[Economist] A frozen conflict explodes: After facing off for decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan start shooting

WITH so many conflicts in the world, Nagorno-Karabakh gets little attention. The bloody fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the mountainous enclave this week was a reminder that it should. Tanks and artillery traded fire; at least 50 people were killed in four days. The spectre loomed of a wider war, one that could draw in Russia, Turkey and Iran. A ceasefire brokered in Moscow on April 5th appears to be holding for now. But it brought the two foes no closer to peace.

The fighting dates back to 1988, when Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians attempted to secede from Azerbaijan. (At the time, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were republics of the Soviet Union.) As the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the conflict grew into a full-scale war. By 1994 some 30,000 people were dead and Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian control. Russia, America and France brokered a ceasefire, but sporadic shooting continued. Rather than time healing old wounds, it deepened them.

On April 2nd the frustration spilled over. Azerbaijani forces seized settlements and strategic heights along the front. (Both sides accuse each other of starting the fighting.) The campaign to capture territory marked a departure from an earlier Azeri strategy of attacks aimed at “pressure and posturing”, says Richard Giragosian, head of the Regional Studies Centre, a think-tank in Yerevan. Armenian and Karabakhi officials say they retook the captured land, but their claims have not been independently verified. The outburst demonstrates that the 1994 ceasefire framework, with no peacekeepers and only a handful of unarmed monitors, “no longer fits”, says Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The fact that the assault began with both the Azeri and Armenian presidents in Washington for a security summit suggests that it was no accident. Discontent with the stalled diplomacy may have pushed Azerbaijan to try to change facts on the ground. “This is about bringing Armenia to the negotiating table,” says Zaur Shiriyev of Chatham House, a British think-tank.

At home, the political dividends were immediate. The brief war “created euphoria”, says Anar Valiyev, a Baku-based analyst. The government boasted of newfound military superiority, the result of the oil-rich state’s expansion of defence spending (from $177m in 2003 to $3 billion in 2015). Casualties were seen as justified. “The people are hungry for victories,” says Mr Valiyev.

That may help Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, cushion the pain of falling oil prices. Oil and gas accounted for 94% of the country’s exports in 2013. As prices dropped over the past two years, the Azeri central bank burned up more than two-thirds of its reserves supporting the currency before allowing it to devalue sharply. In January 2016 the government imposed a 20% tax on foreign-exchange transactions and sounded out the International Monetary Fund about a possible loan. Rising prices and unemployment prompted protests in several smaller towns earlier this year, a rarity under Mr Aliev’s tight watch.

Some on the Armenian side suggested that Turkey, a longtime ally of Azerbaijan and new foe of Russia, helped provoke the violence. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fueled the speculation by declaring that he would stand by Azerbaijan “to the end”. Yet the Turkish role is a red herring, says Laurence Broers of Chatham House: “The motives are local and not about great-power competition.”

Nonetheless, peacemaking will require a push from powers such as Russia. Moscow has closer ties with Armenia: it has a military base there and a treaty obligation to defend the country against attacks on its territory (excluding Nagorno-Karabakh). But Russia also sells large quantities of arms to Baku. Any peace plan depends on external pressure overcoming local resistance. The stakes of diplomatic failure have never been clearer: little is left to prevent a repeat, or worse, of last week’s clashes. “Now there is no excuse for the outside powers to say the situation can just be managed,” says Mr de Waal.