STEPANAKERT, JULY 10, ARTSAKHPRESS: What are the domestic political and foreign policy developments taking place in Azerbaijan? What are the reasons behind the developments in late June and early July?
• In Azerbaijan, the horizontal/vertical management seesaw has once for all balanced towards the ‘vertical’ management matrix or the ‘command’ vs ‘community’ one, with all the attendant consequences; changes induced by Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev in the Azerbaijani defense ministry, as well as the turn of events in the country’s foreign ministry bear witness to high level of distrust and speak of the country’s leadership staying tuned for danger of losing grip on power and clung tenaciously to the levers of power. Thus, we could claim new developments will be forthcoming.
• The inauguration of military units or measures taken to open some others in the recent developments testify to Ilham Aliev’s strategy of flexing muscles. To project ‘triumph’ that is actually absent through political discourse, ruling out the diplomatic way to help parties settle conflict and consolidating the discourse of Azerbaijan’s ‘full-fledged right’ under the IL to restore its territorial integrity through use of force, Aliev is playing the blame game and bargaining before the audience.
• Though Azerbaijani leader’s militaristic rhetoric is communicated to the internal audience, the reality on the ground avail us to claim there is still high probability of resumed hostilities. Noteworthy are Azerbaijani defense ministry’s notes for the press stating, with apparent maneuvering, that the military equipment located close to the frontline for large scale military exercises is rolled back and the troops return to their places of permanent deployment.
• On 12 July 2020 at midday Azerbaijani troops attempted twice to violate Armenian-Azerbaijani international border in Tavush direction and capture an Armenian border post using artillery fire, but were forced to retreat suffering manpower losses, making this the deadliest incident since June 2017, when attacks were launched in Martouni direction, Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Later on the day, around 11 p.m., Azerbaijan resumed shelling the same positions in Tavush region with 82 mm mortars and tank. Aliyev and the Azerbaijani ministry of defense had threatened earlier with a return to military actions along the Line of Contact on LoC. This requires a commensurate reaction of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship, as well as appropriate steps taken by the CSTO.
• In light of recent developments, the main target of Azerbaijani propaganda is the Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict settlement. Notably, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs are ‘at gunpoint’. Days ago, on 6 July, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev criticized international mediators saying that the peace process had become “meaningless”, and meetings are convened by the OSCE Minsk Group to show it is active, though “to be active, means to act”. Earlier, the mediators, in a statement coming after video conferencing with foreign minister of Armenia and Azerbaijan, “noted with concern that recent provocative statements, inflammatory rhetoric, and possible steps intended to change the situation on the ground in tangible ways could undermine the settlement process” in the negotiations. There is, thus, the need to revisit the discourse of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship, including recalibrating the dangerous policy of equating in their statements the two parties to conflict and targeted work towards reducing the degree of Azerbaijani aggressive rhetoric. The mediators could raise the question whether official Baku could suggest any viable alternative to the OSCE Minsk Group format. Here, as practice shows, Turkey would style itself as a potential lead mediator.
• For the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship, working to prevent conflict and facilitate lasting comprehensive settlement, promoting peacebuilding and post-conflict-rehabilitation, it is vital to cut off the channels of patters triggering conflict. Noteworthy is that though Slovakia had signed the document according to which OSCE banned selling weapons to parties to conflict, Slovakia has recently resumed the export of weapons to Azerbaijan. Besides, in 2019, Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia-OSCE participating country – was used as a transit point for smuggling Czech rocket launchers and howitzers to Azerbaijan. The weapons were produced by the Czechoslovak Group holding, according to Czech Television. An employee of the Slovak arms factory MSM told how old weapons were modernized and then transported via Israel to Azerbaijan. The information was leaked after the Azerbaijani army boasted with the weapons of Czech origin in an ad, showcasing the modernized self-propelled gun, the Dana howitzer, with a range of 18 kilometers, and the multiple rocket launcher Vampir, with a 20-kilometre range.
• The relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have become hot in the recent week amid unease in Tehran over stealth bombers F-35 having penetrated into the Iranian airspace, Russian media report detailed. The Azerbaijani side “found an Armenian trace” in the incident, the Russian media report was qualified as pro-Armenian and the news were denied. However, the incident prompted Iran to reinforce its airspace by Russian S-75 Dvina high-altitude, command guided, surface-to-air missile system (SAM) capable of 360-degree coverage. The Iranian side has a cause for concern, especially over the use of Azerbaijani airfields by Israeli or US for a strike on Iran, as Azerbaijan’s location near Iran’s northern border makes it an ideal staging ground for airstrikes.
• Azerbaijan has resumed propaganda against and political persecution of the Azerbaijani Popular Front and Musavat opposition parties. Recently some dozen members of the Azerbaijani Popular front Party were detained, criminal proceedings were instituted against three members, another party member was placed into a psychiatric hospital. The Azerbaijani authorities realize that amid COVID-19 crisis the cooperation of active opposition minorities and the discontented passive majority could work to their disadvantage.
• The objective reality in the countries in conflict is manipulated and turns into a “free fire zone” of information warfare. Amid the developments in the region and internetization of the society chaos reigns in much of the information ecosystem on which the societies depend, as demonstrated by targeting the societies, creating a false agenda and entrapping targeted groups, shifting attention from domestic policy issues and social concerns to concerns about issues of foreign policy and “threats from abroad”. Azerbaijan is the absolute champion in trying to gain public trust and manipulating national threat perception by targeting Armenian domestic policy issues. When things are not going well domestically, and to strengthen the leader’s hold on power, Azerbaijan turns to diversionary foreign policy, manufacturing a crisis, targeting Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh to shift attention away from the problems at home.
Nelly Baghdasaryan, PhD in History, Associate Professor, Artsakh State University, Department of History and Political Science, Head of the South Caucasus and Middle East research branch in the Caucasus Studies Centre at Mesrop Mashtots University.