Potential Hot Spots: Aimless Antagonism in Armenia

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March 10, 2006: There seems to be a pattern here, in the post-Cold War confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. One side or the other cranks up the rhetoric, then there's a border incident or two, then both sides dampen down the flames. On March 7th, troops from Azerbaijan and Armenia fired machine-guns and mortars across the border. One Azerbaijani soldier was killed, and several wounded.

Both countries continue to disagree over possession of Nagorno-Karabakh, a 4,400 square kilometer district, full of Armenians, surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. Technically, there has been a truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1994. But it has been a hot truce. Between 1991 and 1994 there was a war between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia won. Some 20,000 people died, and over a million (400,000 Armenians and 700,000 Azerbaijanis) fled their homes as Armenia occupied 31,000 square kilometers of Azerbaijani territory, to connect Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Most of the refugees were from areas dominated by one group, who drove out the minority. Some 40,000 Azerbaijani civilians were driven from Nagorno-Karabakh. The situation was humiliating for Azerbaijan, who saw it as yet another example of more powerful and wealthier (via oil fields) Moslems being defeated by a smaller number of armed and more capable Christians. The Armenians have survived, although surrounded by Moslems, for centuries. But the Armenian economy is a disaster, particularly since Turkey and Azerbaijan have closed their borders with Armenia. Since the early 1990s, the best educated Armenians have been immigrating. They join a three million strong community of expatriate Armenians. This group can raise millions of dollars on short notice, and have provided the emergency funds when needed for the fighting against Azerbaijan. Some twelve percent of the 150,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are armed and organized to defend the mountainous area, and are backed up by even more troops in Armenia. .

But Azerbaijan is making a serious effort to create an effective military. In the early 1990s, better trained, led and organized Armenian troops defeated more numerous, but inferior Azerbaijani. This defeat was largely caused by Azerbaijani corruption and double dealing among themselves. Moreover, the Armenians have a military tradition going back centuries.

Azerbaijan has been debating this sorry situation for over a decade, but there was no popular will for another round of fighting. That is changing, and the government is putting lots more money into the military (from $175 million in 2004, to over $500 million this year.) A new generation of Azerbaijani commanders, trained in the West, not Russia, are in charge. Corruption is still a crippling presence in the Azerbaijani army, but there is more attention to training, and preparing for another round of fighting. This time, the Azerbaijanis are talking about invading Armenia itself.

There's no certainty that the more numerous, wealthier, and now motivated Azerbaijanis would be able to push the Armenians back. Maybe not this decade, maybe not this generation. But it's the attempt you have to watch out for. The Azerbaijanis can afford to buy lots of artillery, warplanes and foreign advisors. Moreover, Azerbaijan is a dictatorship, and there's no better way to distract an unhappy population than a little more war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

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