Karabakh Clash Follows Failed Talks

 Shootings on front line show fragility of peace and difficulty of moving towards deal.
By Karine Ohanyan, Sabuhi Mammadli - Caucasus
CRS Issue 548,
25 Jun 10

A firefight in Nagorny Karabakh a day after a high-level round of peace talks has brought tensions to the boil and highlighted the inability of regional leaders to negotiate a settlement through diplomatic means.

The June 18 incident left four Armenian and two Azerbaijani soldiers dead, in a confrontation that was the most serious violation of the ceasefire in two years.

Political leaders in Baku and Nagorny Karabakh traded accusations, with neither side accepting responsibility for provoking the incident. But there was general agreement that the violence was a consequence of failed negotiations held in St. Petersburg the previous day between the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia.

The leadership of the unrecognised Nagorny Karabakh state accused an Azerbaijani reconnaissance party of crossing the ceasefire line under the cover darkness.

In Baku, Mubariz Qurbanli of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party denied this version of events was true.

“Armenia sees that the peace talks have come to a dead end, so it is trying to spin incidents like this instead,” he said. “Armenia deliberately disseminates false information and alleges that Azerbaijan has breached the ceasefire agreement in order to cover up its diplomatic defeats through such lies.”

Rasim Musabekov, a political analyst in Baku, said it was the Armenian leadership's refusal to accept the terms of a peace proposal known as the “Madrid Principles” that led to the clash.

“Armenia has yet to declare its position on the updated Madrid Principles. It's clear Armenia's heart isn't in it, because it wants full independence for Nagorny Karabakh. That's why its approach to the peace talks at this stage has been obstructionist. When its negotiators come up against disagreements, they resort to military rhetoric,” he said.

Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, agreed that the timing was no coincidence, but said it was Azerbaijan that was stalling.

“This attack, and the events preceding it – the meeting between the three leaders in St Petersburg... are vivid examples of Azerbaijan's stance,” he said. “This incident can be attributed to jumpiness on the part of Azerbaijan. It’s an attempt to ratchet up the level of threats, and to reach new heights of blackmail.”

Meanwhile, international negotiators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, who are working with Azerbaijan and Armenia to broker a deal, sought to cool tempers but said the incident was a deliberate and unacceptable attempt to derail talks.

“The incident took place immediately after the meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan,” said a statement from the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which plays the lead role in mediating in the Karabakh conflict. “The use of military force, particularly at this moment, can only be seen as an attempt to damage the peace process.”

Over one million people on both sides were displaced in the gruelling four-year war over Nagorny Karabakh, which ended which a ceasefire in 1994 which left the Armenians in control of most of Karabakh region as well as seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan. Although it runs its own affairs, the Nagorny Karabakh Republic does not enjoy international recognition.

Under the Madrid Principles, the Armenian administration in Nagorny Karabakh would cede control of some of these surrounding districts to Azerbaijan, and would be granted an intermediate form of autonomy just short of full independence.

Following the failed talks, the authorities in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Karabakh appeared to settle back into mutual threats and recriminations.

“This conflict is not frozen. I'm unable to say that such incidents will not be repeated in future,” said Azerbaijan's foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov.

His Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian responded by saying “the latest incident has once again shown the true face of Baku, which is doing anything it can to derail the negotiation process”.

In Stepanakert, a Senor Hasratyan, spokesman for Nagorny Karabakh's defence ministry, said, “We accept that war could break out even tonight. We are condemned to always having to be prepared for war. As much as we want peace, we must respect war, because ours is a war of survival.”

Karine Ohanyan is a journalist with Armedia online. Sabuhi Mammadli is a journalist with the Azerbaijani newspaper Azadliq.