State news agencies in Yerevan have reported that the Republic of Armenia is opening an airport for flights out of Khojaly – the site of a war crime in which civilians were targeted for mass-murder by Armenian armed forces – in the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Placing the airport at Khojaly was almost certainly intended as a provocation, sitting as it is near the mass grave of a crime against humanity.
The move is a profoundly unwise escalation of a conflict that is always in danger of boiling over, and which the West seems comfortable ignoring until it nearly reaches the point of war again. Armenia must order its puppet government in occupied Azerbaijan to stand down on this latest escalation of hostilities before the Caspian region once again becomes a bloody battleground.
The dispute has at its heart the desire of Armenia’s unrecognized puppet government in Stepanakert to eke out the symbols of sovereignty in order to force international recognition of the state. It is a roadmap the Palestinians have worked to achieve over the course of decades, despite signed agreements not to do so; and of late, everyone from the illegal government of South Ossetia to Catalonia have begun to follow it.
The airport idea in particular is undeniably illegal under international law.
The Convention on International Civil Aviation (often called the “Chicago Convention”) forbids member parties from flying over or through other member states’ airspace without the latter’s permission (Article 3(c)); and allows member states to deny the use of parts of their airspace to other member states (Article 9(a)). Armenia became a signatory to that Convention in June 1992, Azerbaijan four months later.
The international community recognizes Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the Nagorno-Karabakh, and treats Armenian occupation as a continuing act of aggression and a consequent violation of international law.
Most importantly, the Chicago Convention makes absolutely clear that the airspace above sovereign territory is an extension of the sovereign territory itself; to cross into another nation’s airspace or attempt to take control of it is a causus belli. While Armenia is clearly following in the Soviet tradition of treating others’ airspaces as negotiable, modern states bound by international law tend not to engage in acts of war on a whim.
The danger in all of this mess extends beyond the very real violations of international law. An airport – thanks in no small part to the Chicago Convention that Armenia is currently ignoring – is an indicium of sovereignty. De facto sovereignty is a precursor to de jure sovereignty. To allow Armenia to establish purportedly legitimate symbols of sovereignty on soil the world recognizes as Azerbaijani, to control airspace that Armenia agrees as a matter of law belongs to Azerbaijan, is to take the already-fragile peace process in which the two countries have been fruitlessly engaged for two decades, and ceremoniously set it ablaze.
In this, the problem is not merely Armenian provocations, but the real danger that someone besides Armenia – the name “Russia” comes to mind – will begin allowing flights into and out of the new airport. Russia’s reasons for doing this might range from a desire to protect its client state (Armenia has relied on Russian arms and diplomatic weight since the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh) to a broader wish to establish a precedent it may use in the breakaway Georgian provinces and in other areas as it seeks to re-establish its empire.
To do this would undermine not only the international agreement to which Russia has been a party since 1970, but the interminable Minsk Group peace process it has chaired on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for decades.
Azerbaijan’s government is not a perfect democracy, but it would act with the overwhelming support of its people should it go to war over an attempt to make the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied regions into a separate and sovereign state. Its military is considerably better-funded and better-equipped than Armenia’s. A battle between the two would draw in not only Russia, but potentially other states as well.
Mighty contests often rise from trivial things, and this is hardly trivial.
This madness must stop. Russia must convince Armenia to end this farce immediately. The Minsk Group must accelerate the process of drawing Armenia’s armed forces out of the Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding regions, allowing the refugees to return home. To do otherwise is to invite a repetition of this same looming-disaster, looming-war scenario until the very day Azerbaijan either can or will no longer tolerate it.
War makes for a wonderful story. It is a poor substitute for the tedium of peace.