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Attached to Conflict: how Armenia and Azerbaijan feel secure in a security dilemma?10 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics
Azerbaijan and Armenia sleepwalked into yet another border clash on 12-16 July. The conflict took place on the state border in Tavush (Armenia) and Tovuz (Azerbaijan) rather than on the Line of Contact around Nagorno-Karabakh which has been under Armenian occupation since the early 1990s. As a result of heavy artillery shellings and drone attacks, Azerbaijan lost twelve military personnel, including a major general and one civilian while the Armenian army suffered four military casualties. When it comes to the question of who started the fighting, the two sides accused each other of the provocation through an attempt to capture strategic posts in the area.

As the tension relatively calmed down on the border, various rationality of war arguments have been put forward to analyze the root causes of the military clashes. Firstly, some observers argued that Azerbaijan was interested in armed escalation due to the steep decline in global oil prices and economic difficulties emanating from the Covid-19 pandemic. Accordingly, within the democratic Armenia versus authoritarian Azerbaijan narrative, the latter is supposed to disrupt the status quo whenever its kleptocratic regime feels challenged on the domestic front. At the same time, different commenters highlighted Azerbaijani leadership’s dissatisfaction with the passive performance of the OSCE Minsk Group in the conflict resolution process. A few days before the escalation, President Ilham Aliyev rebuked the mediators for their inaction: “Who do you think you are? Are you above the UN Charter? In this case, they should say: we, the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, believe that the thesis reflected in the UN Charter is wrong.”

What is crucial about this statement is that it barely explains why the Azerbaijani leader would be interested in attacking Armenia on its internationally recognized borders rather than in Nagorno-Karabakh where Azerbaijan holds the right to free its occupied territories.

The second line of thinking puts special emphasis on the irrationality of igniting a new front of war in the immediate vicinity of strategic infrastructure projects that would threaten Azerbaijan’s geo-economic and geopolitical standing in an increasingly restrictive external environment. Contrarily, Armenia is expected to behave offensively to remind Azerbaijan of its vulnerabilities around strategic Ganja Gap where Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas pipeline, and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad are connecting Azerbaijan to the West. Furthermore, Azerbaijani leadership might be well aware of the military repercussions of attacking directly on Armenia’s state borders that would legitimize Russian intervention as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization to militarily support its ally’s territorial integrity.

The third way of reasoning “why in Tovuz” and “why now” avoids giving causal primacy to external factors or state leaders’ political calculations and highlightsan element of surprise” between the military forces of the two countries in the area that eventually triggered deadly skirmishes. The Armenia-Azerbaijan border has not been clearly demarcated around the space the recent clashes occurred and allegedly unexpected move of Azerbaijani military jeep to the proximity of Armenia-held position might push Armenian military leadership to react preemptively and make its own move to capture the post under Azerbaijani control. It is quite in line with Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan’s so-called Active Deterrence Doctrine that envisages “in any case of the opposite side’s provocations towards the Republic of Armenia borders to respond as necessary, even to occupy new advantageous positions”.

Last but not least, a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, Paul Goble, quoting a Russian military commentator, argued that neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia wanted to fight and Russia’s reluctant approach to recent events served its interests in managed instability in the South Caucasus. In this context, it makes one ponder whether these two countries really want to come to terms favorable to each side or are they doomed to cheat consistently and miss opportunities for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Decades-long discussions on the nature of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict prompted a cottage industry of essays, books, and reports opining on how the omnipresent constraints of security dilemma could cause a new round of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. In this scenario, conflicting parties work hard to avoid military clashes but stumble into another period of crisis due to the mutual distrust. On the other hand, taking psycho-cultural dynamics of the conflict into account, one may argue that Azerbaijan and Armenia have an interest in the continuation of the conflict as it augments their ontological security. Even if it may lead to physical confrontation on state borders or occupied territories, it provides both sides with certainty about the enemy’s future motives.

Physical security dilemma: uncertainty

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a simmering security dilemma where one’s attempts to guarantee its security needs – even through defensive measures – raise alarm on the other side. Almost three decades of the conflict resolution process has not borne fruit mainly due to the uncertainty about the opponent’s intentions and the absence of mutual trust between the parties.

However, Nikol Pashinyan’s successful surge to power in Armenia in May 2018 opened up certain avenues for a constructive engagement between the state leaders as he was expected to be less hawkish than the representatives of the previous administration. In this context, later developments in diplomatic and military circles promised a glimmer of hope for more substantive negotiations in the future.

On the diplomatic front, state leaders’ first meeting on the sidelines of a Russia-led summit of post-Soviet states in Dushanbe in September 2018 produced a long-awaited agreement to reopen the direct operational communication channel between the two countries’ security personnel and political representatives. On January 16, 2019 the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanyan agreed “upon the necessity of taking concrete measures to prepare the populations for peace”. Relatedly, journalists from both sides (including one from Nagorno-Karabakh) made mutual visits in November 2019 under the auspices of OSCE Minsk Group.

In the military arena, all was quiet on Karabakh front in 2019. It was arguably the quietest year in the frontline since the 1990s and state leaders made some symbolic gestures to overcome the problem of communicating intentions. For example, since December 2018, Azerbaijan began to replace national army soldiers with border guards in Gazakh and Aghstafa districts in the border with Armenia. Demilitarization of the state border was supposed to placate Armenian fears to fight on multiple fronts but it seems this allegedly positive move created a new spiral of misperceptions on the opposite side of the border.

Following events in diplomatic and military spheres indicated that as with the previous attempts, this time too, the mutual opening was of mostly cosmetic nature and could not lead to substantial changes in the parties’ attitude toward the conflict. Much harsher accusations and historical claims to the disputed territories once again emanated from the highest levels of government.

As such, the eventual return of bellicose rhetoric to the conflict resolution process and the recent escalation in the Tovuz/Tavush regions gives credit to the argument that ending the security dilemma may prove onerous for the states embroiled in a longstanding territorial dispute. However, uncertainty cannot be the only reason accounting for entrenched defection in cooperation initiatives in the last two decades and a half. Accordingly, Azerbaijan and Armenia keep fighting also because they are certain about the enemy images perpetuated by the absence of socio-political interaction with each other.

Ontological security: certainty

The concept of ontological security is predicated on the notion that states – like human beings – need a stable cognitive environment where they can make sense of the world around them by knowing which threatening forces to confront and which to ignore. Enemy and friend narratives bring the uncertainty within tolerable limits and states feel confident about their expectations from one another. In this regard, it should come as no surprise as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict played a crucial role in the consolidation of ontological security narratives in Azerbaijan and Armenia since the early 1990s.

To begin with, political elites in both countries successfully tapped into the socio-political anxieties of the local population after the bloody war in Nagorno-Karabakh by constructing objects of fear and enemy images. Securitization of the opposite side through cultural, educational, and political institutions engrained long-standing conflict narratives complex enough to be overturned in the near future. Calling out the other as radically different and inherently incompatible with oneself continues to be an essential part of this process. For example, a few days after the July clashes, Deputy Foreign Minister of Armenia, Shavarsh Kocharyan, tweeted about the ongoing events: “The barbaric attacks on Armenian civilians abroad provoked by Baku are proving that the deep basis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the struggle between civilizational (the Republic of Artsakh and the Republic of Armenia) and anti-civilizational (Azerbaijan) forces”.

At the same time, routinization of mutual adversity on the diplomatic, military, and societal levels afforded the leadership in both states a mechanism to relate ends to means and normalize certain behaviors to guarantee ontological security. Routines eliminated uncertainty about the enemy’s future intentions because the enemy is expected to behave in only one way – as a cheat. Moreover, OSCE Minsk Group’s toothless mediation efforts for decades added yet another layer to this routinization of status quo. Consequently, certainty emanating from the routines makes both sides feel relatively secure in a highly volatile security environment.

Breaking out of routines through conflict resolution would unleash what Bahar Rumelili termed “peace anxieties” that might pose a significant challenge to the established behavioral patterns and standards of morality in both countries’ domestic and external affairs. For example, Azerbaijan’s active diplomacy in various international platforms in the last two decades has been built around claims to justice for its legally rightful position on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Similarly, Armenia put the self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians on the center of its diplomatic agenda along with controversial Armenian genocide issue that is frequently denied by Turkish authorities.

Giving up on these routines in both interstate and intrastate level interactions would be something akin to entering an unknown terrain without any meaningful guide to show the way forward. Therefore, neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia has expressed willingness to engage reflectively with the conflict resolution process. On the contrary, in their latest personal meeting in Munich Security Conference in 2019 Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Ilham Aliyev played along with the long-standing routines by repeating decades-long one-sided stories about each country’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh without any reflective discussion of the topic at hand. Even if the state leaders’ failure to undermine routinized enmity may lead to a new round of physical clashes in the future, for time being, it can make them feel ontologically secure.

However, seeking ontological security does not always cause attachment to conflict for long-time adversaries. Peaceful resolution of territorial disputes could better be attained by gradual socio-cultural reconciliation between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Desecuritization of the opposite side would diminish the object of fear and giving up on routinized enmity through reflective engagement would pave the way for more substantive negotiations. To realize this approach, one needs to have a democratic environment for conflict resolution where alternative groups – civil society organizations, independent policy experts, think tanks – should be able to actively participate.

The democratization of domestic power politics in Azerbaijan and Armenia alone does not suffice to generate a reflective process. It could easily be seen in Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s populist rhetoric since he started to consolidate his power base in Armenian domestic politics. However, giving more space to current marginals or pacifists and the democratization of the conflict resolution format would have a huge potential to provide ontological security to both sides while de-escalating tensions on the border.

After the July skirmishes and ensuing mass brawls between the diaspora representatives in Los Angeles, Brussels, and Moscow, a group of Azerbaijani and Armenian emigrants launched a social media campaign, #WordsNotSwords. Participants called their respective communities and states to respect the safety and dignity of the other side. Although these voices are barely heard through the booming nationalistic fervour in these countries, they can actively shape the public perception in a democratized conflict resolution format in the future.

Featured image: Ilham Aliyev during an online meeting with the Azerbaijan Security Council on 13 July 2020 / Wikimedia
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