The Creeping Conflict Syndrome: Azerbaijani Rhetoric, Artsakh Republic Elections, Security

The Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict, both in its nature and dynamics, falls typologically within the concept of creeping conflicts, and as such could serve as a subject worthy of inquiry for analyzing and systematizing the attributes of creeping conflicts, their various types and the challenges they pose, as well as the corollaries when it comes to the economy, reversal in development processes, infrastructures, livelihoods, the human dimension, the political establishments, regional and international developments, forced migration and demographic security.

The Creeping Conflict Syndrome: Azerbaijani Rhetoric, Artsakh Republic Elections, Security

The Creeping Conflict Syndrome: Azerbaijani Rhetoric, Artsakh Republic Elections, Security

STEPANAKERT, MAY 14, ARTSAKHPRESS: No commonly accepted definition exists of what comprises the concept of the creeping conflict. However, some distinctive features can be identified:

• No concluded peace treaty and ambiguous post-war situation;

• Alienation from the logic of rational peace, no balance between the logic of peace which focuses on securing the ceasefire and a peace settlement thereafter, and the logic of war, aggravation of antagonism between the parties to conflict;
• The constant quest for maintaining an arms race leading to polarization and budget failure, with disproportionate military expenditures as the rationale for defensive purposes;
• Compiling off-budget sources of military expenditure (in rentier-state models such as Azerbaijan largely dependent on accruing external revenues from the export of natural resources, especially oil and gas, this is done via foundations, and the revenues are recycled with percentage distribution to military expenditures);
• Mutual capacity assessment by parties to conflict to test the tensile strength by recurrent, small-scale escalations;
• Pre-eminence of military threat of large scale war outbreak in military-political forecasts and expert conclusions;
• Pronounced targeting ideological struggle in war;
• Mutually wearing-away attritional warfare aimed at the elimination of the long-run conflict settlement;
• Periods of differing conflict intensity involved, with relative peace lasting for months at a time or another;
• New forms of technology influencing tactics and communications involved;
• Differing levels and moments of internationalization.
When it comes to the Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict, the following issues further load the distinctive features singled out above: towards transition from a hotbed of conflict to a creeping one the crux torpedoed settlement process reframes gradually into a system of measures and is repackaged into conflict management. Thus, the reopened armed and recurrent escalation should be taken as conflict management crisis. At least two military clashes – the August 2014 trench warfare and the 2016 April War - should be recalled in this context (following the 1992-94 Azerbaijani-Karabakh large-scale war) when the creeping conflict evolved into an apparent armed clash, transcending the threats and counterthreats limits. In fact, this shapes a situation when the conflict being in the domain of settlement and management - “soft power” diplomacy – breaks loose and as a result of unpredictable chain developments becomes more self-management-oriented. Under the conditions of the creeping conflict the Artsakh Republic has adopted the following counteracting, containment and prevention measures which could be classified according to their strengths and shortcomings as well as challenges.
• The Defense Army and the Republic of Armenia are the guarantors of the Artsakh Republic security;
• The Defense Army is always in readiness for defensive action and for offensive action when it is necessary;
• The Defense Army focuses constantly on the rationalization and refining of the military sector and existing weapons system;
• The recurrent escalations including the trench war enable keeping trench data current;
• The Defense Army implements unilaterally synchronized and agreed mechanisms for investigation of borderline incidents with ceasefire control devices along the borderline to nullify subversive warfare (in 2018, official Stepanakert voiced willingness to provide international mediators with data from video surveillance of the situation on the borderline).
• High level of unpredictability at some stage of the conflict;
• Incommensurability of the use of hard power and soft power, failure to comply with commitments in the diplomatic realm as a result of Azerbaijani destructive policy, the most recent experiences being obligations under the 2016 Vienna, Saint-Petersburg and Geneva agreements which are now often discarded in the political discourse;
• Absence of policy by international agencies towards deterrence of the arms race and conflict settlement;
• Suffering from creeping conflict syndrome Azerbaijan does not see increased confidence and stability as an investment towards ultimate peace and fears that the more solid the stalemate, the more permanent and legitimate it is, thus, Azerbaijan shows reflexive resistance to CSBMs amid calls focusing on the safety and welfare of civilian populations close to the line of contact (LoC).
• Civilian residents affected by armed hostilities, irretrievable loss among the civilians at a recurrent escalation of the conflict;
• An atmosphere of Armenophobia (anti-Armenian sentiments) and intolerance as nurtured by Azerbaijan: fostering of the idea of external enemies, generation-long trend toward hostility, any demonstration of softening in opinions being perceived as treachery, demonization coupled with inefficiency and non-materialization of peace and peacebuilding calls and mechanisms;
• Jeopardized negotiation space as a consequence of polarization of standpoints of the parties to conflict;
• Unwillingness by Azerbaijan to enter into agreement;
• Negotiations seen by Azerbaijan as a way of imposing unilateral concessions.
We thus arrive at the conclusion that commitment to comply with agreements reached should be viewed as prospect of the Azerbaijani-Karabakh creeping conflict settlement. This could spearhead the setting up of mechanisms of mutual trust and mitigation of escalation in trench warfare. Manifestation of Azerbaijani modus operandi under the protracted conflict; recent experiences
The entire process of conflict settlement has been tailgated and shadowed with Azerbaijani destructive stance. Despite peacebuilding calls to the parties to conflict by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ appeal for an immediate global ceasefire to fight the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, on 2 April 2020, the Azerbaijani foreign minister points to “high probability of resumption of hostilities” and that the command staff must be ready for “combat operation along the entire frontline”. These statements by Azerbaijani officials reflect oil prices close below zero in unprecedented collapse bringing the risk of social discontent and unrest. Shifting off the load of social unrest in Azerbaijan being causa sine qua non for the Azerbaijani authorities, another escalation of the conflict could be just around the corner.
The tasks ahead of the Artsakh Republic stranded in the creeping conflict In the spring of 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections were held in the Artsakh Republic. All the 14 candidates, referred in their electoral programs to safeguarding the security and conflict prevention as priorities for the state in the creeping conflict. President-elect of the Artsakh Republic Arayik Haroutyunyan, a political figure and former prime minister, highlighted defense and security as first point of blanket provisions of his electoral program with respect to conflict settlement for the years 2020-25 as well as public administration and governance under the creeping conflict conditions. Namely, consistent reinforcement of the defense army through weaponry replenishment, development of engineering infrastructures, consistent refining of civil defense assets were highlighted. In this context, ensuring the security presupposes conflict containment. In parallel, in the foreign policy realm, the Artsakh Republic and the Republic of Armenia will pursue the policy towards peaceful, definitive and comprehensive settlement of the Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict, focusing on the inalienable rights and security interests of the Artsakh Republic people. This means the principles of conflict settlement as proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship would be finalized in Stepanakert. Otherwise, without the direct participation of the Artsakh Republic, there can be no realistic expectation of any diplomatic progress. Prevention of the conflict escalation with the security enhancement and counterattack toolkit in case of large-scale offensive is an imperative for the Artsakh Republic given the creeping conflict imposed on it. In this way, the security of the Artsakh Republic is thereby the key and the prerequisite for regional stability in the broader South Caucasus region.
Nelli Baghdasaryan (PhD History) is Associate Professor in the Department of History and politology at Artsakh State University, and Head of the South Caucasus and Middle East research branch in the Caucasus Studies Centre at Mesrop Mashtots University, Stepanakert, Artsakh Republic
Armine Grigoryan (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University) is assistant to the Artsakh Republic President /