Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Checking the Pulse on Azeri-Armenian Front Line

Speakers at IWPR debate discuss whether recent deterioration indicates worse is to come.

A recent upsurge in shootings along Azerbaijani-Armenian front lines is pronounced enough to alarm commentators on both sides, who are unsure whether this is a temporary blip or the start of things to come.

Tensions escalated through the second half of January both along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and on the “line of control” that separates Karabakh Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Although full casualty figures have not been released, Armenian officials confirmed that two soldiers died on January 19 and 28. The Azerbaijani authorities announced the deaths of two servicemen, on January 23 and January 27.

Breaches of the 1994 ceasefire are not uncommon, but there was something about recent developments that made commentators pause for thought. To probe the issues, IWPR brought together Armenian and Azerbaijani experts for a joint event at which they discussed the causes and implications of the latest incidents.

The January 30 event was held at the Media Centre in Yerevan, with Azerbaijani participants taking part via a video link.

On the Armenian side, the speakers were Sergei Minasyan, deputy director of the Caucasus Institute, and Manvel Sargsyan, director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies. They were joined from Azerbaijan by Kenan Guluzade, editor of the Baku Post newspaper, and Avaz Hasanov, head of the Society for Humanitarian Research and a member of the International Working Group for the Release of Prisoners and Hostages.

Minasyan began by asking his colleagues about the significance of the recent frontier skirmishes.

“Is this the start of more serious developments, or is it just the standard situation on the front line which we’ve really been observing for the last two decades?” he asked.

Sargsyan said increases in shooting were not uncommon when international meetings were taking place – in this case, a meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers.

“There’s a perception that it’s better to pursue negotiations in an atmosphere of tension rather than calm. This philosophy gives rise to all these things that are playing out on the front line,” he said.

By contrast, Guluzade disagreed that there was anything unusual about the latest incidents, since this kind of thing was a regular feature of what was misleadingly described as a “frozen conflict”.

All the speakers discussed possible reasons why the military narrative was being dramatised.

Guluzade said what puzzled him more than the events themselves were the hysterical media reports.

“The information coming from the front line is really just rumour at the moment. No one knows how many people died, what kind of operations have been going on, or what’s really happening. Some Azerbaijani bloggers are claiming up to 35 deaths on the Armenian side, but where are the bodies of these soldiers?”

He continued, “I think the media and social network users are exaggerating things far too much.”

He said it was hard to work who had an interest in fueling this kind of reporting – the Armenian or Azerbaijani governments as a whole, or just the military or diplomats on one or both sides.

Hasanov agreed that the material appearing on social networking sites was painting a totally misleading picture, so that someone who did not use alternative news sources “might think war that had broken out”.

“That’s the impression that’s been given recently – archive photos from the [1990s] Georgian-Abkhazian war were posted, along with video footage that even an expert would find it hard to identify,” Hasanov said.

According to Minasyan, this propaganda war is not unusual – it fits the past pattern of rhetoric around border clashes.

“In my view, when one assesses the situation over the last seven to ten day, one really gets a sense of déjà vu,” he said. “Over the last 20 years we’ve repeatedly seen tensions to various extents. But for a whole set of reasons, escalation has not led to real combat. Clearly the political and military balance has had an effect, as has a reluctance on both Armenian and Azerbaijani sides to make these confrontations on the front line into something more substantial.”

Minasyan said it was his view that the current tensions were not a sign of impending conflict. Tit-for-tat shooting incidents had their own dynamic in which they periodically increased or subsided, but were prevented from growing into anything bigger.

Minasyan asked whether the recent appointment of a new defence minister in Azerbaijan Zakir Hasanov, might have contributed to the escalation in tensions, as the new official tried to demonstrate a robust approach. Guluzade expressed scepticism about this idea, saying the minister’s role meant he was more of a “manager” and did not really direct military operations.

Sargsyan said that border clashes happened as a direct expression of policymaking decisions. The human cost was something that was rarely discussed, but it was something people really cared about. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, he argued, “the public could influence the leaderships of both countries to abandon this policy”.

The video-link debate – a rare opportunity for Azerbaijanis and Armenians to hear considered views from the other side – was attended by journalists and NGO representatives in Yerevan. It prompted over a dozen articles published in both Armenian and Azerbaijani media.