In the villages along Armenia’s eastern border, as the leaves take on shades of deep red and fiery orange, the crisp fall air that heralds the autumn harvest also signals the seasonal laborers and farmers here to the sinister threat of sniper fire that has tragically come to define the harvest season. The fall of 2015, however, ushered forth an even greater danger as an emboldened and more aggressive Azeri military amplified their attacks with mortar and rocket fire, jeopardizing the livelihood of many farmers who will no longer risk growing their grapes.
In the village of Paravakar, Mayor Roland Margaryan recounts the toll on the community. “Over the years, we had some people wounded, but no one was killed. [This year] people were killed and wounded during the grape harvest. Others could not go into their vineyards. The government compensated them for the lost crops, but the anguish that some of these people lived through cannot be compensated by any amount of money.”
For almost as long as the 21-year cease-fire has been in place, there have been sporadic clashes along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and around Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh throughout the Armenian diaspora. Nearly every year, the occasional tractor driver or harvester has been wounded in attacks by Azeri snipers, thwarting international efforts to end a dispute that broke out in the final years of the Soviet Union and has claimed the lives of 30,000 people.
22-year-old Alik Karimyan is struggling with a lasting trauma that may never fade from memory. His mother Sona Revazyan was killed when his village of Berdavan was targeted on September 24. Mortar fire bounced off a building and struck Revazyan while she harvested grapes.
The uneasy environment of neither peace nor war has forced upon many families in the border villages a life of purgatory. Now the longstanding simmering tensions have assumed a new dimension as for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire deal, mortars and other heavy artillery are being used in the conflict zone.
Since the intensive skirmishes around Nagorno-Karabakh in August 2014, when several soldiers on both sides were killed, the situation has remained tense notwithstanding a brief period of calm leading up to the first-ever European Games hosted by Azerbaijan in June 2015. It was not long however after the Games before ceasefire violations along the line of contact as well as at the volatile Armenian-Azerbaijani border began to escalate.
In September Azeri forces deployed large-caliber guns to shell borderline-populated areas in the northeastern Tavush province of Armenia, killing at least three civilians and wounding another.
“I couldn’t believe that so many years after the 1994 ceasefire we would still suffer losses,” recalled Arik Karimyan.
Among the victims that included Revazyan that day were two elderly women—94-year-old Berdavan resident Shushan Asatryan and 83-year-old Paytsar Aghajanyan from the village of Parakavar in the Tavush province.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian raised the issue internationally, accusing Azerbaijan of deliberately targeting civilians.
International mediators also voiced concerns about the use of heavy weapons at both the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and around Nagorno-Karabakh. The official peace brokers—represented by the American, Russian and French co-chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group—have however largely refused to assign blame and remained mostly neutral in their assessments of the ceasefire violations—even after some Minsk Group representatives themselves came under fire during a regular ceasefire monitoring in no man’s land at a Nagorno-Karabakh-Azerbaijan frontline in late October.
Officials in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh insist such a position is unacceptable and argue it only encourages Azerbaijan to commit more ceasefire violations. Minister of Foreign Affairs for NKR, Karen Mirzoyan recently expressed that frustration in an interview with Armenia Now, noting that the “international community should take a more assertive position in vocalizing its attitude toward the initiators of numerous cease-fire violations and not give in to Azerbaijan’s whims because of economic and energy interests.”
Mirzoyan urged the international community to send “a clear message on the absolute imperative of rejecting violence, honoring already-reached agreements and arriving at the negotiated outcome [which] has to be an indispensable part of the collective practical efforts aimed at supporting the settlement of the conflict.” He also criticized Azerbaijan’s refusal to allow the investigation mechanisms for the cease-fire violations proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, as well as other proposals aimed at stabilizing the situation, which Mirzoyan noted, “speaks for itself.”
The Minsk Group’s three co-chairs—Ambassadors James Warlick of the United States, Igor Popov of the Russian Federation, and Pierre Andrieu of France—acknowledged in October that, unlike Azerbaijan, the Armenian side had agreed to discuss the creation of mechanisms to investigate border violations in order to preclude more deadly shootings. They urged Azerbaijan to follow suit.
As the shuttle diplomacy of the international mediators between Yerevan, Stepanakert and Baku continued amid periodical flares of fighting in the conflict zone, there was increasingly a sense among observers that they were discussing little—if any at all—of the well-known Madrid Principles of Settlement. Adopted in 2006 and updated three years later, the Madrid principles call for an Armenian withdrawal from some of the lands around Nagorno-Karabakh now held as a buffer zone, seek to determine Nagorno Karabakh’s official status at a future referendum and envision some sort of an international peacekeeping operation. To date though the Minsk Group has only discussed means of investigating and preventing ceasefire violations along the frontlines.
Mediators had hoped that a meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev scheduled before the end of 2015 would provide answers to some of the questions that have arisen since their last internationally mediated meeting in 2014. However when the leaders finally did meet on December 19 in Bern, Switzerland, talks apparently focused on the recent fighting and did not produce any substantive progress toward an overall settlement.
Meanwhile, a fray in relations between Turkey and Russia has added a new complexity, as conflict arose between Armenia’s ally, Russia, and Azerbaijan’s ally, Turkey, over Turkey’s shooting down a Russian fighter jet in Turkish airspace near the Syrian border.
As Russia’s key political and military ally, Armenia hosts Russia’s only military base in the region and the two nations have a mutual defense pact. Despite those ties with Russia, Armenian leaders have expressed concerns over Russian deliveries of modern offensive weapons to Azerbaijan. Military authorities in both Yerevan and Stepanakert have given assurances that with the preserved balance (due to Armenia’s even stronger military and technical cooperation with Russia) Azerbaijan cannot change the situation on the ground militarily.
Then there are international interests at stake in the region with the exploitation of the Caspian oil and energy corridor between Central Asia and Europe, which analysts agree militate against the likelihood of a full scale military campaign between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Stratfor, a US-based global intelligence think tank, suggested in one of its latest analyses entitled “Gaming Out Nagorno-Karabakh,” that Azerbaijan’s military escalation would have to come with an implicit understanding with Russia. “Otherwise, Azerbaijan risks Russian involvement in the conflict. Moscow has recently displayed more flexibility toward Azerbaijani military actions on the line of contact, but Russia would be careful not to be seen as completely abandoning Armenia.”
Stratfor analysts concluded that the “negotiation process, if it is in fact occurring, is still in its early stages; the talks may break down and return both sides to the status quo. But there has been a lot of movement on both the diplomatic and security fronts, and a growing number of military exercises and skirmishes along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh could be interpreted as an intensification of the negotiation process rather than a sign of a looming conflict.”
The risk, then, is that there might be a particularly bad incident on the border that will result “in a small war by miscalculation,” as Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe Tom de Waal stated in a recent interview with Bloomberg. A prospect which some fear seems increasingly likely as the end of the year brought more alarming news from the frontlines where, for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire, Azerbaijan reportedly used a battle tank in shelling Karabakh positions—resulting in the worst casualty rate since the truce more than twenty years ago. To date the Armenian military reported the loss of more than 40 soldiers in 2015.
The United States deplored the use of heavy artillery in the conflict zone as an “unacceptable” escalation of violence. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby reminded both sides, that “these attacks do not conform to the commitment by the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peacefully.”
As international mediators plead to intensify work towards a negotiated settlement, tensions continue to rise, threatening to bring further violence and instability in 2016, leaving a dwindling number of families contemplating an uncertain future.
Alik Karimyan now spends most of his time with his sister in Yerevan—nearly 120 miles from his village of Berdavan. “It wasn’t easy for me to leave the place where I had just buried my mother,” he says, “but what could I do? There is no job there. Farming and raising livestock have become extremely dangerous.” He doubts if he’ll ever return to the border.
Suren Musayelyan is deputy editor of ArmeniaNow.com online daily. Staff writer Gohar Abrahamyan contributed reporting.