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June 17, 2012, Sunday

South Caucasus -- heading for a hot summer

As we head towards the summer, tensions in the South Caucasus are increasing. Escalating tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, deteriorating relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, continued concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin and upcoming Russian/Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military exercises in the region are a potent mix.

After almost two decades, a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains elusive. Karabakh, an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan, and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories remain under Armenian control, with the conflict remaining a significant security threat. Over the last few weeks there has been a rise in violations of the cease-fire across the heavily militarized line of contact, as well as growing attacks across the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border. In particular, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the region was accompanied by several deaths. While this is not the first time such a tense situation has arisen, these periods come and go depending on what is happening in the peace talks, in domestic politics and in the broader region; it is still very worrying -- more so when innocent civilians are among the casualties. While both Azerbaijan and Armenia seem to have become experts in “containing” violations, not allowing them to spiral into something more sinister, it is a dangerous game as there is always the risk of war by accident. Moreover, whenever the region enters an election cycle, there is a loss of momentum in the peace talks and an increase in belligerent rhetoric from both sides that is also counterproductive.

A recent report by Saferworld highlights the escalating dangers, stressing the need for the international community to put greater effort into finding ways to promote sustainable peace. It includes recommendations to improve the lives of ordinary Azerbaijanis and Armenians residing near the conflict zone. This is particularly the case for those living near the line of contact as they face a double vulnerability related to both security and livelihood. There is a need for more pressure to cooperate on confidence-building measures (CBMs) of both a military and civilian nature. This could include joint investigations into incidents that involve the targeting of civilians and their property, sniper withdrawal and resource management. While the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia are due to meet in Paris on June 18 to discuss some new proposals put forward by the US, there seems little hope of any concrete progress being made until after the 2013 presidential elections in both states. Therefore, this should be a time when CBMs are given a greater priority.

Azerbaijan’s deteriorating relationship with Iran is also worrying. The fact that Azerbaijan’s leadership orients the country towards the West makes Iran nervous. Iran has always been fearful of Baku’s deepening ties with the West and in particular the US and Israel. The recent rise in tensions has been caused by Iran’s “meddling,” including alleged efforts to support hard-line Shiite movements and to promote terrorism in Azerbaijan, including offering ideological and financial support to radical groups. More recently, Iran’s state-run media heavily criticized Eurovision in Baku, which they labeled an un-Islamic and scandalous show, describing it as an “insult to the sanctities” of Islam that resulted in a rebuke from Azerbaijan. However, the contrast between secular Azerbaijan and the Iranian theocracy means it may prove very difficult to normalize its relations.

Another destabilizing factor comes from planned military exercises. Last week, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan stated that special military exercises will be held on June 25-27 to check how the state system of Armenia would act at war. Moreover, in September Armenia will host a joint exercise of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force of the CSTO titled “Cooperation 2012.” This is part of Russia’s “Caucasus-2012” exercises. This year’s exercise will be on a larger scale than previously and will apparently be focused on possible conflicts in the region, especially on a military strike against Iran. For the first time not only the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Strategic Rocket Forces will participate, but also the Russian Secret Service, the Interior Ministry, the Federal Protective Service and all other security structures. Moreover, all methods of so-called networked warfare (the use of electronic and satellite observation, drones and precision weapons) will be tested as well as new automated warfare systems.

As I have mentioned in a previous column, Georgia’s leadership is very nervous about these exercises, which will take place just a few weeks before key parliamentary elections and be held not only in Armenia but in the occupied Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as in Russia. The Georgians have called on the West to raise their concerns with Moscow, yet until now this plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears, although it is obvious such exercises are highly provocative and certainly do not serve to build trust and security in this region.

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