Opinion: 'Game of Thrones moment' for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh
27 June 2019

This is an op-ed by Azerbaijani political analyst  Ahmad Allili

In the real world, we do not have dragons, faceless men, red woman, white walkers or resurrection from the dead. Yet, the public policy challenges facing advisers in the famous Game of Thrones (GoT) TV show mirror those that political advisors to real governments face. We draw parallels to the real world in the way the show's decision-makers and advisers face the same limitations of time, resources and information bias.

I find this particularly applicable to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict when Daenerys must decide whether or not to attack King's Landing with her much superior forces, even with the civilians therein. Since 2011, Azerbaijan has heavily invested in building up its military capability and it believes that it has the sovereign right to restore the territorial integrity of the country. This raises the question whether there is a military option available for the resolution of the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict? Should Azerbaijan use military force as a means of conflict resolution?

On 20 June 2019, Zöhrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov, Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, met in Washington. It was the third such high-level meeting between Azerbaijani and Armenian officials this year, following the ones in Paris and Moscow, under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. According to the press release of the Azerbaijani MFA, the main discussion revolved around the implementation of previously agreed agreements, particularly those made in Moscow and Paris. Both sides agreed on a new round of meetings to further discuss all options on the table.

Among the high-ranking meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials in the post- Velvet revolution era, the Washington meeting, including the processes leading up to it and its aftermath, is different in many regards.

Whereas the preceding Dushanbe meeting revealed the will of President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan to resolve the conflict and their large personal contributions to peacebuilding, the Washington meeting demonstrated how difficult it was to actually deliver such an agreement to the general population. Both leaders faced backlash as Prime Minister Pashinyan had to deal with the de-facto leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh and President Aliyev had to face domestic audiences who had increased expectations and were only willing to see the conflict resolved fully under Azerbaijani terms.

Second, another development setting apart the Washington meeting from other post-Velvet Revolution era meetings was the increased intensity of military activities at the line of contact prior to the meeting. Following the Dushanbe meeting in late 2018, the number of ceasefire violations was down from 90 to 20 per day; however, this is no longer the case. In the first week of June alone, a high-ranking Azerbaijani officer was shot dead by sniper fire and both sides sustained additional loses.

Next, both the Azerbaijani and Armenian leadership have been more vigorously trying to win public sympathy. In Azerbaijan, the salaries for public servants, police and military officers, among others, are up to 40%. In Armenia, prior and during increased violence on LoC, Prime Minister Pashinyan visited Nagorno-Karabakh and participated in the celebrations dedicated to 8 and 9 May - the takeover of Shusha by Armenian Forces and victory over Nazism, respectively. In many aspects it seemed, through his presence, Prime Minister Pashinyan tried to narrow the gap between the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and those of Armenia proper. The pictures from the celebration were widely circulated in Azerbaijani social media.

Lastly, during this period both Armenia and Azerbaijan had military and security service leadership changes. In Azerbaijan, the long serving Minister of Internal Affairs Ramil Usubov and head of the State Security Service Madat Guliyev were replaced. In Armenia, the Secretary of the Security Council of Nagorno-Karabakh Vitaly Balasanyan resigned - many believe PM Pashinyan insisted on it. The Armenian Army also reinstated some of high- ranking officials who had lost their positions as a result of the April 2016 War.

The points above indicate that the Washington meeting may signal the end of the positive environment surrounding peace talks which has existed during the post-Velvet Revolution period.

Probably, the public narrative which best reveals the tone of ongoing developments in the peace talks is PM Pashinyan's statement during a joint cabinet- parliament session on 19 June 2019:

"I have always said that we should not forget that the war is not over, and it can break out at any moment and escalations of the situation can happen any moment. It's obvious for me that Azerbaijan simply wants to use [the threat of military force] the tool which it used for a long time... Armenia has had to resist it, including by raising the combat readiness of the Armed Forces."

From this perspective, we can link the points outlined above to once other, revealing the reasoning of both the Azerbaijani and Armenian leadership: both parties are preparing for military confrontation at the line of contact.

While analysing the causes why the positive impetus set by the Dushanbe meeting did not survive through the Washington meeting, one thing is clear: the resources of civil society were not used properly to deliver the well-needed messages to the people. PM Pashinyan, being the first non-Karabakhi Armenian leader after a long interval, had to be more assertive in his public statements in order to win the sympathy of the people in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia as there were already some calling him a traitor of national interests. In Azerbaijan, civil society could not meet high public expectations - the public has maximalist expectations, wanting a solution that is in Azerbaijan's favour, and wanting it now. European Union High Representative, Federica Mogherini, during her meeting with Armenia's Zöhrab Mnatsakanyan called attention to the importance of "measures aimed in particular at overcoming the conflict divide" and "contributing to prepare the populations for peace"- This statement shows the appreciation of the contributions to the peace process, which civil society can bring. Regardless of the course of action over the next months, regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there will always be a need for increased role of civil society and for Confidence-Building Measures. In case of further military escalation, the need for civil society action will be even more.

It seems that Azerbaijan is now facing its 'Game of Thrones moment': should it or should it not use its overwhelming military power in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani investments in the military sphere have cemented assurance of its army's supremacy and Azerbaijan's military command believe they have the capacity to regain control over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories. Nevertheless, the conflict is not just about territory, but also about the hearts and minds of the people, particularly the Armenians currently living in the areas concerned. Any further military action in the region will further increase the enmity between Azerbaijanis and Armenians; regaining control militarily over Nagorno-Karabakh may, in fact, end up prolonging the conflict itself. Nevertheless, as we were reminded in Game of Thrones, "Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing to do".

source: Ahmad Alili is the Head of Research Department, Caucasus Policy Analysis Center, in Baku and Adjunct-Professor at the Azerbaijan Academy of Public Administration.

photo: Azerbaijani army (archive picture)

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