[lg policy] =?windows-1252?Q?=91Frozen_Conflict=92_?=Between Azerbaijan and Armenia Begins to Boil

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 1 15:09:34 UTC 2011

May 31, 2011
‘Frozen Conflict’ Between Azerbaijan and Armenia Begins to Boil


BAKU, Azerbaijan — In a mostly empty Soviet-era building here on a
recent morning, a 29-year-old woman pressed her eye against the scope
of a sniper rifle, brown hair spilling over her shoulder, and took aim
at virtual commandos darting between virtual trees. Gathered around
her were fellow students — a decommissioned soldier, teenage boys with
whispery mustaches, a 34-year-old communications worker in Islamic
hijab. When sniper training was offered here in April, by an
organization that provides courses on military preparation, the
classes were a sensation, attracting three times as many students as
the instructors could handle.

The logic behind this can be traced to a grievance that festers below
the surface of everyday life, permeating virtually every conversation
about this country’s future. Since the early 1990s, Azerbaijan has
been trying to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly
ethnic Armenian enclave within its borders, and secure the return of
ethnic Azeris who were forced from their homes by war. A cease-fire
has held since 1994, and officials remain engaged in internationally
mediated negotiations with Armenia, a process that will receive a
burst of attention this month when the two sides meet in Kazan,

But the window for a breakthrough is narrow, and people here say their
patience is gone. “I’d rather go to war than wait another 20 years,”
said Shafag Ismailova, 34, a student in the sniper course, who fled
the Zangelan region outside Nagorno-Karabakh, one of seven adjacent
territories that are under Armenian control. Asked about war, her
friend Shafag Amrahova, a recent law school graduate, did not
hesitate. “War is bad for everyone,” she said evenly. “But sometimes
the situation demands it.”

It is tempting to forget about the “frozen conflicts.” The enclaves of
Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniester in Moldova, and Abkhazia and South
Ossetia in Georgia are among the most headache-inducing legacies of
the Soviet Union. The Soviets granted them a sort of semi-statehood, a
status that ceased to exist just as nationalism flared in the
ideological void. But the 2008 war in Georgia serves as a reminder of
how quickly and terribly they can come unfrozen.

One of the reasons Nagorno-Karabakh has not is that neither party has
an incentive to fight. Armenia controls the territories, so it is
interested in maintaining the status quo. Azerbaijan sees little way
forward: though it could easily drive out Armenian forces, Russia
could send its army to help Armenia, its ally in a regional defense
alliance, just as it did in South Ossetia.

But conditions have been shifting, slowly but surely, in a dangerous
direction. Negotiations mediated by the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe faltered last year, leaving a “basic principles
agreement” that was five years in the making unsigned by either side.
Both countries are engaged in a steep military buildup; Azerbaijan, by
far the richer of the two, has increased defense spending twentyfold
since 2003, according to the International Crisis Group.

With frustration building, threats of war have become so entwined with
negotiations that it is difficult to say where one begins and the
other ends. “There is no guarantee that tomorrow or the day after
tomorrow a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia won’t start,” Ali M.
Hasanov, a senior presidential aide here, said in an interview. “It’s
peaceful coexistence that we need, not a war. We need peaceful
development. But nothing will replace territorial integrity and the
sovereignty of Azerbaijan. If necessary we are ready to give our lives
for territorial integrity.”

He said Baku had been bitterly disappointed by international mediation
efforts. “The United States, France and Russia do not do what they
promised,” he said. “America now thinks Afghanistan and Iraq are more
important — and North Africa, and the missile defense shield in Europe
— than such regional conflicts as Nagorno-Karabakh.” Among the forces
driving Baku are refugees who have spent nearly two decades in limbo.
The United Nations says there are 586,013 — 7 percent of Azerbaijan’s
population, which is one of the highest per capita displacement rates
in the world, according to the International Displacement Monitoring

Though conditions vary widely and some resettlement is now taking
place, a visit to a dormitory in Baku found children growing up in
squalor. Roughly 100 refugees were living along a dank, fetid hallway,
on one floor of a former office building. Three rough, foul-smelling
holes in the concrete floor served as toilets for 21 families,
residents said. The hallway was open to the elements, exposing
residents to bitter cold in the winter. In the summer, mosquitoes
breed in stagnant water in the building’s basement, rising in a cloud
to the floors above them, they said.

“They cannot stand it anymore, they want war,” said Jamila, 41, of her
neighbors. “They don’t believe the promises anymore.”  Just then, a
man took her aside, rebuking her for speaking to Western journalists
who could, he warned, be pro-Armenian. “Our children look at other
houses, they see that other people live well, and they are ashamed,”
she said when she returned, refusing to give her last name. “Write
that the cursed Armenians are guilty of this.”

In this charged atmosphere, Nagorno-Karabakh has become “the one issue
on which there is total social consensus,” said Tabib Huseynov, a
political analyst based in Baku. A visitor here a few years ago would
have heard “Karabakh or Death,” a rap anthem that accuses the United
States, Russia, Turkey and Iran of turning a blind eye, exhorting the
world to “either put an end to this, or stand aside.”

Cease-fire violations — every year, snipers kill roughly 30 people on
either side of the so-called line of contact — can take on huge
proportions. In March, Azerbaijan announced that an Armenian sniper
had killed a 9-year-old Azeri boy, Fariz Badalov. Though Armenia’s
president denied that his forces were responsible, Azeri television
featured the boy’s pitiful life story. One broadcast noted that the
single bullet that crossed the line of contact that day was the one
that lodged in the boy’s head.

The story inspired Valid Gardashly, a publicist for the Voluntary
Military Patriotic Sports-Technical Association, which offers military
training from a headquarters in Baku that is reminiscent of a V.F.W.
post. The organization sketched out a plan for a 45-day course that
would include sniper training, free of charge for about half the

“We thought we had to do something,” he said. “We are not preparing
for war. But this was a poor boy — what did he do wrong? He was not a
soldier. He was just watching cows.” The course touched a nerve — both
in Armenia, where some expressed outrage at the idea, and in
Azerbaijan, where an overflow crowd was winnowed down to the 32 most
promising marksmen. One who made the cut, a 15-year-old boy, offered
his own reason for taking the class: “I am getting ready to fight in
Karabakh.” Ms. Ismailova, one of the students, looked anxious as she
listened to him. She, too, grew up among Karabakh refugees. But the
younger ones are much more ardent, she said.

“These young guys, they have been waiting their whole lives,” she
said. “We had a genocide, and no one helps us. Not America, not



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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