What role does the Karabakh conflict play in the Azerbaijani political arena? Azerbaijan’s primitive political system is characterised by clan struggles and competition between regional elites. One of the consequences of the Karabakh conflict was the ascendance in government and business of Azeris displaced from Armenia (the so-called yerazi) and Azeris from the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan. These Azeris had had more contact – and direct experience of conflict – with Armenians. Although Azeris from Karabakh were and still are well-represented in business and government, the Armenian occupation of Karabakh and the surrounding regions has significantly reduced their economic and political potential. Other regional elites, such as the Baku-Shirvan, Ganja-Kazakh and Mugan-Lankaran groups, have been completely marginalised by the conflict.
Political parties and elites have sought to use the consistent preoccupation of public opinion with the Karabakh issue to their own advantage. Public consciousness of this ploy is reflected in opinion polls focusing on the factors behind continued Armenian-Azeri enmity, including polls conducted by the author. These have shown that the deployment of the Karabakh issue by internal political forces in their struggle for power, cited by 34.1 per cent of respondents, only marginally trails the interest which competing world and regional powers have in prolonging the conflict (35.4 per cent), a factor consistently emphasised in the media.
Whilst the disputes of clans and elites remain largely secret, political parties have to declare a public position on the Karabakh conflict. However, party positions vis-à-vis the Karabakh conflict are largely superficial and declarative, lacking specific suggestions regarding the format or content of the negotiations or the nature of possible compromises. Opposition parties such as Musavat, the Popular Front, the National Independence Party and the Democratic Party are less inclined to compromise than the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. Opposition leaders claim that it is only national patriotic forces that can mobilise the state’s resources to free the occupied territories and restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Superficial and facile, the opposition’s plan of action involves strengthening the economy by fighting corruption, improving the country’s defences and putting increased political and military pressure on Armenia. To a lesser extent, they criticise the ruling elite’s corruption and violations of human rights as factors damaging Azerbaijan’s reputation and lessening international support for the country. The highly numerous marginal parties and leaders are still more intractable, seeking to balance a grovelling attitude towards the authorities with a militant stance vis-à-vis Armenia.
In 2001, a group of competent and well-known politicians put forward the so-called ‘Karabakh Charter’ or ‘Charter of Four’. The group was made up of former foreign minister Tofik Zulfuqarov, former head of the Presidential Secretariat Eldar Namazov, former president of the state oil company Sabit Bagirov and economist Nazim Imanov. Realising that criticism of government policy and patriotic rhetoric were not enough to solve the Karabakh problem, the group felt the need for a consolidated standpoint enjoying widespread popular support and understanding. The Charter demanded that the Azerbaijani authorities cease to make unilateral concessions and adopt a phased approach to resolving the conflict, thereby ensuring the return of occupied Azerbaijani territories around Nagorny Karabakh. The Charter was much discussed and gained the support of over 20 political parties, as well as hundreds of public bodies and figures. The Charter established a sort of ‘maximum tolerance level’ of compromise for Azerbaijan, and fired a warning shot across the bows of the ruling elite that passing this level would elicit wide and consolidated social protest. Subsequent negotiations held at the highest level in Paris and in Key West came close to achieving agreement between the two leaders. Yet on returning to Baku President Aliyev was not able to secure the approval of even his own circle to a plan proposing the release of the occupied territories in return for the de facto ceding of Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia.
From the point of view of the opposition and civil society, current government policy on Karabakh is conservative, insufficiently flexible and, where the level of information is concerned, extremely primitive. The concentration of decision-making power exclusively in the head of state, a consequence of the consolidation of authoritarian rule in Azerbaijan, has a deleterious effect on the management of the peace talks. Dialogue between the government and the Armenian side is kept secret not only from the public at large, but also from important politicians, experts and even MPs. The regime reacts nervously to any popular or civic initiatives to advance the process of conflict transformation in Nagorny Karabakh.
Since the accession of President Ilham Aliyev there has been a certain hardening of the official position on the conflict. Bellicose statements about a readiness to resort to force to liberate the occupied territories have been accompanied by a substantial increase in military expenditure (from US $170 million in 2004 to US $300 million in 2005) and a rise in the number of ceasefire violations along the line of contact. Simultaneously there has been a marked increase in Azerbaijani diplomatic activity in international forums (the United Nations, the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) aimed at securing a condemnation of the occupation and resettlement of Azerbaijani territory by Armenia. Ilham Aliyev’s lower levels of legitimacy compared to his father forces him to take a more hard-line position. On the other hand the growth of oil revenues frees Baku from foreign donors, a factor which strongly differentiates the situation from Armenia’s, where nearly one third of the state budget comes from external sources.