Page last updated at 06:58 GMT, Thursday, 25 June 2009 07:58 UK

Karabakh guns still at the ready

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Nagorno-Karabakh

Junior sergeant Lernik Gasparyan
Nagorno-Karabakh says its forces are "always ready for war"

When oil-rich Azerbaijan recently announced a huge increase in military spending, there was speculation that it might be preparing for war with Armenia, its neighbour in the Caucasus.

It is just 15 years since they were last at war, over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The conflict between the two former Soviet states made headlines around the world, and left at least 25,000 people dead.

But how realistic are the fears of renewed conflict?

On the frontline

In a warren of thick concrete trenches I meet up with five young soldiers on patrol in the blistering heat.

These are the youngest members of the Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh army and, at under 160cm tall (5'3"), are all short enough to stand up in the tiny, cramped observation bunkers.

I have to stoop to get inside so that I can peer through a gap in the thick blast wall.

Beyond the barbed wire I can see the grassy fields of Azerbaijan in the distance and some signs of movement on the other side.

"Sometimes we see the Azeris," says junior sergeant Lernik Gasparyan. "Sometimes they shoot, but it is quiet at the moment."

Map

The two sides blame each other for the infrequent infringements of a ceasefire which has been in place ever since the war ended in 1994.

There are occasional reports of soldiers being killed in gunfire and mine explosions.

Although the military phase of the war may have ended 15 years ago, the conflict continues.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan hold frequent mediated talks. They said they made significant progress at talks in the Czech Republic last month, on the sidelines of the EU's Eastern Partnership summit.

But as yet there is no lasting deal - and there is a lot at stake.

During nearly six years of conflict, between 1988 and 1994, Azerbaijan was forced to concede much of its territory - Azerbaijan says Armenian armed forces now occupy 20% of its land.

Arms purchases

Khazar Ibrahim, a former spokesman for the Azeri foreign ministry, told me that "unless Armenian troops withdraw from Azerbaijani land there will be no co-operation, and only after that will Azerbaijan extend its open unclenched hand."

So, does this mean Azerbaijan is ready to go to war?

"We hope not, but every nation has the right to self-defence and no nation in the world will tolerate the occupation of a huge chunk of its territory," says Mr Ibrahim.

Frontline seen from the Armenian side
Thousands were killed when Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war

Azerbaijan has dramatically increased military spending in the past five years. In 2009 it raised its budget to nearly $2.5bn (£1.5bn, 1.7bn euros).

Does that worry the Armenians and the de facto Karabakh authorities?

"We are always ready for war," says the Karabakh defence minister, Movses Hakobyan. "If a conflict, like ours, is not resolved then I think we have to be ready for the resumption of military activity."

He might sound ready, but the people of Karabakh certainly are not. And, in the end, neither side would want a resumption of hostilities.

During the conflict, thousands of Azeris and Armenians were displaced. In the capital, Stepanakert, many ethnic Armenians have come back.

No matter how hard I try to avoid them there are always traces of the war in my mind
Lucine Musayelyan, Karabakh resident

"I really don't see why we should return any of our land to Azerbaijan," says Karabakh resident Lucine Musayelyan, whose father died in the war.

As we walk through a rain-drenched cemetery towards her father's grave, we pass many headstones carved with images of soldiers killed during the raging battles.

"No matter how hard I try to avoid them there are always traces of the war in my mind and they affect how I go about my life," she says.

Until now no outside state has recognised Nagorno-Karabakh's self-proclaimed independence. Such recognition would be a vital step for Lucine.

Western caution

"Most important for me is that more people recognise our land as independent," she says.

Many countries - especially in the West - are wary that doing so might compromise the reconciliation process.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev recently said: "Nagorno-Karabakh will not be an independent state today, or in ten, or even 100 years."

The biggest sticking point for Azerbaijan has been the return of some of its territory.

Looking around it is hard to imagine now, but the region was once a prominent cultural centre of the Caucasus, a place where Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side in harmony.

In the end though, the proximity of Azeris to Armenians heightened the intensity of war.

Controlled explosion
Munitions left from the fighting are dealt with by controlled explosion

Just take the town of Aghdam, for example, where Armenia launched an offensive in June 1993. It had once been a predominantly Azeri settlement - now it is an empty, overgrown town, colonised by brambles and creepers.

All the houses have been destroyed, some by shells fired in the war, others looted for their bricks. The only building left standing is a mosque. I can see its colourful minarets protruding above the rubble.

The town of Shusha was also flattened. Much of it - including a church - has now been restored and Armenians have returned.

But it may be years or even decades before Azeris have access to these towns again. Azerbaijan has asked Armenia to return five regions adjacent to Karabakh and to specify a timetable for the complete return of two others it says are still partially occupied.

And until it gets what it wants, Azerbaijan has tended to talk up the possibilities of another war.

Senior Armenian political figures have played down the threats. They believe Azerbaijan would not achieve anything if it tried to attack.

"The consistent rhetoric on the part of the Azerbaijani government officials threatening war to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh hinders regional security," says Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Armenian Centre for National and International Studies.

We are here to defend the Motherland
Lernik Gasparyan, Nagorno-Karabakh army

And, perhaps, it is a view shared by troops on the Karabakh frontline.

In the trenches, after the soldiers have completed another routine drill, I ask junior sergeant Lernik Gasparyan why he thinks he is there.

"We are here to defend the Motherland," he says.

His commanders watch him intently and scrutinise his every word.

In the thick, heavy heat there is an air of tension in the trenches.

But, for now, there appears to be no imminent prospect of war.



SEE ALSO
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Country profile: Azerbaijan
23 Dec 11 |  Country profiles


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