Russia's Crimea move could reignite Karabakh conflict: analysts

Emil Guliyev, with Mariam Harutyunyan in Yerevan
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Tourists visit Grandmother and Granfather monument outside city of Stepanakert in Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh on June 26, 2013

Russia's annexation of Crimea could reignite an unresolved dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorny Karabakh region two decades after a deadly war, analysts say.

Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized Nagorny Karabakh from Azerbaijan in a 1990s conflict that claimed some 30,000 lives.

The two sides agreed a temporary ceasefire in the bitter dispute in 1994, but Baku still claims the region, and international attempts to resolve the conflict have proved fruitless.

Experts fear Moscow's takeover of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine -- which has led to the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War -- may give fresh impetus to the simmering conflict.

"There's no doubt that the events in Ukraine, the rising tensions between the West and Russia, and the return to a Cold War-type mentality will affect the Karabakh conflict's settlement," said Tatul Hakobyan, an independent analyst in Yerevan.

Exchanges of gunfire are still frequent between the armies of Armenia and energy-rich Azerbaijan -- whose defence spending exceeds its rival's entire national budget. Baku has repeatedly vowed to retake the region militarily.

Moscow ally Armenia openly supported Russia's actions in Ukraine, which independent Armenian analyst Manvel Sarkisian said could bolster its Karabakh claims.

"When Armenia supported Crimea's joining Russia, it effectively supported the principle of nations' self-determination," which it applies to Karabakh, he said.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan fears that an emboldened Kremlin may step up the pressure with threats to recognise Karabakh's independence.

"Crimea's occupation by Russia created a dangerous precedent and Azerbaijan watches this with fear," said Elkhan Shahinoglu, an independent analyst with the Baku-based Atlas thinktank.

Russian President Vladimir Putin "has cited nations' right for self-determination to justify the occupation of Crimea. Under the very same pretext, Moscow could blackmail Baku with threats to recognise Karabakh," Shahinoglu said.

"One can't rule out that after Ukraine, Azerbaijan will be Russia's next target."

- Conflict risk 'high' -

Since the May 5, 1994, ceasefire, no tangible progress has been achieved at negotiations mediated by France, Russia and the United States, the so-called Minsk Group, under the umbrella of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Analysts in both countries agree it would not take much to kindle a new conflict.

"International mediators' efforts have proved fruitless and the risk of a fresh armed conflict remains high," Shahinoglu said.

In justifying their positions, Baku and Yerevan appeal to two somewhat conflicting norms of international law.

While Azerbaijan cites the principle of territorial integrity of states, Armenia insists the right of self-determination of peoples provided a legal basis for the ethnic-Armenian majority to proclaim Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan in 1991.

"Events in Crimea show that post-Soviet states' borders are disputable," Sarkisian said.

"Russia opted to prioritise the principle of nations' self-determination over the principle of territorial integrity of states.

"The move will undoubtedly have some consequences for Karabakh."

The Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 ushered in a period of political turmoil and separatist conflicts in many newly independent states.

Analysts said the Kremlin was inciting conflicts between and within the ex-Soviet republics to maintain influence over its former vassals and prevent them from forging closer ties with the West.

"Russia wants to reassert its dominance in the post-Soviet space and sponsors separatist conflicts there," said independent Azerbaijani analyst Rasim Musabekov.

"Karabakh is occupied by Armenia, but it's no secret that Russia is behind the scenes."