Caucasus update – reflections on the international media coverage

By the time the international media picked up on the news of intensifying clashes in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, the dust already appeared to be settling. While it didn’t make major headlines, the escalation did receive attention from the BBC, Bloomberg, the NYT and Al Jazeera. A few things I’d like to say to anyone who has been relying on these sources for their information:

1) The numbers are still not clear

The articles by the BBC, Bloomberg and the NYT all refer to “at least 15” fatalities.

However:

On Friday, the names of 9 Azerbaijani soldiers were being circulated in social media by reputable (if not immediately verifiable) sources, while on Saturday, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reported that 4 Azerbaijanis had been killed in a separate incident.

On Sunday, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported a total of 5 fatalities on the Nagorno-Karabakh side since the start of the recent flare-up.

9 + 4 + 5 = 18.

An article from Bloomberg Businessweek also gives a figure of 18, but doesn’t explain how it was derived or why it differs from the Bloomberg article that came out on the same day.

Why is it so hard to get this right?

Well, the Ministries of Defence haven’t really been issuing clear and timely statements. At the same time, they have been releasing contradictory information about the numbers killed on the opposing side. Add to this the fact that the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have also been issuing statements, and it’s not clear to an outsider whether or not one should read these in concert with the official Armenian reports, or separately.

The OSCE, which is charged with monitoring the ceasefire, needs to clarify the names and numbers of those killed, and make that information available to the public. A joint record of incidents would be a useful tool for journalists and civil society organisations, whose attempts to create their own databases are hampered by the lack of official information.

2) This is not about Ukraine

The international media has been slow to react but quick to try and fit the recent clashes into the over-arching narrative on the conflict over Ukraine. The most blatant example of this was the New York Times article, which included the following paragraph:

“Russia’s annexation of Crimea, however, has contributed to the tensions. Armenia, which depends on Russia for economic and military support, has welcomed the takeover of Crimea and some Armenians have suggested it could be a model for Nagorno-Karabakh. This has rattled Azerbaijan, which like Ukraine has aligned itself with the West.”

My thoughts on this? The annexation of Crimea received a very mixed reaction in Armenia, where there is still considerable talk of finding a “third” way, comprising of Russian economic and security cooperation and European style political development. Remember: Armenia was at least on the verge of signing an EU Association Agreement in 2013 – Azerbaijan never even got that far. And Armenia’s accession to the Customs Union has also been delayed in part because of the Karabakh issue.

Russia, supposedly Armenia’s security guarantor, is busily supplying arms to Azerbaijan, which while it may have no intention of joining the Eurasian Customs Union, has equally little intention of further integration into Western political structures. The Bloomberg article makes pretty clear that relations between Azerbaijan and the West are about one three-letter word: oil. And this is what has caused the West to turn a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s rapidly deteriorating (and never good) human rights record.

So yes, Ukraine is a factor. But any attempts to weave the latest clashes in the South Caucasus into a black and white narrative on alliances in the post-Soviet space are going to have some massive, and potentially dangerous, gaps.

3) Domestic politics are going on as usual

Anyone with an interest in the region should be aware that the current tension has not put a stop to politically-motivated arrests in Azerbaijan (which is currently chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe). Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, both of whom have been working to bring the issue of political prisoners to the attention of the international community, have now themselves been placed behind bars (so far it is just pre-trial detention). The charge of treason, which has been levelled against Leyla Yunus, may act as a brake on further people-to-people diplomacy in the region – surely a relevant factor in weighing up the chances of another full-scale war.

One place where these arrests haven’t been overlooked is in Armenia, where they have further damaged the frankly appalling image that many Armenians have of Azerbaijan. There are two aspects to this knock-on effect: it dissuades people who are genuinely interested in peace from working towards it on the state or civil society level, and it presents those who are not interested in peace with the perfect argument for maintaining NK’s de facto independence and denying displaced Azerbaijanis the right to return to even the adjacent territories.

4) The local population is at risk

On both sides of the Armenia/Azerbaijan border and in and around the conflict zone, there are vulnerable populations who may have little access to information about what is going on (other than their own eyes and ears), and very little trust in the local or national – or for that matter international – official bodies. In many cases, these people are those who were displaced from their homes the first time round, and have spent the past 20 years attempting to build up a normal life from the ashes of war. The psychological stress that they have been dealing with for all this time is unimaginable. So is the physical danger that they would be in if these clashes were in fact to escalate further.

Of course, it’s not a surprise to anyone that the politicians on either side are busy blaming one another for initiating the attacks, as opposed to taking steps to protect the local civilian population through a sustainable and just peace process. But it would be helpful if the international media would adopt even a slightly more people-centred approach in its reporting on the issue, instead of giving us more empty words about the “possibility” of war over Nagorno-Karabakh. It would be more accurate to say that the war never truly ended, and that international community has been more than happy to allow the status quo to continue in order not to have to face up to lingering East-West tensions after the end of the Cold War.

Tensions which have since blown up in our faces anyway.

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