The reopening of an international airport in Azerbaijan’s ethnic Armenian breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has provoked a diplomatic storm, placing an already fragile ceasefire under further stress.
Flights through the airport in Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azeri), the capital of the self-proclaimed state that has not been internationally recognized, have yet to commence, but Azerbaijani officials have already blasted the move as a violation of the country’s airspace.
"Such actions only delay the negotiation process and cause the destabilization of the political situation, not only between the two countries, but also in the whole region,” Azerbaijani news site News.az quoted Orkhan Akbarov, chairman of the Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Coordination Council, as saying on Wednesday.
He added that Azerbaijan “will not tolerate violations of [its] airspace,” and also called on Armenia to “give up these provocative steps.”
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry has urged international companies to call off any scheduled flights to the airport, which officially reopened on October 1.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose Minsk Group oversees the settlement process, also warned that flights to and from the territory, internationally viewed as part of Azerbaijan, may harm negotiations.
The Minsk Group, created in 1992 and co-headed by France, Russia and the United States, has sought to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, which first erupted in 1988. Talks have largely stalled in recent years, however, calling into question the group’s effectiveness.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian media quoted Andrzej Kasprzyk, a senior OSCE official in the Minsk Group, as saying that going ahead and commissioning the airport, without Azerbaijan’s consent, was dangerous.
Officials in the breakaway territory, meanwhile, warn against any Azerbaijani attempts to thwart the airport’s operation.
"If Azerbaijan tries, in any way, to hinder the works of the Stepanakert Airport or shoot down our civil airplanes, it will mean war," David Babayan, a senior advisor to Nagorno-Karabakh’s President Sako Sahakian, told Armenian news agency ARMENPRESS late last month.
The airport was built in 1974, but has stood idle since the early 1990s after war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory. Both Armenia's capital Yerevan, which has not recognized the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and Stepanakert have repeatedly raised the issue of reopening the airport in recent years.
The row over the airport is only the latest development to have threatened an already fragile ceasefire in place since 1994. Armenian Karabakh forces control about 9 percent of Azerbaijani territory, and the breakaway republic also claims small swaths of land currently under Azerbaijani control.
Earlier this year, an escalation of deadly skirmishes was seen between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking international fears that renewed full-scale conflict could be imminent.
Thousands of soldiers from each side are massed along those fragile lines. They regularly breach the ceasefire agreement by exchanging occasional small-arms fire, but have stopped short of intensifying the fighting.
Experts said Thursday, however, that the airport dispute is only part and parcel of the political brinksmanship both Baku and Yerevan have exhibited in recent months – and is not explicitly intended to rekindle a war that left more than 30,000 dead.
“Any decision to reopen the airport would be political, and obviously a calculated risk,” said Lawrence Scott Sheets, South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group. “But neither side at this point wants to risk an all-out confrontation.”