assessments

A Potential Flash Point Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

5 MINS READApr 1, 2011 | 00:00 GMT
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian announced March 31 that he will be a passenger on the first civilian flight from Armenia to the newly rebuilt Khankendi airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. The announcement follows threats from Azerbaijan to shoot down any plane over the occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Though this creates the potential for an assassination and war between the countries, Sarkisian's announcement and Baku's threats are more likely political theater than serious moves toward renewed military conflict.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said March 31 that he would be a passenger on the first civilian flight from Armenia to a newly rebuilt airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. The airport, which will reopen officially May 8, is extremely controversial because it is located in the breakaway territory that is the subject of a dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Baku has threatened to shoot down any plane over the occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. If Azerbaijan follows through with this threat and shoots down a plane with Sarkisian on board, Baku would be assassinating a head of state and thus committing an act of war against Armenia. Given the geopolitics of the Caucasus, this would draw in regional players such as Russia and Turkey and would demand the United States' attention. However, several factors could prevent such a scenario from occurring, and Sarkisian's announcement more likely is driven by political concerns than a desire for military conflict. The airport in question is located in Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, Khankendi (referred to as Stepanakert by Armenia). Closed since the early 1990s, the airport has been a source of extreme contention between Baku and Yerevan. The last time it was open, Armenia and Azerbaijan were engaged in a full-scale military conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result of this war, which technically has continued to this day, Armenia gained control of the disputed region and several of its surrounding districts from Azerbaijan. This has created a great deal of animosity, which both sides repeatedly have said could turn into a fresh outbreak of hostilities. News of the airport's reopening in May has led to a spike in tensions between the sides, especially since Azerbaijani authorities have said Baku has the right to shoot down any civilian planes that violate its airspace — which a flight from Armenia to the Khankendi airport would have to do. (click here to enlarge image) While the scenario created by Azerbaijan's threats and Sarkisian's announcement clearly increases the chances of escalation, shooting down the plane is hardly Baku's only option to keep the plane from reaching the airport. Azerbaijan could scramble its own aircraft and force the plane down in different territory without attacking it, or there could be actions taken against the airport. The timing of these incidents is more important than the tactical details of Azerbaijan's options. Both actions, taken more than a month before the flight is set to take off, serve as provocations that are meant to deliver a political message. This would not be the first time the political leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan performed such political theater, both to pressure each other and to gain attention from the international community. Several major players are intricately tied to the Caucasus region, including Russia, Turkey and the United States. It is in these parties' interest to avoid a military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Sarkisian's announcement gives time for all the players involved, including Armenia and Azerbaijan themselves, to prepare for such a scenario. Turkey, a traditional partner of Azerbaijan, has lent Baku its full support and said any flight should abide by international law and respect Azerbaijan's airspace. Washington has already urged the two sides to discuss the issue and resolve the conflict before the flight departs, a standard diplomatic response. However, the most important player — and the one with the most interests at stake — is Russia, Armenia's strategic military partner. Russia has a base in Armenia but also has strong energy and political ties with Azerbaijan. Moscow has yet to issue an official response to this situation, likely on purpose. It is very unlikely that Moscow would not know about Sarkisian's announcement in advance. It is possible that Russia, which recently extended its military base lease with Armenia, is giving Yerevan some room to maneuver in order to pressure Baku. Moreover, Moscow could be using Armenia to test Azerbaijan in order to see what the reactions are from Baku, Ankara and Washington. Azerbaijan is traditionally the most independent country in the Caucasus, and there are several factors — such as the West's courting of Azerbaijan for energy projects meant to diversify away from Russia — that have complicated relations between Baku and Moscow. There also could be domestic political considerations to this escalation. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan — but especially Armenia — are facing pressure, with rising public discontent and protests. These factors are not regime-threatening, as they have been in the Middle East and North Africa, but certainly still irritate Yerevan and Baku. One tried and true tactic for dealing with such issues is to deflect public attention toward external forces. This has played out in increasing incidents and shootings on the Line of Contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The May flight to Nagorno-Karabakh is another — and potentially more effective — way to distract the public from internal issues. During the month before the first flight is set to take off from Yerevan to Khankendi, it will be crucial to watch all interested parties on the political and diplomatic levels. The flight represents another potential trigger for Armenia and Azerbaijan to return to military hostilities, though in the meantime all players involved will maneuver to try to avoid such a scenario while attempting to improve their political positions relative to the others.

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