A Spark in the South Caucasus?

Azerbaijan and Armenia could be set for another flare-up after the pardon of a convicted murderer. The two Caucasus states have been at each others’ throats for almost 90 years, but have managed to keep a relative, though highly strained, peace for the last two decades. The release of Ramil Safarov, an Azeri military officer, may be what sets the two down the path to war once more.

Lt. Safarov was convicted in Hungary following the axe-murder of Armenian Lt. Gurgen Makarian during a NATO training course in 2004. In exchange for his return, the Azeri government promised to keep Safarov imprisoned – instead he found himself released and promoted to Major.

The news was not received well in Armenia, where protests against Hungary broke out. Nor was the reasoning given by Azerbaijan: Nagorno-Karabakh. The small region, contained entirely within Azerbaijan, is composed of ethnic Armenians, a legacy of Stalin’s ‘divide and conquer’ tactics in the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a full-scale war over who would take control of the enclave.

Since a cease-fire in 1994, the region has been held by Armenian troops and local ethnic Armenian fighters. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has had the lead on the diplomatic side via their Minsk Group, hosting talks between the two to attempt to determine a final status of the Nagorno-Karabahk region. So far no settlement has been reached.

A renewed fighting between the two states would be troubling for several reasons. First, the ethnic conflict between the two has shades of the 1990s Balkans Wars within them, and once released could be hard to contain. The second, Azerbaijan has since the end of the war become a supplier of oil and natural gas for Europe and the region. A surge in conflict could reduce its flow to Turkey and the European Union, raising energy prices. Third, both are of strategic importance, considering that they border Iran, something that Israel has taken note of.

Finally, renewed conflict would likely bring Russia onto the scene in a big way. The Russian Federation is the regional hegemon and has profited off of the tense status quo between the two states. Per a report from the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory:

Russia, while not interested in war in the region, profits by maintaining instability in the South Caucasus, playing off the interests of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey, and making itself look like a more reliable source and transit country for natural gas than Azerbaijan (which exports its gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey). Russia appears to be more of an arms broker than an honest broker. Despite being one of the chief negotiators in the peace process, Russia, according to a recent SIPRI report, supplied 55% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports and 96% of Armenia’s between 2007 and 2011.

Any break in that balance could provoke Russian intervention, a prospect that neither side would likely relish. It is also uncertain how the conflict would play out in the UN Security Council. When the issue was last raised, the newly minted Russian Federation’s foreign policy was markedly different than today’s and the OSCE was given free-reign diplomatically to end the fighting. Also, it is worth noting that Azerbaijan current holds a non-permanent seat on the Council as well.

There have been several skirmishes since the cease-fire, but the rise of Azerbaijan’s fortunes due to it’s energy exports may be shifting the balance that has kept the two in check. The Caucasus has managed to avoid the horrors that the Balkans suffered in the 1990s. Strong, timely diplomatic intervention by the OSCE and United Nations is needed to prevent that from changing.