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Skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops threatens talks on Nagorno Karabakh settlement

(9 December 2009)

Following the collapse of diplomatic efforts to solve the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, on 27 November 2009 Armenian armed forces and Azerbaijani troops began exchanging fire in the Hojavand, Agdam and Fizuli regions. In subsequent days the area affected by the military confrontation expanded to include also the districts of Khojaly and Khojavand. Skirmishes between Armenian and Azeri forces have not been uncommon since the 1994 ceasefire, but these latest actions come at time when negotiations are at an advanced stage and they could threaten to derail a potential settlement.

The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region dates back to 1988 when Armenia claimed the predominantly Armenian enclave situated within the territorial boundaries of Azerbaijan. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the inhabitants of the region expressed their desire to secede from Azerbaijan through a referendum and the independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed. Although Armenia has never recognised the independence of this republic, it engaged in a military conflict against Azerbaijan that ended in 1994 when the two south Caucasian countries agreed to a ceasefire. At that time, Armenian troops occupied about 20% of Azerbaijan territory, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven other surrounding districts.

Since the 1994 ceasefire, the two countries have tried to solve their dispute peacefully, with negotiations supported and co-chaired by Russia, France and U.S. through the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. Despite some minor progress, diplomatic efforts have recently stalled. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, failed to reach a compromise over the Nagorno-Karabakh region during their meeting held in Munich on 22 November 2009, the sixth meeting held this year. The settlement plans that have been under discussion in the recent negotiations include the immediate withdrawal of Armenian troops from five districts around Nagorno-Karabakh and from the Kelbadzharsky and part of the Lachinsky districts after five years. In return, Azerbaijan would reject use of force as a means for settlement and would grant Nagorno-Karabakh a temporary legal status, effectively legalising the existing de facto administration. In the long term, the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be established by agreement and consensus based on a coordinated referendum.

Despite the advanced stage of negotiations, no settlement plan has been agreed by the parties and there has been tense domestic rhetoric that suggests growing impatience with settlement progress. In addition, Turkey’s tense relationship with both Armenia and Azerbaijan has further complicated the situation. Ministerial talks did take place in Athens on 1 and 2 December, but these recent skirmishes may affect future talks and could reflect an underlying impatience on both sides with the fifteen year settlement initiative.

Sources: ‘Armenian armed forces break ceasefire’ Trend News Agency, 7 December 2009; Yerevan and Baku take controversial steps for resolving of the conflict, New threats of a war for Nagorno-Karabakh’ WPS Russian Media Monitoring Agency, Defense & Security, 7 December 2009; ‘Azerbaijan armed forces broke cease-fire with Armenia and NKR 400 times in November 2009’ ARMINFO News, 3 December 2009; ‘Armenian armed forces break ceasefire six times for last two days’ Trend News Agency, 28 November 2009; ‘Azerbaijani, Armenian presidents have constructive talks’ Trend News Agency, 23 November 2009; ‘Difficulties reported at latest Armenia-Azerbaijan Summit’ Radio Free Europe Documents and publications, 23 November 2009; ‘Armenia can recognize Karabakh’s independence if talks fail and military action start’ ARKA News, 23 November 2009; ‘Armenian, Azeri presidents meet in Munich’ ARKA News, 23 November 2009.