Human affairs are inevitably governed to some extent by inertia. True changes in the course of these things are so infrequent that they are literally revolutionary.
This is the hard truth of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute some twenty-odd years after Armenia’s invasion of Azerbaijan. Twenty years of at-best-incremental progress under the OSCE/Minsk Group aegis, twenty years of continued Armenian occupation of Azerbaijan, have taught the Azerbaijan that peace may not in fact be better than war. Baku is inevitably noticing the differences in its ability to acquire and deploy state-of-the-art weaponry against Armenia, the second-worst economy in the world. The glacial progress on the resolution of this conflict must continue or else it will take a revolutionary turn, and human tragedies will again be a real risk.
This is not the only danger that human inertia presents in the region. Armenia’s insistence on holding “elections” in Nagorno-Karabakh and the other occupied and ethnically-cleansed regions carries two simultaneous threats. First, that Azerbaijan will see these elections as further proof that the status quo will persist for all of time, and therefore encourage (entirely rational) adventurism from Baku; and, second, that the remaining inhabitants of the occupied territories will come to see elections as normal, and themselves as a people apart.
Armenia has needed no encouragement to advance the region’s independence, but they will find both a spur and an excuse in a populace that has come to believe in its ownership of the land for a generation.
The elections themselves were mostly the sort of regime-affirmation in which Nagorno-Karabakh and its Armenian patron specialize. Bako Sahakyan, the incumbent, won with a not-suspicious-at-all two-thirds of the vote, a victory that was quickly affirmed by Yerevan. Given the usual arc of Armenian politics, Sahakyan has a bright future as the president of Armenia ahead of him — current Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was of course at the head of the Armenian forces during the Khojaly massacre, and his former boss, Robert Kocharyan, was the President of Nagorno-Karabakh and then of Armenia.
The elections angered everyone but the Armenians, and in a rare moment of unity, the heads of the Minsk Group — the United States, Russia, and France — all denounced the elections and maintained that they could have no impact on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. But it is not clear that the Armenians could stop this process easily if they wanted to.
The Armenians have placed themselves in the unenviable position of having a well-financed and increasingly impatient opponent on the one side, and losing their pretensions to democracy — a vital part of their international public relations machine –by stomping on the elections they have insisted on sponsoring for decades. The elections are either a profoundly unwise gamble that Azerbaijan will remain permanently quiescent and the Minsk Group permanently forgiving (or at least until the region’s independence is a fait accompli) or a story of Armenia losing control of the forces it put in motion.
Regardless of the rationale, the elections are a reminder that the time for a peaceful resolution of the conflict is rapidly nearing an end. How Yerevan, Baku, and the Minsk Group — and not Stepanakert — handle the next several months will tell us whether peace or war is the region’s future.
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