The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, and France, meet in Vienna. (photo: U.S. State Department)
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to strengthen the international monitoring of the front lines between their armed forces, a potentially significant step that could make it possible to identify the causes of the increasingly frequent flareups in violence between the two sides.
The agreement emerged from a meeting between the presidents of the two countries in Vienna on Monday night brokered by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States, Russia, and France. The high-level involvement in the conflict follows what has come to be known as the "four-day war" in early April, the worst violence since the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994.
An OSCE statement after the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev reported that the two sides "agreed to finalize in the shortest possible time an OSCE investigative mechanism. The Presidents also agreed to the expansion of the existing Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office."
The paucity of resources of the current monitoring regime, with only six monitors covering a long, remote, line of contact, has made it nearly impossible to determine what is behind a ceasefire violation. And while the OSCE statement is vague, expanding the OSCE monitoring office and creating an "investigative mechanism" could ameliorate some of those problems.
Armenia’s defenses against Azerbaijan may include the usual in armaments and soldiers, but, according to Armenian parliamentarian Tevan Poghosian, the military planning for the future should also feature a much more microscopic component, as well – sperm.
For a small country of roughly 3 million people, one that’s already experienced a massive loss of population from migration and war, and which senses its existence entails a fight, the Armenian military’s losses spark questions about the future. The “continuity of generations” needs to be ensured, Poghosian told parliament on May 2.
Three high-ranking Armenian military and defense officials have been fired amid growing recriminations about the performance of the country's armed forces in what has come to be called the "four-day war" with Azerbaijan earlier this month.
The officials included a top Ministry of Defense procurement official, as well as the head of intelligence at the general staff and the head of communications at the MoD. Part of the reason: the officials were believed to be using budget funds meant for military procurements for their own personal use, reported the newspaper Zhoghovurd, citing the president's office.
"Soldiers, along with their relatives, publicly stated that we would not have had that many losses during the four-day war had the personnel been provided with appropriate ammunition. It was also discussed how over the course of years relevant MoD officials had become the owners of huge estates, leaving the army with an arms problem," Zhoghovurd reported, as cited by epress.am.
Similar allegations were raised by former prime minister Grant Bagratyan, reported RFE/RL. "Our soldiers can't see anything after 8 o'clock because of the lack of night vision equipment. We had so many casualties because we didn't have ordinary communications equipment that we had in the 1990s," he said at an April 25 session of parliament. "We have serious problems with the quality of the leadership of the defense ministry, when several have acquired expensive jeeps... and it emerges that we don't have the ordinary communications equipment that we had ten years ago, and our guys had to contact each other by cell phone, which was the reason for additional casualties."
The Azerbaijani government has taken aim at Meydan TV, one of the few independent Azeri-language news outlets, after the station alleged that Baku under-reported the number of Azerbaijani deaths in this month’s fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, the station says.
The Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office has not released any public information about its investigation, but a lawyer for Meydan, Elchin Sadigov, stated that 15 Azerbaijanis have been named in a government investigation into supposed tax evasion and illegal business activity; the usual charges against journalists and those who refuse to toe the government’s line.
“We consider this as a declaration of war against independent journalism in Azerbaijan,” Meydan’s founder, activist Emin Milli, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
None of the individuals has yet been charged, though the station reports that the government banned “a number of journalists” from leaving Azerbaijan as well as searched their residences and took work equipment without a warrant.
The government has not responded to these reports. Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.
Earlier, Meydan TV had come under attack from mainstream, pro-government news outlets and officials alike for its critical coverage of the so-called Four-Day War, the April 2-5 flare-up in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over separatist Nagorno Karabakh. Amidst the fighting, all sides – Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Karabakhi separatists – made grand claims of losses inflicted on their respective enemies.
“War is over, beware of peace” goes a phrase from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht. It rings true today when peace in the Caucasus is brought by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is initiating a new phase of the roughly 24-year-long talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After brokering a shaky April 5 ceasefire between the two, Moscow now has hit on “intensive negotiations,” a familiar prescription, as the way forward. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Yerevan on April 21 to talk about the Karabakh negotiations.
As yet, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the tripartite body headed by Russia, the US and France, which has overseen the Karabakh talks since 1992, is not in the picture.
“It was the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “He addressed the presidents of both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] and preparations are underway now for the negotiations process.”
“We have activated all necessary diplomatic mechanisms to place the sides at the negotiations table,” Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
The official said that Moscow attaches top importance to finding peace in Karabakh, but, then, whether in South Ossetia, Ukraine or Syria, it always does, supposedly.
Russia’s plans to keep selling guns to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, no matter if the Caucasus’ two irascible neighbors use them against each other, is feeding growing Armenian frustration with their only strategic ally.
With Nagorno Karabakh's worst violence in two decades having abated, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking stock of how loyally their allies and partners responded to the crisis. And in most cases, both sides have found the responses wanting.
The major outside player in the conflict remains Russia, but its actions and the subsequent reactions followed a well-worn path: Armenia complained that its ostensible ally was providing weapons to its enemy, Russia justified that policy in terms of a balance of power, and nothing concrete changed.
While Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and gets discounted Russian weaponry in return, oil-rich Azerbaijan has rearmed itself, with the aim of retaking its lost territory, buying most of its arms from the very same Russia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region at the end of last week, part of a Russian diplomatic blitz that seems to have succeeded in tamping down the violence for the time being. And both officials made it clear that Russia did not intend to change its policy of supplying both sides.
“If we consider for a moment that Russia gave up that role, we all will see clearly that such place won’t remain vacant. Weapons will be bought from other countries, and that won’t make weapons less deadly. However, it could ruin the current balance to some extent,” Medvedev said. "Everything is done in compliance with the contracts. Both these countries are our strategic partners," Rogozin said.
Gold mines for Azerbaijan’s presidential offspring, an ex-Georgian leader’s offshore company, a key Armenian official’s questionable income, the grounds for a clamoring public outcry in the South Caucasus over the Panama Papers were all there. But, so far, it hasn’t come.
Details about the Azerbaijani presidential family’s alleged control over Azerbaijan’s goldmines and its supposed business alliance with Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov hit on April 4, a day before a ceasefire which more or less ended three days of fighting with Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
A 2012 report by RFE/RL, an OCCRP partner, had found that Aliyev’s daughters had stake in the goldmines; a revelation that OCCRP believes cost RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismyailova her freedom.*
Russia on April 7 swiftly took charge as a conciliator in the Armenia-Azerbaijan fight, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the ground in Baku, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his way to Yerevan and President Vladimir Putin sending his “warmest greetings.”
“At every level, from president to prime minister, to foreign ministry, to defense ministry, to joint chiefs of staff, we did everything to help the sides arrive at a ceasefire agreement,” Lavrov said on April 7, as he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the Azerbaijani capital. The trip was announced in March, before the latest violence began.
While calling for a lasting Armenia-Azerbaijan peace, Lavrov used the opportunity to emphasize Moscow's special role in the affairs of its former Soviet republics and to draw lines for the West's involvment. Russia, “as a country with close ties to both” Armenia and Azerbaijan will stay involved to make sure that the truce holds in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Lavrov said.
Although saying that Moscow is supportive of peace initiatives of the conflict's two other international mediators, the United States and France, Lavrov claimed than Russia is more interested in a peaceful resolution of the 28-year-old Caucasus conflict than anybody in the West.
A photo released by the de facto Nagorno Karabakh armed forces, which they said is an Azerbaijani ThunderB drone that they shot down.
The recent surge of violence in Nagorno Karabakh has brought attention to Azerbaijan's increased reliance on arms from Israel, including two types of drones not previously known to be in Baku's arsenal.
In one case, Azerbaijan was reported to have used a "Harop" loitering munition, known somewhat fancifully as a "kamikaze drone" because it is itself the bomb. According to Armenian media, on April 4 the Harop hit a bus carrying soldiers to the front and killed five or six of them. It was believed to be the first ever combat use of the system anywhere, reported Jane's Defence Weekly. Azerbaijan sources claim to have used the Harop in other attacks, as well.
In another episode, the armed forces of Nagorno Karabakh released photos of a ThunderB surveillance drone that they claimed to have shot down on April 2.
And in a third episode, Azerbaijani sources claim that their side destroyed "six enemy tanks" using an Israeli-made Spike missiles.
None of these weapons were previously reported to be operated by Azerbaijan. (While it was known that Azerbaijan bought the marine version of the Spike missiles, it's not clear whether it somehow used those for this attack or had secretly also purchased the land forces version, as well.)