Azerbaijan signals possible military action as Karabakh talks falter
As talks between Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenians show little promise, Baku is putting out signals that a military escalation could be in the offing.
Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian leaders clearly have radically different visions and objectives for the talks that seemed to begin in earnest two weeks ago.
On March 13, the Azerbaijani presidential administration invited Karabakh representatives for talks in Baku, "to continue contacts for reintegration."
The proposal was immediately rejected by Karabakh's de-facto foreign ministry, which insisted that "such meetings should be held within an agreed and internationally recognized format" and not politicized.
Indeed, Azerbaijan sees the talks as a component of establishing sovereignty over the region while Karabakh Armenian officials refuse to engage in political dialogue without international mediators.
The previous meetings, which took place in Karabakh and were mediated by the Russian peacekeepers deployed there, were aimed at addressing humanitarian, infrastructure, and technical issues.
Shortly before the first high-profile meeting on March 1, both Azerbaijan and Karabakh formed working groups for the talks. MP Ramin Mammadov was identified in Azerbaijan as the person responsible for contacts with Armenians, while Karabakh's delegation was led by the head of the security council, Karen Shahramanyan.
The invitation to Baku followed a clash on March 5 which left three Karabakh Armenian police officers and two Azerbaijani soldiers dead.
Karabakh and Armenia said it was an unprovoked Azerbaijani attack on a police patrol inside the area of the de facto authorities' control. Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said that Armenian vehicles were transporting "military equipment, ammunition, and personnel" from Armenia to Karabakh. That statement suggested that these vehicles had been trying to bypass the blockade of the Lachin corridor, Karabakh's only lifeline to Armenia and the outside world. The blockade -- which Azerbaijan denies is a blockade -- has been maintained by Azerbaijani government-sponsored protestors since December 12.
Then, on March 13, Azerbaijani media published aerial footage of what was said to be Armenian vehicles transporting arms into Karabakh. Karabakh's interior ministry, meanwhile, said those vehicles carried civilians accompanied by Russian peacekeepers.
Two days later, Karabakh police reported that three civilians came under fire from adjacent Azerbaijani combat positions while tending to their vineyards.
The pattern of incidents has led both Armenian and Azerbaijani observers to wonder if Azerbaijan will soon escalate militarily in what it will call a response to Armenian provocation.
Tigran Grigoryan, a political analyst originally from Karabakh, tweeted that the invitation for talks in Baku was a bid "to create a pretext for starting a new escalation and putting the blame on NK, perfectly knowing the 'invitation' will be rejected."
Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Azerbaijan government-affiliated Center of Analysis of International Relations, similarly wrote that Karabakh Armenians' refusal to continue the dialogue in Baku "indicates the high probability of tension, and Azerbaijan is not going to tolerate illegal establishment & armed groups on its territory."
Meanwhile, on March 11 Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov said that Armenia was "trying to artificially create tension in the region" and that "the Azerbaijani Army will take all necessary decisive measures to halt any provocation."
He specifically ordered a high level of army preparedness during the Novruz holiday (March 20-24).
And Azerbaijani TV stations, which uniformly support the government, have been full of rhetoric about possible "Armenian provocation" and "anti-terrorist operations" in the coming days, the foreign-based independent outlet Mikroskop Media observed.
The building tension comes amid fraught efforts to reach a comprehensive peace agreement between Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia. The main sticking point there is that Armenia insists on a separate internationally mediated peace process between Azerbaijan and Karabakh while Baku says Karabakh and the fate of its ethnic-Armenian population is a strictly internal affair.
Hikmet Hajiyev, the chief foreign policy adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, recently reiterated that message, and gave assurances that the rights and security of Karabakh Armenians would be guaranteed in accordance with the Constitution and laws of Azerbaijan, with no special privileges granted to them.
Karabakh's foreign ministry quickly responded, noting that a number of international organizations, including the OSCE Minsk Group and the UN Security Council, still have the Karabakh issue on their agenda and recalling that the UN's International Court of Justice recently ordered Azerbaijan to "ensure unimpeded movement" through the Lachin highway.
The ministry further reiterated Karabakh's readiness to continue negotiations over the comprehensive settlement of the conflict, "on the basis of the norms and principles of international law."
In remarks to a government meeting on March 16, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reiterated Yerevan's objection to Baku's rhetoric about the "reintegration" of the Karabakh Armenians, which he said amounts to an intention to commit "ethnic cleansing." He added that he had instructed the Foreign Ministry to pursue UN genocide prevention mechanisms.
Addressing the most recent tensions, he said, "The Azerbaijani state propaganda has long been creating an information background for a large-scale attack on Nagorno Karabakh, and the trends of escalation are visible on the ground, as well."
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.
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