|A frozen conflict still simmers in Azerbaijan|
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AGDAM, Azerbaijan - Striding through a maze of deep trenches, Lieutenant-Colonel Abus Abusov startled a young soldier with his unexpected presence. "Stay alert!" the officer shouted, and then launched into a tirade about the importance of maintaining a keen vigil at this outpost.
The young conscript stood at attention, staring above Abusov's head as the commander reminded him that just a few weeks ago two Azeri soldiers had been captured by Armenian troops in a nearby sector.
Although a ceasefire was brokered by Russia in May 1994, neither Armenia or Azerbaijan have relinquished their claims to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, this "frozen conflict" has remained a potential flashpoint atop a vital strategic crossroads for the past 13 years.
The genesis of the conflict was a separatist movement initiated in 1988 by the resident Armenian majority of Nagorno-Karabakh. At that time the region was within the borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the proposed administrative transfer to Armenia would have still left Nagorno-Karabakh under the overall control of the Soviet Union.
However, as the central authority collapsed in Moscow, inter-ethnic violence erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh. Prior to independence, the Azeris deployed their military into the parts of the territory to protect some of the Azeri settlements from the Armenian separatists in 1991. In May 1992, the Tashkent Agreement was signed, which formally granted Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia full authority from Moscow, in the midst of a full-scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
"It was a brutal war fought initially by a lot of paramilitary militias with a lot of hatred and little discipline or training," says Abusov, who fought in those battles as a 20-year-old volunteer. "It was when the Armenian army intervened [in 1992] that the tide turned against [Azerbaijan.]"
Under the terms of the Tashkent Agreement, the Soviets parceled out their existing military hardware in the Caucasus region into three equal shares for each of the new republics. While this should have ensured at least a battlefield parity in terms of weaponry, Azerbaijan was simultaneously wracked with post-independence internal political disorder.
The Armenian army, assisted by the Russian 366 Motorized Rifle Regiment, was able to prove their advantage. Not only did they push through a land corridor into Nagorno-Karabakh, they secured that disputed territory and flushed the Azeri military out of seven additional neighbouring districts. Nearly one million civilians, both Armenian and Azeri, were driven from their homes during the savage fighting and subsequent ethnic cleansing of captured territory. As their troops suffered front line reversals in Nagorno-Karabakh, the crisis unified Azeris behind their then-president Heydar Aliyev and a new national army was hastily established.
By 1994 the Azeris had fielded six infantry brigades and were able to halt the Armenian offensive. Once the fighting became a stalemate, the UN brokered a "temporary" ceasefire and those combat positions have remained the demarcation line between Azerbaijan and Armenia to the present day.
For veterans of the fighting, such as Lt.-Col. Abusov, it has been a long war consuming their entire adult lives. However, for the majority of the troops currently occupying the bunkers and outposts, it is a different story.
"They were just five years old when the war was stopped," says Abusov as he points to a platoon of his soldiers. "They will serve their 18 months of obligatory military service here and then return to their careers in the city. For me, there is no such choice as I'm a refugee myself until [Azerbaijan] recaptures my home in Nagorno-Karabakh."
Like Abusov, the nearly 800,000 Azeris displaced from the occupied territory were never permanently resettled. Initially, they were housed in emergency camps waiting for what they thought would be an imminent return to their homes. However, as the negotiations stalled and weeks became years, the Azeri government established a large number of minimally-constructed facilities to contain their internally displaced persons. The majority of the Armenians uprooted by the conflict have either returned to Nagorno-Karabakh or been permanently relocated elsewhere. For the Azeri government, however, the continued plight of these 800,000 victims remains a key card at the bargaining table.
Since the 1993, the UN has passed a total of four resolutions directing the Armenian forces to withdraw from the seven occupied districts. In turn, the Armenians realize that control of this Azeri territory (approximately 20 per cent of the country's total) is their bargaining chip with regards to determining the ultimate fate of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The major impasse is that the Armenians want the issue of independence for this region determined by a referendum. As ethnic Armenians constitute more than 70 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh's (pre-war) 200,000 inhabitants, a separatist motion would definitely win. On the other side, the Azeris assert that, as part of their sovereign territory, any referendum on its future must be decided by all 8.5 million citizens of Azerbaijan. In the meantime, the Armenians ignore the UN resolutions and continue to hold the seven occupied districts.
"My two daughters are aged nine and 12," said Hafiz Safikhanov, the 46-year-old director of the Azerbaijan campaign to ban landmines. "They have known no other life than the camps and they cannot understand where this home is that we are waiting to return to."
One of the reasons this conflict has remained unresolved for so long is that it garners very little international attention. At the time of the fighting, despite the similar scale of casualties and atrocities, the Western world was focused on the simultaneous civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. Subsequently, the crises in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have kept this frozen conflict in the Caucasus out of the news.
Throughout the interim, Azerbaijan has been steadily increasing its strategic influence by increasing its economic ties to the West. A deal to develop offshore oil deposits in the Caspian Sea with British Petroleum is valued at $230 billion over the next 20 years, and the recent completion of the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline pumps one million barrels a day of Central Asian oil out to the Mediterranean.
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran have heightened, America has strengthened its ties with Azerbaijan as a potential destabilizer to the Tehran regime. With nearly 18 million Azeri-Iranians living just south of their border, a successful pro-Western Azerbaijan would be a tantalizing lure to generating pan-Azeri nationalist sentiment. Constituting nearly 25 per cent of the Iranian population, such a secessionist movement would be a considerable concern for the Tehran administration.
In addition, since 9/11 the U.S. began boosting its military presence in Azerbaijan along with the provision of NATO-standard instructors. As the caliber of the Azeri military improves, it is taking an expanded security role in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. All of which further helps to curry favour with a hard-pressed Pentagon.