By Emil Danielyan in Stepanakert
At the headquarters of a Karabakh army unit near Agdam it is business as usual. Sitting in a porch that protects them from the scorching sun, officers from this tank regiment chat about their day-to-day affairs. The relaxed atmosphere is not disturbed when they are reminded of recent Azerbaijani threats to regain control of Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-occupied territories by force.
The battle-hardened soldiers are confident that the Azerbaijani army, dug in some twenty kilometres to the east, still lacks the strength and morale to avenge the humiliating defeat it suffered seven years ago. “They are just not up to scratch,” says one moustachioed officer in the rank of major, nodding towards the frontline. He and his comrades, whose tanks rolled into the streets of Agdam in July 1993, dismiss talk of war in Baku as nothing more than a gimmick. So does the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
President Heydar Aliev and other Azerbaijani leaders, accused by their opponents of having come to terms with the loss of Karabakh, increasingly warn that they will opt for a military solution to the conflict should the peace talks fail. Aliev said in a speech on June 26 said his troops are “capable of liberating Azerbaijan's occupied lands and restoring Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.”
Such statements come amid growing calls by Azerbaijani opposition parties, civic organizations and pundits for serious preparations for another war with Armenians. They argue that peace proposals made by international mediators do not envisage restoration of Azerbaijani rule in Karabakh and that Baku should clinch more concessions either by threats of renewed fighting or by actually resuming hostilities. This, they say, necessitates a massive military build-up.
The war rhetoric of the Azerbaijani leadership is brushed aside by officials in Yerevan and especially Stepanakert. The commander of the Karabakh Defense Army, General Seyran Ohanian, went on Karabakh state television over the weekend to warn the Azeris against trying the military option, saying that his Armenia-backed forces are ready for such a development.
“Whatever plans they have, whatever options they put forward, -- forcible not or not -- we must be on our guard,” he said. “I can say that the spirit of our soldiers is so high, our military hardware is in such a good shape and we are so devoted to our cause that we are ready to repulse any provocation.”
NKR President Arkady Ghukasian calls Baku’s threats a “blackmail” used as a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “I don’t think that Azerbaijan is ready for a war,” Ghukasian told RFE/RL earlier this week. “They are well aware of our army and know that they may lose even more lands.”
“Azerbaijan is just unable to solve the problem on the battlefield,” he said.
According to military officials, barring occasional sniping exchanges, the situation along the line of contact remains calm. They have so far detected no major troops movements on the Azerbaijani side.
Renewed fighting is unlikely now that the conflicting parties have reported progress in peace talks since the beginning of the year. American, French and Russian negotiators that will tour the zone of conflict next week still hope that a framework peace accord will be signed this year.
The failure of the peace process would leave the shaky truce, which ended the 1991-94 war, hanging in the balance. More than 20,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were left displaced as a result of three years of fierce fighting.
Both parties conduct regular military exercises parallel to the negotiations in an effort to improve the combat readiness of their armed forces. Last April the Karabakh government ordered a one-day call-up of all army reservists. The huge disparity between human resources of Azerbaijan and the tiny disputed region is offset by the combat experience of Karabakh men and the military assistance from Armenia proper.
With the two armies now better equipped and trained, another war could be even bloodier. It would also endanger multibillion-dollar investments injected by Western multinational corporations into Azerbaijan’s oil sector. This is one of the main reasons why the United States is so keen to push the peace process forward.
Yet oil is probably the least important preoccupation of young soldiers playing football at a military base in Stepanakert -- their brief weekend entertainment. Samvel, a 19-year-old conscript from the northern Martakert district still has memories of the first war when he and his parents fled their village of Haterk hours before it was captured and looted by Azerbaijani forces in summer 1992. Haterk was liberated eight months later, at the start of the victorious Armenian offensive of 1993.
“If they attack us again, we’ll still fight better than they,” he says. “We’ll just sweep them away all the way up to Baku and their sea.”
Roman, a 35-year-old war veteran, is less aggressive but equally self-confident: “We remain ready for everything. Let them have no hopes of victory, we’ll win again.”