Saturday

22nd Jul 2017

Feature

Armenia-Azerbaijan war: line of contact

  • The front line looks like World War I (Photo: nkrmil.am)

You can see the Azerbaijani military position, 200 metres away across a field of mud and snow, past two rusting Soviet tanks, through a slit in the Armenian bunker.

The Armenians say the Azerbaijanis are lousy shots, but they warn you to duck quickly in case they open fire.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Latest exchange of fire killed one Azerbaijani soldier, Artsakh said (Photo: nkrmil.am)

The frontline of Europe's oldest ongoing conflict, a few hours by plane from France or Germany, looks like a scene from World War I.

The Armenians have dug trenches along the 200-km line of contact.

Tin cans hang on barbed wire beside the dugouts as an alarm system against infiltrators.

The soldiers sleep on bunks in pits that stink of sweat, feet, and tobacco. Their toilet is a hole in the ground. They play backgammon and drink coffee to pass the time.

Azerbaijani snipers, mortars, and artillery shoot at them almost every day, they say.

In the last incident, on Thursday (23 February), Azerbaijan fired 52 mortar shells and 10 artillery rounds, the Defence Army of the Republic of Artsakh, formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, said.

The Armenians returned fire, killing one Azerbaijani soldier, it said, but despite the danger, morale is high.

“Frontline coffee is the best coffee in the world”, Marat Babayan, an Armenian lieutenant, told EUobserver on a visit to his post, a short drive from the town of Askeran, on Tuesday.

When asked if he had all the equipment that he needed, he said: “Yes. Everything”.

Asked if he would like to see international peacekeepers sent to the area, he said: “What for? We’ve got all we need to defend ourselves.”

Asked how often his men shot at the Azerbaijanis, he said they only fired if Azerbaijan fired first and only if they got an order from central command.

Forgotten war

The conflict dates back to 1988 when people in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the then Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, tried to join Armenia.

Three decades later it risks sudden escalation, destabilising the South Caucasus and aggravating the EU refugee crisis.

In the worst case scenario, it could also drag in Russia, Nato member Turkey, and Iran into a regional war.

But despite the high stakes, few people know what goes on here.

The only international monitors are six people from the OSCE, a European multilateral club, who are based in Georgia and who seldom come.

Journalists and European politicians also visit rarely.

Those who do are unlikely to see the situation from the other side because Azerbaijan tends to put them on a visa blacklist.

Azerbaijan gives little information on casualties, who are classified as a state secret.

Dubious figures

The Armenian also side gives information, but some of it is open to question.

Hrayr Tevosyan, an Artsakh colonel, told EUobserver on Tuesday that when Azerbaijan launched a four-day assault last April the Azerbaijani side suffered “between 500 and 600” casualties.

He later said that Azerbaijan lost 1,000 lives. Later again, he said that it was “more than 1,000.” He said 87 Armenians died.

An Artsakh government source contradicted him, saying that 350 people died in total on both sides, however.

The source said his information came from signal intercepts of Azerbaijani military communications and from social media chatter about funerals.

The figure of 87 Armenian casualties is also open to question.

A contact from one EU country, who asked not to be named and who recently visited the front line, said he saw memorials for 21 Armenian civilians in a single location.

“If 21 people were killed in one village, then the total figure of Armenian casualties was probably higher,” the contact said.

Rosy picture?

Tevosyan, the Armenian colonel, painted a positive picture of the situation.

Details on what kind of weapons, such as sniper rifles, his side had were confidential, but he also said Artsakh had all it needed to repel Azerbaijan.

“We have everything we need to fulfil our tasks,” he told EUobserver.

“We don’t need them [international peacekeepers] because we can maintain security by ourselves,” he added.

He said he had “never” had to discipline one of his soldiers for firing a stray bullet first.

“We only respond when the other side fires because we observe the terms of the 1994 ceasefire agreement,” he said.

He added that his men were superior fighters because they had the moral high ground.

“The most important thing is that our soldiers know why they’re fighting - to defend their homeland. The Azerbaijani soldiers don’t know the meaning of their service,” he said.

Moment of truth

The real picture might be more challenging, however.

In 2015, Azerbaijan, an oil-rich dictatorship, spent €2.8 billion on its military, while Armenia, Artsakh’s principal sponsor, spent €420 million.

The trenches might look like World War I, but Azerbaijan's arsenal includes high-tech Israeli drones, one of which killed seven Armenian soldiers in April.

The Artsakh foreign ministry says, in brochures with Romantic images of cliff-top churches, that its army is on a “sacred mission”.

But some European monitors who recently came to observe a referendum in the unrecognised republic heard that military officers were selling food rations for profit.

One monitor, who asked not to be named, added that young people were increasingly leaving Artsakh for jobs in Armenia despite their patriotism in what amounted to a "brain-drain."

Tevosyan, the Artsakh colonel, said Azerbaijan’s objective in April was “to occupy all of Nagorno-Karabakh by force, the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, but they didn’t succeed.”

The real objective was, according to experts such as the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO, to seize strategic territory on the front line and to test Artsakh’s defences.

One day soon, the moment of truth might come.

This story is the third in a series of features by EUobserver that examines the issues and looks at the lives of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The first part was about a referendum to create a 'Republic of Artsakh' in Nagorno-Karabakh. The second story looked at origins of the conflict.

Interview

The Armenia-Azerbaijan war: a refugee's story

The lynching of a woman in the Soviet Union in 1988 gives insight into why reconciliation remains so hard in the 30-year long war on Europe's eastern fringe.

Juncker: Death penalty will end Turkey's EU bid

Turkish president Erdogan said he would reinstate capital punishment, for people behind last year's failed military coup. But European Commission president Juncker says the move would end Turkey's bid to join the EU.

Cyprus talks up in the air

A week after the failure of negotiations to reunite the islands, Greek Cypriots are calling on Turkish Cypriots to reaffirm their commitment to the process.

News in Brief

  1. Polish parliament adopts controversial justice reform
  2. GMO opt-out plan unlikely to go anywhere in 2017
  3. Slovak PM threatens to boycott inferior food
  4. France takes Google's 'right to be forgotten' to EU court
  5. Turkey accuses German companies of supporting terror
  6. Israel's Netanyahu caught calling EU 'crazy'
  7. UK does not collect enough data to expel EU nationals
  8. Polish president threatens to veto justice reform

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  2. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  3. ECPAFood waste in the field can double without crop protection. #WithOrWithout #pesticides
  4. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  5. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  6. Martens CentreWeeding out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  8. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Episode 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  9. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  10. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  11. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  12. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School

Latest News

  1. Dutch coalition talks lengthiest in 40 years
  2. Polish parliament steps up showdown with EU
  3. EU urges UK to clarify its Brexit positions
  4. Law expert: direct EU powers have become too complicated
  5. Winter is here for Spitzenkandidat, but he'll survive
  6. Mafia money pollutes the EU economy
  7. Central Europe should be wary of Brexit stopping
  8. Poland's 'July coup' and what it means for the judiciary

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  2. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  3. EU2017EEPM Ratas: EU Is Not Only an Idea for the 500mn People in the Bloc, It Is Their Daily Reality
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy
  5. ILGA-EuropeGermany Finally Says Ja - Bundestag Votes for Marriage Equality!
  6. EPSUJapanese and European Public Sector Unions Slam JEFTA
  7. World VisionEU, Young Leaders and Civil Society Join Forces to End Violence Against Girls
  8. UNICEFNarrowing the Gaps: The Power of Investing in the Health of the Poorest Children
  9. EU2017EEEstonia to Surprise Europe With Unique Cultural Programme
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Talks Should Insist on Ending Reprisals Vs. Critical Voices
  11. European Free AllianceEFA Is Looking for a New Intern
  12. Malta EU 2017Conservation of Atlantic Tunas: International Measures Become EU Law