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Here’s what the research reveals about the violence in Nagorno Karabakh — and how ‘freezing’ conflicts can backfire

A soldier of the defense army of the unrecognized state called the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic looks at a burned-out military vehicle in the village of Talish north of Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert on April 6. The global community must recognize the right of the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region to determine its own future, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said April 6, after four days of deadly clashes that unsettled the West. (Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)

Are “frozen conflicts” safely contained? Western policymakers have been talking about “freezing” the standoff between Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Kiev government – in other words, leaving things as they are without a clear agreement.

But that’s not a solution, as we can see from what has been happening this month in Nagorno Karabakh.

Here are the 5 things you need to know about the violence in Nagorno Karabakh

In the first days of April, Nagorno Karabakh exploded with the biggest outbreak of fighting since the 1994 ceasefire. Reportedly, several dozen people have been killed in the fighting, both military and civilian, including children.

Nagorno Karabakh (NK), a 1,700-square-mile territory in the South Caucasus region, has been a hot spot for more than two decades. After the fall of the Soviet Union and following ethnic tensions, NK declared its independence from Azerbaijan. Armenia insists that NK’s overwhelmingly Armenian population has the right to self-determination; Azerbaijan insists on its territorial sovereignty. For decades, the two sides have been at a standoff, with Karabakhis autonomously running their own affairs, while Azerbaijan refuses to concede that it has a right to do so.

This was not the first violation of the ceasefire in NK. And it is unlikely to be the last.

Frozen or not, these conflicts are still volatile, as the latest NK outbreak shows. There are quite a few frozen conflicts in the E.U.’s eastern neighborhood, including NK; Transnistria in Moldova; Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia; and Donbas in Ukraine. Not all of them may be as volatile as NK, but they can easily heat up.

But if there’s been a standoff for 20 years, why did fighting break out now?

Observers have been suggesting a number of theories for the recent fighting in NK. One suggests Vladimir Putin coordinated the fighting to spite Barack Obama, who had just hosted both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents at the recent 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., a gathering in which Russia declined to participate. The Armenian government blames Azerbaijan for violating the ceasefire. The Azerbaijani government insists it responded to aggression by Armenian and Karabakhi forces. Still other observers suggest Turkey may be trying to spread instability in Russia’s back yard.

For now, all of these are conjecture against the background of bloodshed. But political science research shows that even without powerful neighbors, there are plenty of domestic reasons that may heat up frozen conflicts. Let’s examine how these theories play out in NK.

1. War can get citizens to rally around an otherwise unpopular government 

Political scientists Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright and Erica Frantz show that autocratic leaders who struggle to establish domestic legitimacy are more likely to start an international conflict to whip up support at home. That includes diversionary wars, in which leaders incite an international conflict to distract from domestic troubles. Think of Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s approval rating jumped about 20 percent after annexing Crimea.

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Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are truly democracies. However, Armenia ranks higher on various democracy indices than Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan often appears in reports pointing to its poor record of human rights or consolidated authoritarianism.

Low levels of democracy, including rigged elections, prosecution of opposition, including human rights activists and journalists, result in lack of domestic legitimacy and often lead to anti-regime protests. Harald Hagemann and Vladimir Kufenko show that economic and social factors, including income inequality, make anti-regime protests more likely. Moreover, as Erik Voeten recently argued here in the Monkey Cage, volatile oil prices are likely to produce domestic unrest in oil-producing countries, which tend to be more bellicose than other nations.

Armenia has seen its share of socioeconomic unrest. In 2013 many Armenians protested the government’s decision to snub the agreement with the European Union in favor of joining Russia’s Customs Union. In 2014 they protested against mandatory pension contributions. In 2015 they protested against another electricity price hike by the Russian-owned utility. The government has regularly sent police to break up the protests. However, it seems the government continues to tolerate dissent, as it wants to keep friendly relations with the European Union and the United States, both of which support and expect democracy.

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In tightly controlled Azerbaijan, by contrast, and despite often rigged voting, popular protests are rare also due to active repression of human rights and media freedom. In the past, oil and gas income has helped the Azerbaijani government pay for social supports that kept popular grievances at bay. But with the slump in oil prices, the Azerbaijan government now faces unhappy citizens, as the social safety net decreases and consumer prices increase.

Amid the government’s worry about a possible coup, the Azerbaijani currency has since December 2015 lost about one-third of its value against the U.S. dollar. To economize, the government even turned off the lights at night in the capital, Baku. Tight finances also hit mortgage owners; after one mortgage owner self-immolated in January in protest, there were countrywide demonstrations against worsening economic conditions and price hikes, followed by police intervention. Since these have been rare until now, the leadership will be concerned — and perhaps tempted to divert popular attention with a war.

What’s more, there is new evidence of corruption. Recent Panama Papers leaks suggest that Azerbaijan’s first family is linked to offshore companies – news that’s likely to antagonize citizens still further.

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2. Uncertainty leads to a security dilemma, which leads to an arms race, which increases tensions, which …

When countries don’t exchange information and don’t have an effective negotiations platform, they remain uncertain about each other’s intentions. This creates a security dilemma: A state’s actions to increase security trigger others to respond similarly, producing further tensions.

Frozen conflicts are the perfect incubator for such security dilemmas. Given constant animosity and distrust, opponents can easily make “worst-case assumptions about each other’s intentions,” as political scientist Alexander Wendt suggested in his research into security dilemmas. And security dilemmas result in arms races, as we learned during the Cold War.

The South Caucasus arms race has been troubling for two decades. In 2005, Azerbaijan announced a 70 percent increase in military spending; Armenia quickly promised to match that pledge.

The Global Militarization Index measures the relative weight and importance of the military apparatus of one state in relation to its society as a whole. Its 2014 edition ranked Armenia the third and Azerbaijan the tenth most militarized country in the world. Armenia’s 2014 military expenditures constituted 4 percent of GDP, compared to 4.8 percent in Azerbaijan. Compare that with the United States, where the military consumed 3.5 percent of GDP. Armenia has 17.9 soldiers and paramilitary forces per 1,000 inhabitants, double Azerbaijan’s 8.9 ratio. The United States has only five soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants.

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Both of these South Caucasus neighbors are spending a lot on arms, much of it from Russia. Azerbaijan has used its petrodollars to enrich its arsenal, buying heavy weapons from Russia, while Armenia is beefing up its arsenal with weapons from Russia at discounted prices, including a recent $200 million Russian loan for rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons.

So what does this mean?

In NK and elsewhere, frozen conflicts don’t look like lasting solutions for enhanced security and development of any region. They are likely to be even less effective for security when an oil-producing country is involved, because those have shown to be less inclined to accept conflict mediation. Any attempt at mediation can be effective only when both Baku and Yerevan acknowledge that the conflict strains their societies — and offer a feasible peace plan.

Nelli Babayan is a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy (based at the German Marshall Fund U.S.), associate fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and author of “Democratic Transformation and Obstruction: EU, US, Russia in the South Caucasus.” Find her on Twitter @nellibabayan.

Nelli Babayan is not related to David Babayan, spokesperson for the NKR administration, or Samvel Babayan, its former defense minister.