Azerbaijan: Caucasus powder keg

The Halifax Chronicle Herald, Nova Scotia (Canada)
July 30 2006

Strategic country on the East-West fault line sets its sights on
better ties with the West as it prepares for new oil wealth and fresh
conflicts with neighbours

By SCOTT TAYLOR Special to The NovaScotian

'WE WERE engaged in heavy fighting with Armenian troops near my home
village of Lachin when a mortar shell hit my friend's trench. When I
got to him I saw that his belly had been ripped open by the shrapnel
and he was screaming in mortal pain. He died in my arms as I tried
to stuff his intestines back inside him."

At this point the storyteller suddenly goes silent as he relives the
horror of that experience, which occurred nearly 14 years ago. Now
37, Gurhan Iliyev was just a 23-year-old sergeant in the Azerbaijan
civil defence force when war erupted with Armenia in 1992. With
the international media focused at that time on the break-up of the
former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda, this border dispute in
the Caucasus region got very little news coverage in North America.

Yet it was a brutal clash spanning 24 months that left 30,000 dead
(mostly civilians), 100,000 wounded and nearly one million people
forced from their homes. Armenia and Azerbaijan were both former
republics of the Soviet Union and were formally granted (along with
Georgia) their independence in May 1992. All three republics were
allocated the same amount of Soviet military material to form their
own independent armies.

Within the recognized borders of Azerbaijan there is a mountainous
region known as Nagorno-Karabakh where a sizeable Armenian minority
resided. Taking advantage of Azerbaijan's post-independence political
disorder, the Armenian army entered the territory in 1992.

"We fought back, but our local defence battalion was short of heavy
weaponry - we had only two trucks and 650 men," said Iliyev. "The
Armenians were well equipped and they were assisted by the Russian 366
Motorized Rifle Regiment. As a result, we took enormous casualties."

After completely securing the region, the Armenians continued to push
into Azerbaijan. Ethnic Azeris were forcibly removed from the newly
occupied territories.

Having successfully ousted his political rivals, then-president Heydar
Aliyev was able to solidify his leadership of Azerbaijan in 1993 and
ordered creation of a formal army to deal with the crisis situation
in Nagorno-Karabakh. Within 12 months the Azeris had managed to train
and field six full infantry brigades, and their deployment to the
front reversed the Armenian advances.

"In one offensive in the south we were able to recapture 12 villages
occupied by the Armenians," said Maj.-Gen. Ramiz Najafov, one of the
key architects of the fledgling Azerbaijani army. "While in the north
we were able to destroy an entire Armenian regiment in just three
days of heavy fighting."

The campaign became a stalemate, and a ceasefire was signed in 1994.

After the ceasefire, Armenian forces fortified their positions in the
occupied Azerbaijani territories; the Azeris built trenches around
the disputed region and the root causes for the conflict remained
unresolved. What had been a little-regarded war would soon become an
almost completely forgotten, but still simmering, flashpoint.

My discussion with Gurhan Iliyev took place at a pleasant outdoor
restaurant close to the train station in Saatly, southern Azerbaijan.
In the company of two other Canadian journalists and escorted by
officials from the foreign ministry, we had been brought to the city
to observe firsthand the ongoing plight of the nearly 800,000 Azeris
who were forcibly displaced during the 1992-94 war.

Across the tracks from this restaurant is a four-kilometre stretch
of railway boxcars, which serve as temporary homes for some 2,000
Azeri internally displaced persons.

There is minimal privacy because on average, two families share a
single boxcar. Even after 14 years of continuous residence, there
are few comforts.

"Every (displaced person) is entitled to a monthly ration, which
includes flour, rice, sugar and oil," said Senan Huseynov, the
Azerbaijani director for refugees. "On top of that they receive an
allowance of 30,000 manats ($8 Cdn) per month to purchase meat and
other foodstuffs."

As well the Saatly boxcar compound we visited a camp of crudely
constructed mud brick houses, home to about 10,000. The standard
layout for these shelters is three tiny rooms totalling 240 square
feet of space and housing up to seven people. The luckiest of the
refugees are now being relocated into custom-built compounds complete
with community centres and medical clinics.

These new housing developments are still intended to be temporary.
The displaced Azeris remain in virtual limbo - pawns in a political
process that has been bogged down for 12 years.

When the 1994 ceasefire was first brokered, the Organization of
Security and Co-operation in Europe established the Minsk Group to
oversee and monitor the agreements. To date the United Nations has
passed a total of four resolutions calling upon the Armenians to
withdraw their military from the occupied territories as a first step
to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh situation.

That was supposed to be followed by the resettlement of the displaced
people into their former homes.

With no threat of any international military force being deployed to
enforce these resolutions, the Armenians have refused to pull back
their forces.

Fact-finding missions and the security organization continually
report that the Armenians continue to destroy Azeri infrastructure
while building their own facilities inside the occupied territories
in flagrant violation of the ceasefire.

One of the main roadblocks to settling this crisis is that both
Azerbaijan and Armenia refuse to budge on a referendum on the
future state of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians want any decision on
self-determination to be limited to people who live in the region. If
Azeris are returned to the area before such a vote, the Armenians
would still represent about a 3:1 majority in Nagorno-Karabakh. The
Azerbaijani position is that any such referendum must be decided
by all 8.5 million residents of the country, which would certainly
reject any separation of the territory.

Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov recently conceded that Azerbaijan
would grant Karabakh the "highest level of autonomy in exchange for an
immediate withdrawal." But the Minsk Group has grown frustrated with
the lack of any real progress. In a statement released earlier this
month, U.S. co-chairman Matthew Bryza chided both the Armenian and
Azerbaijani presidents for their failure to make any concessions.
In response to the OSCE report, the Azerbaijani president said
he remains "committed to peace, but he cannot accept the current

To up the political ante, Azerbaijan has embarked on a massive
military build-up.

"By next year we will have doubled our defence budget up to a total
of $1.2 billion (U.S.)," said Maj.-Gen. Najafov. "We will be spending
the equivalent of the entire Armenian federal budget just on defence."

While such a build-up would certainly change the regional strategic
balance, international observers say this posturing is a long way
from resulting in war. "Most of the money being spent is to increase
their own salaries, not to add to their tactical capability," said
one Baku diplomat.

"They are not out purchasing attack helicopters right now, but if
they start to do that we'll know they're serious about settling this
by forceful means."

That is not to say that the international community takes the
Nagorno-Karabakh situation lightly. The same diplomat summarized the
crisis as being mistakenly identified as a frozen conflict. "There
are tens of thousands of soldiers equipped with tanks manning trenches
and occasionally shooting at each other," he said.

"When people are being killed, it is difficult to say the conflict
is frozen."

Next week: A new oil pipeline has raised the stakes, and Azerbaijan
struggles to westernize. Scott Taylor is a columnist for The Chronicle
Herald and editor in chief of the military affairs magazine Esprit de
Corps. First of a two-part series by The Chronicle Herald's military
affairs columnist. an/518912.html