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A War That Has Been Neglected Since 1994

A War That Has Been Neglected Since 1994

Using the infamous quote of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, this story below is about “a quarrel in faraway countr[ies] between people of whom we know nothing”. And this is not about Europe of late 1930’s, but about the periphery of Europe of 2012. I marked this quote listening to a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Northern Ireland, Mr. John McCallister, who was delivering a speech about the conflict settlement process in Northern Ireland at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)-hosted Ministerial conference in Dublin on April 27. Fortunately enough for all Irishmen, who suffered three decades of Troubles in their recent history, through the inclusive contribution of international mediators, and chief of them US Senator George Mitchell, as well as the maturity of the leaderships in London, Belfast, and Dublin, they became able to seal the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

When foreign diplomats or my fellow colleagues from political science disciplines elaborate on commonalities between the conflict in Ulster and others in, for example, the former Soviet Union areas, including Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both now partially recognized by few states), and Transdniestria, I always pinpoint on two key differences: a) decisive international involvement; and b) maturity of political and community leaderships.

A smoldering conflict is often not about absence of any peace initiatives. It is substantially about an unwillingness of either of the parties to commit to negotiated agreements once out of the meeting room. This is especially true about the peace talks on Nagorno Karabakh, where the geography of negotiations since the ceasefire was established in 1994 (and even between the war of 1992-94) covers the most beautiful cities on the planet—Rome, Helsinki, Prague, Lisbon, Moscow, Paris, Key West, Madrid, etc.—while any progress is hardly visible. A “no war, no peace” situation has been the only and appreciated result of peace talks, which is now under increasing risk to erupt into conflict as both sides are engaged in a Cold war-style “deterrence” with extensive military buildup.[1]

Instead of going into the substance of current talks, here I want to offer another key difference, which still makes it impossible to heal wounds of enmity.

One of the most tragic events in the Troubles, “Bloody Sunday” of January 1972, may serve as an example to show one difference between Great Britain and Azerbaijan—two metropolises that had been trying to keep their conflict regions inside the common area. While after “Bloody Sunday” the Westminster immediately rushed into whitewashing the tragedy and justifying the killings of mostly unarmed civilian protesters in the streets of Derry, the Tony Blair Cabinet established the so-called Saville Inquiry in 1998, which came out with a final report in 2010 and contained rightful and lawful elaborations on the “usual suspects”. This bloody event might be much similar to what happened in Sumgayit, a town in still Soviet Azerbaijan in February 1988, where Armenians were being executed for the sake of their ethnic origins, just because few days before, on February 20, the legislature in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) capital Stepanakert applied with a petition to the Kremlin to re-join Soviet Armenia. The same policy of pogroms against Armenians later unfolded in Baku, Kirovabad, and other cities and villages of Azerbaijan in the late years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Though the Soviets staged some prosecutions to punish anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgayit (and not anywhere else), only few suspects got prison terms for “hooliganism and mass riots”. Instead of blaming and shaming for the ethnic cleansings, which might have put the follow-up events into another channel, most suspects were freed in the courtrooms or sentenced to conditional terms. Absence of any “Saville Inquiry”, and moreover a policy of whitewashing the history and blaming Armenians themselves “for provocations that led to pogroms”, is what qualitatively distinguishes the Karabakh case from the success story in Northern Ireland. This is what I think the next similar conference, hosted by Irish Chairmanship of the OSCE, will need to address.

Before conflicting diplomats and mediators may come to terms for conflict resolution, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno Karabakh are still fighting.

The official releases from the Armenian Defense Ministry reported on April 27 that the Azerbaijani army has been shelling with sniper and artillery fire the borderland villages of Tavush region in Armenia, including onto a school and kindergarten.[2] Three soldiers of the Armenian army are reported to have been killed, another one wounded. Azerbaijani officials and the media indirectly confirmed the incident.[3] The Armenian Foreign Ministry urgently asked the Personal Representative of OSCE CiO to dispatch an emergency monitoring mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.[4] The two OSCE observers were already in place on April 30 and recorded the incidents carefully.

Recalling the vocabulary of the so-called Caroline affair, common in international law to describe justifications of legitimate self-defense, now the threat to Armenian frontlines is imminent. Immanency is vested on daily violations of ceasefire regime, including the recent shelling upon the borderland school and kindergarten, where ordinary civilians must enjoy the protection of their government against any threat to their life and health by any force— internal or external. This quite simple erga omnes obligation is enshrined in any Constitution across the globe, which gave rise to “Responsibility to Protect”, or R2P doctrine, affirmed by UN Security Council in Resolution 1674 (2006). As parliamentary elections in Armenia are due on May 6, this inflammable situation is specifically bold and affects the domestic political stability and threatens the national security more than ever, leaving for this tiny country in the Caucasus no other option than to engage militarily.[5]

Serzh Sargsyan, the President of Armenia, has already manifested an “inevitable” and devastating answer to punish for the ceasefire violation,[6] while OSCE Minsk Group co-Chairs (in attendance to OSCE Dublin conference on April 27) rushed to urge the parties “to abstain from retaliatory measures”.[7] The co-Chairs, who have attracted much criticism for a long time now, didn’t utter anything about strengthening the ceasefire regime monitoring capabilities. When there are no early warning mechanisms or permanent observer missions established on site, the sides will always remain prone to resuming the conflict.

This is exactly the time when the international community should urge Azerbaijan to comply with long-negotiated confidence-building measures – pulling back snipers[8] and allowing installation of ceasefire violation mechanisms to avoid any new escalation that the region is obviously rushing into while international conferences discuss “success stories”.


  1. Military expenditure in the South Caucasus; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2011 http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2011/files/SIPRIYB1104-04A-04B.pdf
  2. News.am agency, 26/04/2012 http://news.am/eng/news/102879.html
  3. News.az agency, 30.04.2012 (in Russian) http://1news.az/politics/karabakh/20120430015641090.html
  4. News.am agency, 28/04/2012 http://news.am/eng/news/103258.html
  5. Panarmenian News Agency, 28/04/2012, http://www.panarmenian.net/eng/news/105253/
  6. Panorama.am News Agency, 27/04/2012 http://www.panorama.am/en/society/2012/04/27/serzh-sargsyan-mil/
  7. Statement of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, 27 April 2012 http://www.osce.org/mg/90140
  8. Armenia ‘Still Ready’ For Sniper Withdrawal In Karabakh, RFE/RL, November 25, 2011 http://www.rferl.org/content/snipers_karabakh_armenia_azerbaijan/24402333.html

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