Scotland’s dabbling in secessionism has been closely watched in the ex-Soviet Union, the Shangri-La of separatism. From Transnistria to Karabakh to Crimea, all eyes have been on the UK recently, in hopes that the Scottish example would change hearts and minds about claims to independence.
In South Ossetia, approaching, on September 20, the 24th anniversary of declaring itself independent from Georgia, many were inspired by the “peaceful and civilized” conduct of the Brits. Abkhazia produced a video, in which a group of people unfurl a giant Scottish flag to the sound of Mel Gibson bellowing “Freedom!” in Braveheart.
Yet with Scotland’s September-18 vote to stay with the United Kingdom these public expressions of separatist-solidarity with Scotland have suddenly fallen silent. Only Nagorno Karabakh, which itself has seen a referendum proposed as part of the solution to its differences with Baku, issued a statement, observing that “regardless of the result,” the Scottish referendum had shown that letting people decide their own fate is “the norm in a democratic society.”
As president, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on September 2-3 paid his first foreign visit (not counting a trip to Turkish-controlled Cyprus) to Azerbaijan to talk about things the two countries share: a friendship, a feud with Armenia and pipelines.
"We are very glad that you came home to Azerbaijan, your homeland, in less than a week after your inauguration," declared Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev by way of greeting to his new counterpart, though old ally. Erdoğan, for his part, wanted to emphasise that the mi-casa-es-su-casa relationship that characterized his nine-year run as prime minister will continue strong. "We are two countries, one nation," he underlined.
And what keeps an alliance together better than a mutual enemy? Both presidents condemned Armenia's occupation of breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent Azerbaijani lands. Aliyev vowed to spare no effort to counter the "lies about the Armenian genocide," the Ottoman-era massacre of ethnic Armenians that Turkey claims was collateral damage of World War I.
Some observers believe that the Karabakh conflict is an even bigger obstacle to the normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia than the genocide row. Baku carries enough cultural and financial influence over Ankara to thwart any attempts at reconciliation. The Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey energy corridor is too important to Ankara to let anything threaten the route.
The breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, always on the lookout for ways to boost its population, has offered to shelter Yazidis fleeing from Islamic-State terrorists in Iraq.
“The Armenian people cannot be indifferent to what is now being done to the Yazidi people,” David Babaian, spokesperson for Karabakh’s de-facto president, Bako Sahakian, commented to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on August 19. “The Yazidis are the only people who have become an integral part of the Armenian people.”
According to local news outlets, Armenia is estimated to have a Yazidi population of about 40,000. Data is not available for how many Yazidis live in Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region claimed by Azerbaijan.
Babaian skirted discussions of how the region’s de-facto officials would provide for any Yazidi arrivals, however — a sensitive question, given Azerbaijan’s claims that Karabakh and its main champion, Armenia, want to rework the territory’s ethnic makeup.
Armenia’s foreign ministry told RFE/RL that no Yazidis from Iraq have requested asylum or fled to Armenia as yet.
Rallies, though, were held on August 13 in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to show support for Iraq’s Yazidis, and in neighboring Georgia, which has been estimated to have a Yazidi community of about 20,000.
A video of the capture of an Armenian man who died in Azerbaijani captivity last week is fuelling anger in Armenia over claims that Azerbaijani forces tortured an unarmed Armenian villager to death. As so much in this brutal conflict, it comes with controversy from the other side, too. Footage showing a middle-aged Azerbaijani man in handcuffs being carted off by forces in disputed Nagorno Karabakh is raising hackles in Azerbaijan.
Armenia claims that 31-year-old Karen Petrosian was only a harmless villager who wandered into enemy-territory, while Azerbaijan claims he was an enemy-combatant. Amateur online video shows Petrosian talking to residents of the Azerbaijani border village Agbulaq. One woman from the village, who allegedly first sighted the man, told RFE/RL that Petrosian showed up unarmed and asked for tea.
Additional footage shows the villagers scuffling with Azerbaijani soldiers over Petrosian. RFE/RL reported that the villagers wanted credit for capturing the Armenian.
The Putin-Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Sochi was held against the backdrop of the fiercest fighting in years over the remote, mountainous area. That sense of heightened conflict extended to the summit. Before attending the wrestling match, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents had a bout of words between themselves. The two accused one another of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on Karabakh.
That left it to Putin to step in with calls for wisdom and temperance. “[T]here is no bigger tragedy than the deaths of people,” observed the Russian leader.
Perhaps he was speaking from experience, if not from a sense of irony. The international community has widely blamed Moscow for encouraging the fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists that already has led to the deaths of hundreds, including the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits frontline troops August 6. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a morale-raising visit to troops along the front lines of fighting with Armenia, escalating the rhetoric around the recent conflict even while the shooting appears to have died down.
On Wednesday, Aliyev visited troops near the Aghdam region (which overeager Azerbaijani media had reported that its forces had already won back) and, in a military uniform, delivered a stemwinder of a speech, which he the next day summarized on twitter.
"We are not living in peace, we are living in a state of war. Everyone must know this," he said. "The war is not over. Only the first stage of it is. But the second stage may start too."
He also seemed to support the theory that the uptick in fighting was intended to sharpen international attention on the conflict. "Azerbaijani citizens are not pleased with the activity of mediators because the main mission of mediators is to settle the conflict, not to keep it in a frozen state and conduct confidence building measures," he said. "The Azerbaijani army is showing its strength, which is having an impact on the talks... If the Azerbaijani army starts an offensive, the enemy will find itself in a very difficult situation. This is known to us, the enemy and the mediators. Therefore, I believe that the developments of recent days will prompt mediators to take some action."
Nevertheless, fighting appears to have died down and Aliyev is scheduled to meet with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi, Russia, on Friday and Saturday.
The renewed ruckus between Armenia and Azerbaijan has prompted calls for rehashing the international approach to finding a peaceful resolution to the 26-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But, so far, it appears to be only Russian President Vladimir Putin who's planning to meet with the two countries' leaders.
The reasons for reviving the half-dormant ex-Soviet conflict remain moot. For years now, gusts of fighting have occasionally disrupted the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which ended a full-blown war over breakaway Karabakh. To quote Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, Karabakh ever since has been a place of “no war, no peace.”
But with a record number dead in recent weeks, a real threat of another ex-Soviet war is in the air.
With reports of casualties coming in daily, Azerbaijani military officials have claimed that volunteers have been stepping forward to help national forces with the “liberation of the occupied lands.”
In Armenia, Defense Minister Ohanian said on August 5 that, so far, there is no need for mobilization or the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. “Karabakh is the only conflict zone in the world where relative peace is maintained through a balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces,” Ohanian declared at an August-6 press-conference.
The death toll in fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued to rise, reaching at least 18 as the two sides blamed each other for the escalation and Russia began efforts to try to defuse the crisis.
As sporadic fighting continued through the weekend, Azerbaijan's losses grew to 13, by Baku's count, while Armenia's grew to five by their count. Both sides said the others' losses were greater than reported; Armenia said 25 Azerbaijanis had been killed since July 28, when the fighting flared up, while Azerbaijan claims that 70 Armenians died just August 1-2.
In an interview with state television, the defense minister of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Movses Hakopyan, blamed the Azerbaijani defense minister, Zakir Hasanov, for provoking the conflict in order to "prove himself" after being recently appointed. And he expressed confidence in his forces: "Ignorant and shortsighted acts by the enemy have shown that he is capable of anything, however if large-scale military activity begins, the armed forces of Karabakh have nothing to worry about," he said. "I think that after the recent events the people of Azerbaijan have to understand toward what its leadership's adventurism is leading. The number of losses will only increase and our borders won't change, and if some change happens it will come at the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan."
That gives an opening to Russia, one of three countries (along with the US and France) charged with keeping negotiations afloat between Baku and Yerevan. Russian President Vladimir Putin this week will meet in Sochi separately with Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan, Moscow has announced. A chat which, “when they all appear in the same place and at the same time,” doubtlessly will get down to Karabakh, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
As have the US and EU, Moscow has called for restraint. And — wink-wink — underscored the need for cooperation with the West to keep Armenia and Azerbaijan from coming to still more deadly blows.
“For many years, we have seen periodic flare-ups, but this time [the topic] is being perceived and will be taken up particularly strongly,” Lavrov commented.
The dates for these chats have been set for August 8-9, Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian told reporters, according to RFE/RL.
At least eight Azerbaijani soldiers and two Armenian soldiers have been killed in three days of battle, the largest number of fatalities since 1994 when the two sides signed a ceasefire over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh -- a ceasefire that appears to be growing increasingly untenable.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said that eight of its soldiers had been killed over three days of fighting. According to the Azerbaijani side, "Armenian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted to cross contact line along the border line. Azerbaijani Armed Forces defeated all attacks of the enemy. As a result of fights, the Armenians gave casualties and retreated," APA reported. "Defense Ministry reports that the contact line is fully under the control of Azerbaijani servicemen and their blood will be avenged."
Armenia says that Azerbaijan's casualties may have even been greater: an anonymous senior defense ministry official told AFP that Azerbaijan had lost 14 troops in the fighting. "Azerbaijani subversive groups were ambushed," the official said. "As a result, they have 14 dead and lots of wounded. There are no casualties or wounded on the Armenian side." And the Defense Ministry of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh republic said the day before that two of its soldiers were killed as a result of an attempted incursion by Azerbaijan.
The blog CommonSpace.eu said that while there is "atill no clear information about the latest incidents" the number of killed represented "the most serious incident on the line of contact since the cease-fire came into affect in 1994." James Warlick, the United States representative to the OSCE's Minsk Group which is dealing with the conflict,