Karine, who runs a cafe in Stepanakert, capital
of Nagorno Karabakh, said she was worried about
the news from Baku.
"Is it true that Aliev is dying?" she
asked with a nervous laugh. "We've just done
up the cafe and we don't want another war."
As Azerbaijan prepares for a presidential election
in October and an expected change of regime due
to the ill health of President Heidar Aliev, the
region is bracing itself for new tensions in the
unresolved Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over Nagorno
Karabakh. President Aliev flew to the United States
on August 6 for more medical treatment.
Since the two sides signed a ceasefire in May
1994, the Armenians have had control of the territory
of Karabakh and its surrounding regions. Armenian
and Azerbaijani armed forces have faced each other
across a "line of contact". Unlike in
the nearby disputes over Abkhazia or South Ossetia,
there is no outside peacekeeping force monitoring
the Karabakh ceasefire, which means that it is
That means that the level of tension across the
ceasefire line acts as a kind of weathervane for
the state of the peace process and also a kind
of early warning system for the possibility of
another war. The nightmare scenario for the Karabakh
conflict is that, at a time of political instability
in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, a small flare-up
on the ceasefire line could escalate into a serious
bout of new fighting.
And the last two months have seen some of the
worst violence for many years.
The most serious reports of ceasefire violations
have come from the village of Garakhanbeili in
the Fizuli region of southern Azerbaijan. But
there have also been reports of incidents across
the Armenia-Nakhichevan border and the northern
frontier between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Estimates of the number of casualties vary. The
Armenians admits to the death of only one of its
soldiers and the wounding of two others in July.
The Azerbaijanis give much more dramatic figures,
saying 11 of their soldiers have been lost in
the last two months, with more than 30 killed
in the year so far and 18 counted as missing.
An official close to the talks, speaking on condition
of anonymity, said that if current trends continue,
the losses across the front line for 2003 could
be three times worse than last year, when around
20 soldiers were killed. That would make it the
worst year of violence since 1996.
The Armenians blame the recent upsurge in shooting
incidents on political instability in Azerbaijan.
"We've been saying that we have absolutely
no interest in triggering everything," Armenia's
Minister of Foreign Affairs Vartan Oskanian told
IWPR. "We're satisfied with the status quo.
The whole thing is being instigated by the Azerbaijani
side and they are getting an adequate reaction
from the Armenian side."
Ashot Gulian, who is the foreign minister of the
unrecognized republic of Nagorno Karabakh, alleged
that the Azerbaijanis have been moving their border
posts much closer to the Armenians.
"They moved their posts to within 35 meter
of our positions," Gulian said in an interview.
"When they started digging trenches by night,
our men resisted that because having the enemy
35 meters away is just the same as having a bullet
in the head."
Gulian claimed that several of the incidents reported
by the Azerbaijanis had been made up for political
reasons and nothing had actually happened. "This
tense situation is of no benefit either to us
or to Azerbaijan," he said.
For its part, the Azerbaijanis blame the Armenians
for the rise in tension. Foreign minister Vilaya
Guliev has called on the United Nations to hold
Armenia to account for ceasefire violations.
Ramiz Melikov, press secretary with Azerbaijan's
Ministry of Defense, warned that "war is
always a possibility and we don't rule it out
for a minute. Azerbaijani soldiers are fed up
with sitting in trenches, refugees are fed up
with sitting in tents, the people are asking for
lands to be liberated".
However, the Azerbaijani press has paid relatively
little attention to the ceasefire violations,
concentrating instead on the long-running domestic
political crisis in Azerbaijan.
The problems on the ceasefire line have done more
damage to international efforts to keep the peace
process for Karabakh alive. The three international
co-chairs of the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, which is
the main mediating body for the conflict, are
expressing concern over what is going on.
"We are disturbed by all the incidents on
the line of contact," the American co-chair
of the Minsk Group, Rudolf Perina, told IWPR by
telephone from Washington. The other two co-chairs
are from France and Russia.
Perina also expressed the hope that the recent
surge in incidents has passed and the situation
is showing signs of improvement.
The co-chairs have not been able to make a single
trip to the region this year - although they have
met the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents elsewhere.
"We know there is a lot of frustration in
the region with the peace process this year,"
Perin said. "The co-chairs themselves have
also been frustrated. We have tried several times
to visit the region this year and each time it
was inconvenient to one side or the other for
us to do so. And, as you know, we like to visit
both sides when we travel to the region."
Ultimately, however, the mediators are playing
a secondary role and it is the politicians on
the ground who will decide what happens with Karabakh.
"The ceasefire is holding because of political
will," said Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk,
who is the personal representative of the chairman-in-office
of the OSCE with responsibility for the Karabakh
conflict - in other words the international official
who most closely monitors the situation on the
ground. "My office is supporting the ceasefire
and serves as an early warning system to the presidents.
But if there is no political will, there is not
much we can do."
(Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor. Shahin
Rzayev, IWPR's Azerbaijan coordinator in Baku,
contributed to this article.)