Analysis: The body of a dead soldier becomes the latest bargaining chip in the messy Karabakh conflict.
12 January 2017

This analysis was prepared by the editorial team of

Early on the 29 December, as the world was preparing to say farewell to a difficult 2016, and to welcome in the new year, an incident happened on the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, some distance away from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, as a result of which both sides suffered casualties. The numbers are not clear since both sides give conflicting accounts of the incident, and of the number of people killed or wounded. Both sides accuse the other of provoking the incident, and of subsequently giving a response..

This incident has some different characteristics to similar occurences happening on a regular basis around Nagorno-Karabakh. There was an almost instant response from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Russia led military organisation of which Armenia is a member, but Azerbaijan is not. The position of the CSTO has always been that it cannot get involved in incidents in the Karabakh conflict zone, but that the international border was a different matter. This was an opportunity for the organisation to proof the point. It did, in a statement by its Secretary-General, Nikolay Borduzha within hours of the incident being reported, expressing concern but also adding,

 "We assess such actions in the territory of a CSTO member state as a provocation, especially against the backdrop of the quite serious incident in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, in April of this year, with the use of heavy weapons and military equipment".

Without mentioning Azerbaijan by name, by saying that the incident happened on the territory of a member state (which could only mean Armenia since Azerbaijan is not a member) the statement suggested that this was an Azerbaijani incursion into Armenian territory. Furthermore the reference to the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" - the unrecognised entity that de facto controls the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenian support - was unprecedented in a statement by an international organisation. As expected, Azerbaijan's reaction was furious.

The following day, Armenia used facebook to tell the world that it had responded to the incident.  In an entry on the page of the spokesperson of the Ministry of Defence of Armenia, Artsrun Hovhannisyan, 

"The logical development of the Azerbaijani provocation on Thursday took place tonight. The Armenian army divisions carried out retaliatory actions, and as a result, the adversary suffered four more casualties"

The situation on the ground stabilised by New Year's Eve, but the political fall out continues. Unlike during the escalations in April of last year, when Moscow seemed to be on top of things from start to finish, this time round the Kremlin appears to have been caught unawares. A terse statement was issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on 30 December, said

"According to information, clashes have occurred on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Casualties are reported among the troops on both sides. We express our condolences to the families who lost their loved ones. We urge the parties to continue adhering strictly to their obligations to maintain the ceasefire and immediately take all necessary steps to stabilize the situation. As for the statement of Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the position of the CSTO member states on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is clearly expressed in their joint statement in Yerevan on October 14, 2016".

In the meantime, it was also announced that Nikolay Borduzha's term as CSTO Secretary General expired on 31 December. No replacement has yet been named. The Armenians say it is their turn to hold the position, but there is evident disagreement within the CSTO on the matter. It is not clear if Borduzha was forced to retire, even before his successor has been named - as the Azerbaijanis seem to suggest, or whether the normal procedure  was followed, and he simply retired on the day that his mandate expired. Armenian officials continue to insist that the next Secretary General should be Armenian, although a decision on this is now not likely before April. The controversial 29 December statement continued to appear for a few days on the CSTO website, but when accessed on 12 January, the website was down, and a notice said that it was under construction. (see link)

The rest of the international community watched all this in silence, partly because it was holiday time in Europe and elsewhere, partly because it was trying to understand what was going on. Finally, a statement was issued by the OSCE Minsk group co-Chair countries on 9 January, twelve days after the original incident took place. By this time, another issue had cropped up. Armenia was holding the body a of dead Azerbaijani soldier killed in the original skirmish on 29 December, and was by all accounts refusing to hand it over. The statement of the co-Chair therefore had also to take this into account, as it was now under a lot of pressure from Azerbaijan to solve this issue. The statement of the co-Chair therefore said,

"Baku and Yerevan continue to accuse each other of a December 29, 2016 attempted incursion on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border resulting in casualties. Armenian Armed Forces are still holding the body of an Azerbaijan serviceman killed in the fighting.

Violations of the ceasefire are unacceptable and are contrary to the acknowledged commitments of the Parties, who bear full responsibility, not to use force. The Co-Chairs urge the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to strictly observe the agreements reached during summits in Vienna and St. Petersburg in 2016, including obligations to finalize in the shortest possible time an OSCE investigative mechanism. The Co-Chairs also urge the return, without delay, of human remains, in accord with the agreements of the Astrakhan Summit of 2010, bearing in mind the exclusively humanitarian nature of this issue. We call upon the Parties to cease mutual accusations and undertake all necessary measures to stabilize the situation on the ground."

These developments are a classic example of how the current situation around the Karabakh conflict can easily spiral into a complicated international dispute, and the weakness of the ability of the international community to even assess the situation on the ground, let alone control it. The Armenians insist that they have proof that the incident was provoked by Azerbaijan and that it was initially an Azerbaijani incursion. The Azerbaijanis dismiss this outright, and say that Armenia was trying to create an incident that could embroil the CSTO in the conflict.

However, once more, one other ugly aspect of this conflict has emerged. Not for the first time, we are seeing a blatant violation of international humanitarian law. There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that both sides committed serious violations international humanitarian law during the April 2016 fighting. On this occasion Armenia's refusal to hand back the body of a dead soldier is unacceptable. The ICRC is working hard to get this matter resolved as soon as possible. An ICRC spokesperson in Baku said on Tuesday (10 January) "We acknowledge that an investigation is going on in Armenia regarding that incident. Nevertheless the body should be returned as soon as possible to the family. The ICRC stands ready in its role of neutral intermediary to enable the handover of the body".

It is unfortunate and unacceptable that the body of a dead soldier has become the latest bargaining chip in this sad saga.

The international community in the meantime needs to be extremely vigilant and not take its eye off the ball in the Karabakh conflict. This will be more and more difficult in what is a very difficult time for the international system, but the consequences of failing to react firmly and in a timely manner to incidents may have grave consequences.

This anlaysis was prepared by the editorial team of