Armenia-Azerbaijan: The Risk of Lighting the Fuse

Marcelo Cantelmi
Translated by Vartan Matiossian

The evolution of the complex geopolitical table of the Southern Caucasus shows that any step involving the countries of that region must take different conflicting interests into consideration.

On June 4, 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, as part of her tour of the Southern Caucasus that included Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Baku, in Azerbaijan.
But that day something else happened: three Armenian soldiers were killed in a strife with Azerbaijani soldiers in the borderline region of Tavush, on the northwest of the country. Several hours later, on June 5, five members of the military, this time Azerbaijani, died in two separated combats with Armenian troops near the city of Azhag (*), again in the northwest. Before that, in April, Armenia had denounced that Azerbaijani soldiers had opened fire against civilian targets, hitting an ambulance near the so-called contact line, as well as a school and a private car in the village of Aygepar. Three Armenian soldiers were in the car and all of them died.
The repetition of these grave incidents, which the interested parties blame on each other, reflects a dangerous broke of the ceasefire in force after the fierce war these countries fought between February 1989 and 1994 for the sovereignty of the Nagorno Karabagh enclave, leaving some 25,000 deaths. But it also shows the depth of the confrontation between both nations and the evidence that the state of war, technically ongoing, is hanging from an ever-thinning thread.
It is important to look carefully at such a complex scenario to understand the conflicting interests and the consequence of diplomatic steps taken with some lightness. Azerbaijan has recently become a highly privileged and sudden partner for Argentina, whose Minister of Foreign Relations, Héctor Timerman, held three interviews with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in four months of this year.
The penultimate phase of that relation was the visit to Baku of a delegation of businessmen which included the Secretary [viceminister] of Trade, Guillermo Moreno. The last one was the arrival of the Azerbaijani Minister of Foreign Relations this week [July 26]. 
The absence of an effective reciprocity with Armenia, which has one of its biggest world communities in Argentina, produced more than anxiety in that community. Worries have not disappeared, but have only been appeased with the news that Timerman will soon travel to Yerevan.
It is not about competition. There are questions in the background of these movements that are beyond the reach of Argentina. Azerbaijan is using these steps as part of a diplomatic offensive to improve its international image and acquire allies in case of any future contingency. It is a hard job. Transparency International placed the Caucasian country in the 143rd position over 183 nations of its Index of Corruption Perceptions. Amnesty International has denounced the persecution against dissidents and journalists.
There are also very critical views with regard to the suspicions of fraud in the 2010 elections or in the way that Heidar Aliyev, father of the President, who controlled the country during the last period of the Soviet regime, transferred the power to his son in 2004, giving birth to a dynasty in a vote that it also opened room for a strong debate.
As part of the effort to wash out that image, there was the hosting of Eurovion, an event where Baku invested up to four times the money requested to organize that famous competition, watched by a hundred million Europeans. The funds for those enterprises come from the enormous wealth of gas and oil of the country, which allowed a remarkable economic growth of 35% in 2006.
Great Britain is the biggest investor in that Islamic nation of less than ten million inhabitants, where 5,000 British citizen live and which Prince Andrew has visited eight times since 2005 to ensure the interests of London. That alliance makes wet paper of the eventual illusion of the Casa Rosada [Government House of Argentina] to have a new partner in the fight for the Malvinas [Falkland] Islands.
Azeri economic strength implies political and military power. Closest ally of Turkey, Azerbaijan shares with that power the language, a huge oil pipe that connects the country with the Turkish port of Ceyhan, and an old rivalry with Armenia, the nation that suffered the first genocide of the past century that cost the lives of more than a million and a half Armenians in the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
The litigation for the sovereignty over the enclave of Nagorno Karabagh, which Armenia names as its ancient province of Artsakh, started in 1918, when the new borders between both states started to be traced in the first years of the USSR. The dispute was solved by the Soviet regime around 1923, which gave the area to the Azeris, despite its majority of Armenian population.
When the Communist camp began to sink in the late 1980s, binational tension grew and after the Parliament of Nagorno Karabagh and a referendum cast their votes for a union with Armenia, the war started. It was stopped six years later with the current and fragile, the establishment of the enclave as a republic without world recognition and the power left in the hands of its Armenian population.
Besides its carnal relations with Ankara, Azerbaijan takes care of an important alliance with Israel which became somehow paradoxal. That relationship was strengthened after Turkey broke relations with Tel Aviv and suspended all military agreements as a result of the bombings of Gaza and the assassination by the Israeli militia (**) of seven Turkish citizens on a flotilla which was going to bring humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in the Gaza strip. Turkey, a NATO member, was the best partner if Israel decided to attack Iran, a surprising and close ally of Armenia by the way. It was recently reported that Azerbaijan bought U$S 1,6 billion of weapons from Israel, including drone planes.
The assumption that the weapons would be used against Teheran was denied by Baku itself, which categorically clarified that the target of that arsenal were Nagorno Karabagh and the Armenians. Indeed, the wealthy country of the Caucasus also denied the version that, in return for that immense firepower, it had rented to Israel at least four former Soviet bases to achieve there what it did not have any longer with Turkey.

"Clarin," July 28, 2012

(*) There is no such city in Armenia. It is probably a misprint for Gazakh (the Azerbaijani name of the city of Ijevan) (translator's note).
(**) Verbatim translation of the Spanish original, "asesinato por la milicia israeli." The Mavi Marmara incident actually involved the Israeli Navy and navy comandos (translator's note). 

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