Caspian conflict may hit Europe's energy ambitions
by Francesco Guarascio
Europe's plans to build pipelines to the gas-rich Caspian region may be seriously hampered by an escalation in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh, reports Francesco Guarascio from the front line
Khosrov's farmhouse lies along the 'line of contact' which divides the Azeri Aghdam district from the part of the region occupied by the Armenian army. He and his family live under constant risk of being killed by Armenian snipers who hide in the trenches no more than 200 metres from his farm. Aghdam is one of the provinces invaded by Armenia in the early 1990s to create a buffer zone between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
"I cannot go to the second floor of my house," Khosrov says, pointing out the upper façade, which is riddled with bullets. His cows are kept on a leash to prevent them being killed by the snipers. The back door of his little orchard has been protected by an external wall built recently by the Azerbaijani authorities. The door is riddled with bullets, too. The farm lies in a village populated by some 250 people. Each year snipers' bullets hit on average three or four people from the village. One was Khosrov's daughter, whose arm was injured. Still, this has not been enough to convince Khosrov to leave. "This is what Armenians want, but I will not give up," he says, looking at his consenting wife. At the age of 70, he is one of the oldest in the village. If he leaves, the others may follow. "It would be a bad signal," he concludes.
His story is very common in Azerbaijan. Civilians bear the brunt of the unstable ceasefire because they farm the land near the contact line surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The other side of the border hosts only occupying soldiers. Meanwhile Armenian civilians are at risk along the actual border between the two countries to the north.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of severe tension since the late 1980s when the perceived future collapse of the Soviet Union galvanised radicals on both sides. War erupted in 1991 over the mostly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies within Azerbaijan's territory. The ceasefire entered into force in 1994, after Armenian forces had taken control of the region and seven surrounding districts belonging to Azerbaijan, including Aghdam. The war created 30,000 victims on both sides and over one million Azeri refugees. Despite the ceasefire, violence has continued to flare over the years along the front line. Recent months have seen a dangerous increase in fighting and a growing number of victims. At the beginning of June, nine soldiers – three Armenians and six Azerbaijanis – were killed in clashes on the front line.
The violence escalated ahead of a visit to the region by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She called for an end to the clashes and warned that "there is a danger that it could escalate into a much broader conflict that would be tragic for everyone concerned". This was echoed a week later by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the body that is in charge of negotiating a peace deal between the warring states, which called for the withdrawal of snipers on both sides. The situation on the ground has not changed.
Azerbaijan's deputy prime minister Ali Hasanov, in a restricted interview with the press in Baku this week, played down the recent events. "We are used to escalations," he said, repeating the Azerbaijani official line. They are favourable to a peaceful solution, but ready to use the force if Armenia will not withdraw its soldiers from Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding occupied districts, as has been requested by four United Nations resolutions. Azerbaijan spends now around 20 per cent of its growing budget on military equipment. Conversely, Armenia is an impoverished and landlocked country, yet it enjoys the support of Russia, and partly, of the United States and France, where the largest numbers of the powerful Armenian diaspora has settled.
Maintaining the status quo does not benefit either side. It is not good news for Europe, which has huge investments planned to bring Azeri gas to the continent as an alternative to Russian supplies. Pipelines have already been diverted around Armenia, increasing construction and transportation costs. Plans to expand the infrastructure will have to follow these same longer routes, which also run dangerously close to the conflict zone.
In a rare assertive statement, the European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton last week condemned the presidential elections held in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on July 19. Underlining that the EU "does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework" in which they were held, Ashton added that "these 'elections' should not prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiated general framework of the peaceful settlement of the conflict."
The two countries negotiated a long term plan to pacify the region, based on the initial withdrawal of Armenian soldiers from five of the seven occupied districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the so-called Madrid Principles, this should lead to the re-establishment of communication between the two countries. The principles were drawn in the Spanish capital in 2007, but they have never been applied. Azerbaijan seems ready to take the next step. "We could restore communications after the withdrawal of Armenians from three regions, as a start," a top official tells PublicServiceEurope.com in Baku. So far the 'Great Game' of the Caucasus has been played exclusively according to strategic interests. Will wisdom ever prevail?
Azerbaijan is only ready to take the next step if Armenian forces retreat, but Azerbaijan is not ready to set a date for a referendum to determine the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This story is one-sided coverage of the events. Please be balanced and fair.
Armen - USA
What a terrible, terrible article. What does Armenia stand to gain from disturbing the status quo or calling western attention to the region? Nothing. Azerbaijan is responsible for ceasefire violations, and Armenia is compelled to commit reprisals.
David - USA