Not at all quiet on the eastern front: War amidst or against plague?

Not at all quiet on the eastern front: War amidst or against plague?

Escalation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border with deaths on both sides, and protests in Baku. 

Text: Tigran Zakaryan  

Photo: wikipedia.org / City of Berd, Tavush region, targeted by the Azerbaijani forces. 

 

The recent few days witnessed an extraordinary surge of violence on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. While Yerevan reported the loss of four servicemen, including one major and one captain, Baku confirmed the death of 12 people, including a major general and a colonel.  

Tensions and shootouts on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since the 1994 ceasefire are not novelty. This year on 30 March an Azerbaijani sabotage unit undertook an attempt to infiltrate into the Armenian territory, however it was thwarted and forced to retreat. In an earlier instance in September 2018 the Azerbaijani forces shot and killed one serviceman on the Armenian side.

However this time it came somewhat surprisingly as in spite of all the mentioned recent truce violation cases, the overall situation on the contact line had been much more calm than in previous years – among other reasons – thanks to the efficiency of the state-of-the-art surveillance systems introduced by the Armenian side.   

The unusual thing about this new flare-up was its place as well as the timing. Normally such cases happen on the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh, while a clash on the internationally recognized border could have a different political implication, potentially entangling other players into the conflict. 

Not surprisingly such a party is Turkey, who lost no time in sending bellicose reactions on multiple levels to Yerevan, in the meantime expressing its full support to Baku’s actions. This was not missed in Moscow, where Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov urged Turkey, without naming it though, “to show a more responsible attitude and abstain from statements that could provoke an escalation”. 

The Armenian official reaction, understandably, pointed to Baku as the aggressor. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at a cabinet sitting stated that “Azerbaijan’s political and military leaders will bear the unpredictable consequences of the regional destabilization”, hinting that the flare-up could be more consequential than an isolate skirmish along two rival nations’ borders. 

In fact one might wonder why Baku would undertake such a risky move, adding external troubles to Azerbaijan’s numerous internal challenges. Those challenges indeed are not negligible, to name the few: the worsening spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country; chronic shortages of water in some parts of the country; internal squabbles, manifested also in the recent high-profile arrests in the Minister of Foreign Affairs; and – the last, but not the least – Azerbaijan’s aggravating economic situation due to the combination of the pandemic and the plummeting oil prices. 

Warmongering seems a least proper one among the possible answers to all those challenges. Yet it may seem to be a very efficient tool for diverting the public attentions from the current quagmire. A small and victorious war could mobilize Azerbaijanis around a “national cause” and give a respite for Ilham Aliyev to consolidate the resources of his regime. 

The Azerbaijani leader recently expressed dissatisfaction over the talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs even threatening to stop negotiations. It is hard to believe that amid the coronavirus pandemic the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks, extending for over two and more decades suddenly became too urgent. Most probably it was the first step towards a “small border war.”

Yet things, apparently, did not go the way the Azerbaijani leaders planned.  The current situation on the border with painful losses for Baku does not bolster the hawkish image that the authorities have been forging, including constant boasting that they command enough military resources to retake the “occupied territories” in several days or even hours.

When it became clear that the situation on the border is far from victorious on 14 July thousands of people – mostly young men – took to the streets of Baku, chanting pro-war slogans and demanding an overall war against Armenia. There is every reason to believe that this was staged by the Azerbaijani authorities. Police did not intervene until a point where the crowd became too uncontrollable and stormed into the parliament building. 

Such actions are too dangerous for the authorities due to their high potential to slip off the control and backfire and could be an indicator of a certain level of despair on the part of the Aliyev regime who seems to marshal its last resources.  

In any case the Armenian society has shown its potential for consolidation in critical moment even under authorities, which do not enjoy popular support. The current situation in Armenia shows that the same is even more true when the country has a government enjoying the vote of the majority. 

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