HEAVY fighting between the armed forces of Azerbaijan and Armenia over the weekend has highlighted the unresolved disputes and chronic internal instability that still affect key strategic areas of Europe, even as the political and security focus has shifted to external threats.

With the attention of EU leaders firmly fixed on Syria’s civil war, the refugee crisis and the menace posed by Islamist terrorism, the sudden eruption on Saturday of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an internationally unrecognised Armenian-dominated enclave inside Azerbaijan, has come as a nasty shock.

Deadly clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region continued for a third day on Monday, despite international pressure to halt the worst fighting in decades over the disputed territory.

Azerbaijan said three of its troops were killed overnight when Armenian forces shelled its positions using mortars and grenade launchers, taking the overall death toll in the latest surge of violence to at least 36. Both accused the other of using heavy weapons, tanks and artillery, and of responsibility for starting the trouble.

“Armenian armed forces violated the ceasefire 130 times during the [Sunday] night. They were shooting from mortars, grenade launchers, and large-calibre machine guns. The shelling was carried out from both Armenian territory and from Armenian-occupied Karabakh,” the Azerbaijan defence ministry said.

The Armenian-backed defence ministry in Karabakh said its troops along the contact line were being shelled. Yerevan, capital city of Armenia, distinguishes its own armed forces from those of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Baku considers them all to be Armenian.

Serzh Sarkisian, Armenia’s president, said the clashes were the “largest-scale hostilities” since a 1994 truce halted a war in which Armenian-backed fighters seized the territory from Azerbaijan.

The high degree of international alarm was reflected in the swift response of Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who called on all sides to respect the 1994 ceasefire. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also weighed in, as did John Kerry, the US secretary of state.

All three urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to show faith in the so-called Minsk process overseen by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Osce). But many years of meetings have yielded little in the way of results, with both sides as entrenched as ever despite occasional attempts to thaw relations.

Although Nagorno-Karabakh is not a very large territory — it is home to about 150,000 people — it has long been a flashpoint for great power rivalry and ethnic and religious tensions.

Following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia towards the end of the First World War, Moscow’s new rulers established the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.

When the Soviet empire began to implode in the late 1980s, fighting erupted, with the mostly Christian Armenians striving to break the grip of the mostly Muslim Turkic Azeris. Up to 30,000 people are thought to have died before the 1994 truce. Since then Russia has mainly backed Armenia, while Turkey and Iran tend to take Baku’s side. The West’s interests are primarily centred on Azerbaijan’s Caspian offshore oil and gas fields.

Moscow, which currently co-chairs the Minsk group, demanded an immediate ceasefire. Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, held emergency phone talks with his Armenian and Azeri counterparts, the ministry said.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, publicly vowed on Sunday to support Azerbaijan “to the end”. Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia, a rift dating back to the mass killings of Armenians by Turks towards the close of the Ottoman period. Erdogan is also at daggers drawn with Russia over its support for the Syrian regime and Turkey’s shooting down last autumn of a Russian combat plane but he is unlikely to intervene militarily.

Nagorno-Karabakh is one of several so-called frozen conflicts, mostly on Europe’s borders, that have the potential to erupt at any time. Because they are so difficult to resolve, the big powers tend to leave them on ice until circumstances force them to act.

The breakaway region of Transdniestria — historically known as Bessarabia — in Moldova is one case in point. Another example is Abkhazia, which Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, encouraged splitting with Georgia after a brief border war in 2008. There is no end in sight to the disputes. In contrast, the dispute over Cyprus, divided between its ethnic Greek and Turkish populations since Turkey’s 1974 invasion, may finally be nearing some sort of resolution.

Freezing a conflict can be a deliberate act of state policy, producing a new status quo by creating facts on the ground. This is what seems to be happening following Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the truce subsequently imposed in eastern Ukraine.

Western countries vowed at the time that the Crimea land-grab was a blatant breach of international law and would never be allowed to stand. But attention has shifted elsewhere, and with every month that passes, the annexation looks ever more frozen and thus ever harder to reverse. Yet adding to the number of frozen conflicts or doing little to resolve those that already exist is, potentially, a recipe for disaster.

As they struggle with mass unchecked immigration, terrorism, and other foreign and security policy challenges, European leaders will not want a violent flare-up on their own doorstep. The likelihood is that the Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes can be defused, for now at least. But given that so many powerful countries have a stake in the outcome, the danger of an unplanned escalation is clear. The risk of letting matters slide again just got measurably higher.

By arrangement with the Guardian

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2016

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