One frigid day nearly 19 years ago, I found myself standing along a muddy, rutted road in the foothills of Azerbaijan’s 3,000 meter-high Murov mountain range. Hundreds of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons — from the strategic Kelbajar region — were arriving on foot, some nearly frozen to death after a multiday trek through the icy mountain passes.
They were the latest casualties in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. An autonomous region in Soviet times, it is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The dispute over who owns the “historical rights” to the rugged, sparsely populated territory goes back decades or centuries. The collapse of the Soviet Union simply let the genie out of the bottle. The majority Armenians always wanted the region to be part of Armenia.
Kelbajar, of course, was not part of autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh and no Armenians lived there, but the conquest of Kelbajar by Armenian forces in 1993 was a seminal moment in the war. Through a combination of highly motivated strategizing on the Armenian side and very poor planning (and even treachery) by bickering Azeri “commanders” Kelbajar, a picturesque area of hot springs and waterfalls, fell almost without a fight. The Armenians justified its taking — and the ejection of the entire local population of about 60,000 people — as part a “security belt” they were establishing to protect Nagorno-Karabakh from shelling.
Those first 100,000 displaced people would soon increase to 600,000. As chaos reigned in Azerbaijan during the summer and autumn of 1993, Armenian forces conquered district after district of Azerbaijan, seven in all — either fully or partially. They are now a wasteland of ghost towns. Four U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding the Armenians withdraw from the occupied territories were ignored; and Armenian officials now, years later, often refer to them as “liberated territories,” even though only an estimated 14,000 Armenian “settlers” have moved there. New maps show the occupied territories as Armenian territory.
And the ongoing war, to call it by its real name, is also too often ignored by the rest of the world as an obscure “frozen conflict.” Given all the conflicts on the planet today, this is an understandable but grave mistake.
Russia, along with France and the United States, are the co-chair countries for the “Minsk Group,” an O.S.C.E.-led peace process which has now run aground.
Russia is also a declared Armenian ally. Azerbaijan has close military ties with NATO member Turkey. Iran, which borders both, is the biggest wildcard; although Shiite Muslim like Azerbaijan, Tehran reviles Baku because of Azerbaijan’s secular orientation, its close ties with Israel, and fears about separatist tendencies among Iran’s large Azeri minority. Iran, ironically, has far better ties with Christian Armenia.
Whatever the case, such a combination of bedfellows could mean any new full-scale conflict going regional, with unpredictable consequences.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan, buoyed by its newfound petrodollars, have been acquiring staggering amounts of sophisticated weapons — not just the AK-47s or basic artillery seen before the 1994 “cease-fire,” but offensive systems — mostly of Russian provenance. These include “Smerch” (Russian for “Tornado”), an advanced rocket system capable of hitting targets 45 miles away — within range of towns and cities.
As for the 600,000 internally displaced Azerbaijanis, the government — too weak, poor and embarrassed to do much to help them until a few years ago — has made progress in building better housing and dramatically lowering poverty rates. It spends one of the highest percentages of its budget — 3 percent — on internally displaced people of any country in the world. Still, 400,000 displaced people remain in substandard housing. The government seems torn between trying to better integrate them into society — which it fears will be a tacit acceptance of the status quo — and keeping their cohesiveness as a group alive along with the promise of one day going home. It should maximize the extent to which the displaced can participate in their country’s political and economic life.
Meanwhile, despite the “cease-fire,” skirmishes along the front lines cause dozens of deaths and injuries each year. The opposing trenches have moved so close — less than 40 yards in some places — that soldiers on both sides sometimes hurl rocks at each other. Only six international monitors occasionally visit, there are no investigation mechanisms and snipers terrorize civilians living in the area.
Maintaining the status quo is not an option. The opposing forces will either reach compromises — and thus peace — probably only through increased international pressure. If not, another round of more intense violence will erupt, raising the danger of dragging in the regional heavyweights.
World leaders need to think about that threat, and the refugee flows, disrupted energy supplies and destruction and death such renewed warfare could cause.
Lawrence Scott Sheets is director of the South Caucasus Project for the International Crisis Group, which released the report, “Tackling Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden” last week. He is also the author of “Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-year Journey through the Soviet Collapse.”
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