Caucasus update – clashes on the frontline

I spent this afternoon reading the first, unofficial reports to come across regarding the deaths of approximately 9 Azerbaijani soldiers in clashes on the line of contact (between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh) last night.

There is some confusion about the number of casualties, with various sources referring to between 8 and 14 deaths. From what I can make out, 8 soldiers were reported killed last night, while a ninth died of wounds at some point today. Though official sources have yet to confirm it, the names of the 9 are already circulating on social media, in some cases along with photographs and final Facebook statuses.

It appears that five other Azerbaijani soldiers were seriously injured in the incident, which may explain how some sources got hold of the number 14. I’ve also seen a hashtag referring to “11 martyrs”, which may or may not be in reference to two Azerbaijani soldiers reported dead in a separate incident on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border on July 31.

While two soldiers were also reported killed in Nagorno-Karabakh yesterday, there appears to be no official response as yet from the authorities in the breakaway region or in Armenia. In the past week, both sides have reported extensive ceasefire violations – even more than is the usual norm.

What is the response to this? While we can expect further militaristic rhetoric (at the very least) from the government and pro-government sectors of society, the majority of Azerbaijanis I know are focusing on the tragic loss of human life. In some cases, the lives of conscripts who were under 20 years old. While the slow wave of profile pictures turning from smiling selfies to commemorative ribbons is an over-whelming sight, there is little talk of who is to blame.

Among my friends, there appears to burn both a strong patriotism and collective grief, and a growing tendency to question this war, and this supposed ceasefire, which has seen hundreds of soldiers and some civilians die over the last 20 years – one here, one there, never in numbers great enough to spark international alarm (the number of casualties in the 1988-1994 war, on the other hand, is usually given at around 20,000).

Some are citing a report, which coincidentally made the news yesterday, which puts the overall number of deaths in the Azerbaijani army for the period January-July 2014 at 50. Of these, 10 are frontline military casualties, while 3 died as the result of landmines. The remainder died in non-combat circumstances: 10 in road accidents, 6 as a result of hazing, 2 in unspecified accidents, 1 for reasons unknown, 7 died from illnesses, and 11 committed suicide.

The fact that parts of the local population are beginning to refuse to distinguish between combat and non-combat deaths is something of which international observers should be well aware. ‘Conflict resolution experts’ typically put the number of deaths per year at approximately 30 – inclusive of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies. However, while monitoring ceasefire violations is important, the mood in both countries (and in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh) cannot be gauged without taking into account the effects of the overall situation in the army.

“Against Soldier Deaths” became the rallying-cry for major street demonstrations that took place in Azerbaijan in early 2013 in response to the death of a young conscript through hazing. The action was successful in mobilising many first-time protesters – as well as bridging the generational divide – before a string of arrests began to quell the signs of civic unrest. For many people in Azerbaijan, the latest casualties will fit into a broader narrative of needless deaths, the struggle against militarisation and the cynical manipulation of the conflict for political purposes.

A still broader narrative would take into account the casualties logged on the Armenian side of the conflict. The Armenian NGO Peace Dialogue has reported that in the first six months of this year, 23 fatalities were recorded in the armed forces of Armenia, of which 11 were the result of ceasefire violations. The project Safe Soldiers for a Safe Armenia offers a database which logs information on non-combat deaths in the army, the reasons for which range from lack of safety rules to murder.

To the best of my knowledge, these figures do not include the deaths of Karabakh Armenian soldiers. The reason I say this is because several months ago I had a conversation on this topic with a woman from Nagorno-Karabakh, who told me that the Armenian Ministry of Defence had refused a request for information about Karabakh Armenian fatalities, on the grounds that the Armenian Armed Forces are officially separate from those of Nagorno-Karabakh (as a very large number of the soldiers serving in the breakaway region are from the Armenian Republic, this division is largely treated as symbolic by the population).

To return to the most recent soldier deaths in Azerbaijan, a number of friends, while expressing their deep condolences for the friends and families of those killed, point out the strangeness in the timing of this attack. Just two days ago, a prominent activist (and former deputy Defence Minister) and her husband were arrested following weeks of mounting persecution. They are facing charges of treason and fraud, and are being held in pre-trial detention for the coming three months. No sooner had this been announced, than another human rights activist was brought in for six hours of questioning. This follows what seems like months and months of arrests, intimidation, and increasing fear – verging on what seems at times like paranoia – among civil society activists.

This is, quite simply, what’s going round my head at the moment. Like many, I am waiting to see what will happen next. And I am made anxious by the lack of information coming through. Sitting here safely in the heart of Tbilisi, I can’t help remembering the suddenness with which the August war (between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia in 2008) came upon us, and the strange symmetry by which I was in Azerbaijan at the time. And I sincerely hope that perhaps this latest escalation will prompt something more than the usual, perfunctory responses from the people who have the power to influence the resolution of this conflict.

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