
In the shorter term, there are several important lessons revealed from the recent clashes between Karabakh and Azerbaijani forces. First, it is clear that the Karabakh (and Armenia) forces still hold a significant military dominance over Azerbaijan, an advantage likely to continue at least during the next presidential term.
Second, Azerbaijan faces a new deterrent against renewing war. This new deterrent against any Azerbaijani attempt to restart hostilities is posed from the very sources of their wealth—the international energy companies and the powerful Western energy-consuming nations themselves. This is very important and offers a new "energy deterrence" that will do everything to keep the oil flowing.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, is the fact that despite the wealth and power of Azerbaijan, both Karabakh and Armenia are substantially more stable and secure than Azerbaijan. This asset of stability is also an important positive consideration for world and regional powers that are now seeking ties with stable partners rather than riskier authoritarian regimes like Azerbaijan. Thus, while the outlook for security for Karabakh and Armenia is not without its own challenges, there is a comparative advantage of stability in a region already very much at risk.
Attacks From Within
While Yerevan was in turmoil and Mardakert under fire, an internal illness also festered from the events of March 1 that threatens Armenia's moral commitment to Karabakh. Its symptoms began to be revealed even before the bullets had stopped flying and cars burning in the capital: local Armenians were voicing displeasure about Karabakhis.
Witnesses to the breakup of Levon Ter-Petrosian supporters at Liberty Square came away speaking of being beaten by men "with Karabakhi dialects." And on Sunday morning, when soldiers were stationed at the scene of the worst Saturday-night violence, one man walking in the area looked at the troops and said to no one in particular, "Karabakhi dogs."
Some Karabakhis now living in Yerevan say they now try not to reveal where they're from, for fear of being ostracized or mistreated. Many here say that the tension is a result of Ter-Petrosian's rhetoric and his emphasis on the fact that his rivals, Robert Kocharian and Serge Sargsyan, are both from Karabakh.
In Karabakh itself, the attitude is privately discussed, but hardly publicly debated. Asked to comment on the situation, most residents of Stepanakert would acknowledge the divide, but only while emphasizing the need for unity.
"In the 1970s I was a student at Yerevan Polytechnic Institute," says Stepanakert resident Vladimir Khachatrian. "Then, too, there was somehow a peculiar attitude toward Karabakhis. I can't say they didn't like us, but somehow they remained separated from us. As years passed, that attitude changed more than once—getting better, getting worse, based on the political situation. I think the current slump will soon pass too. Yerevanians are simply seeking someone to blame, and decided that this time too, as always, Karabakhis are to blame."
After the March 1 events in Yerevan, panic spread among some Karabakhis who have relatives living in Yerevan. There were rumors (never confirmed) that cars coming from Karabakh were being stoned and that people from Karabakh were being denied certain services in Armenia.
"My sister lives in the center of Yerevan. We are from Baku," says Vyacheslav Seroyan, 46, of Stepanakert. "The day the emergency state was to be imposed my sister called and told me that there were rumors in the city saying Karabakhis' houses would be destroyed at night. She was crying and recalling the pogroms in Baku. I calmed her down and said that it was pure invention and that nothing of the kind was possible. In any case, the situation left a bad aftertaste."
President Robert Kocharian felt the threat of dissention created by the talks, the violence and the unease over the renewed fighting. In a move interpreted to further silence Ter-Petrosian, before leaving office, the outgoing president proposed legislature that makes it a crime to "drive a wedge or spread hatred between various sections of the Armenian people."
"The worst thing for me is the possible split between Karabakhis and Hayastantsis (Armenians of Armenia)," says 30-year-old Svetlana Danielian from Stepanakert. "I have an Internet chat partner from Yerevan. He is trying to prove to me that Yerevanians have reasons not to especially like Karabakhis. And I ask him to look at things from Karabakh's viewpoint: On the one hand, there is Azerbaijan trying every day to start a war and, on the other hand, there is Armenia to which we are becoming a burden. Is it our fault that the power issues can't be solved in Armenia?"
Richard Giragosian is a Yerevan-based analyst specializing in military issues and geopolitics of former Soviet countries. Naira Hayrumyan in Stepanakert contributed information for this article.