Azerbaijan has toned down its rhetoric about shooting down planes that fly over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. But Baku remains at loggerheads with Armenia and Karabakh separatists over plans to reopen the region’s airport.
Azerbaijani officials now underline that they will rely on diplomacy in their attempt to prevent the airport from operating. In 2009, Karabakh’s de facto leadership announced plans to reopen the breakaway region’s airport, which Azerbaijan closed in 1991 at the outset of the hot phase of the Karabakh conflict. Located some eight kilometers outside of the region’s capital – called Khandkendi by Azerbaijanis, and Stepanakert by Armenians -- the airport has undergone a $2.8 million refurbishment, according to Armenian media reports.
If the airport reopens, Air Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh), which Karabakh separatist officials characterize as a “state-run airline,” will fly daily between Yerevan and Khandkendi/Stepanakert. The company possesses three Canadian-made CRJ200 passenger jets.
After earlier asserting that Azerbaijan would shoot down any plane that violated its airspace, officials in Baku on April 1 declared that it would not use force against “civilian objects.” The statement followed on the heels of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s March 30 announcement that he would fly on Air Artsakh to attend the airport’s planned May 9 reopening.
“Azerbaijan excludes any illegal actions, such as terrorist attacks, firing on aircraft … [and] civilian objects,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesperson Elkhan Polukhov told EurasiaNet.org. Polukhov emphasized that Baku is now relying on “all possible diplomatic steps” to prevent the resumption of flights between Yerevan and Karabakh.
After earlier terming Baku’s threat to response with force “unacceptable,” US Ambassador Matthew Bryza on April 4 welcomed the Foreign Ministry’s message, telling reporters that Washington favors “addressing all problems through negotiations," the Trend news agency reported.
Baku has already filed complaints about the planned flights and the reopening of the Karabakh airport with the United Nations-run International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which assigns airports the identifier codes required for flight plans. The ICAO holds that only the aviation regulatory body of the member-state in which an airport is located can issue an identifier code. Under international law, Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijan State Civil Aviation Administration (ASCAA) twice contacted the ICAO about the Karabakh flights. The agency forwarded Baku’s complaints to Yerevan, but Armenia has not yet responded officially to the messages, ASCAA Deputy Chief Fuad Guliyev told EurasiaNet.org.
Baku is expected to raise the airport issue again during an April 13-14 visit of the co-chairpersons of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the body overseeing Karabakh peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
So far, Baku has found that the international community is not particularly interested in the airport issue. Only Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest ally, has backed Baku’s demands that the flights to Karabakh be stopped. Other countries’ lack of support for Baku’s position has provoked sharp criticism from Azerbaijani government officials.
“Instead of condemning Armenia, the international community wants to reduce the issue to the level of relations between the civil aviation authorities of two countries,” Novruz Mammadov, head of the presidential administration’s Foreign Policy Department, was quoted as saying by the 1news.az website on April 1. “I can only call such a reaction ‘double standards.’”
The international community’s reticence on the Karabakh airport dispute follows a diplomatic pattern when it comes to the so-called frozen conflicts of the Caucasus. The European Union responded similarly when the de facto government of breakaway Abkhazia announced plans last year to reopen the region’s Babushera airport for commercial flights.
At the time, the European Union, which later signed an agreement with Georgia on developing EU-compatible aviation standards, maintained that the Tbilisi-Sokhumi dispute over the airport was a matter for Georgian domestic aviation officials. The ICAO likewise did not grant Babushera an international identifier code.
What measures Baku can take at this point to block the airport’s reopening are unclear. Calling Sargsyan’s intention to be aboard the inaugural flight “a provocation,” Mammadov indicated that Baku would not come to terms with Yerevan on the flights, but did not elaborate.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan.