But this "frozen conflict" may soon heat up, if you believe what Azerbaijan's playboy/gambling addict/president, Ilham Aliyev, says. Not that Azerbaijanis should get too excited about another war: If Armenians are still the fighters they were ten years ago, then statistically, it's the Azeris who'll do most of the dying. While matched evenly in soldiers, the Azeris had double the amount of heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and tanks than the Armenians; but when it was over, the Azeri body count was three times higher then that of the Armenians. Azeri casualties stood at 17,000. The Armenians only lost 6,000. And that's not even counting the remaining Azeri civilians the Armenians ethnically cleansed.
Since the strategically-important Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline opened up, pumping Caspian Sea oil to the West via Turkey, the Azeri president has been making open threats about reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh by force. The $10 billion in oil revenues he expects to earn per year once the pipeline is fully operational is going to his head. $10 billion might not seem that much -- but for Azerbaijan it constitutes a 30% spike in GDP. In every single interview, Aliyev can't even mention the pipeline project without veering onto the subject of "resolving" the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Aliyev started spending the oil cash even before the oil started flowing and announced an immediate doubling of military spending. A little later he announced the doubling of all military salaries. Aliyev's generals aren't squeamish about bragging that by next year their military budget will be $1.2 billion, or about Armenia's entire federal budget.
The Western press seems to think he's bluffing to shore up domestic political support. But Azeris consider Nagorno-Karabakh their historic homeland and don't consider the 10-year ceasefire as a final defeat. Azerbaijan has been keeping their Karabakh refugees in tents and boxcars to prove it. And if Georgia takes military action against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Azeris may do the same.
There is a Bush Administration/War On Terror factor here that I won't get into, and it is this: America has been a strong supporter, militarily and otherwise, of both Georgia and Azerbaijan, which has given both countries more confidence to solve their problems with armed force. Moreover, a big part of the neocon plan to attack Iran involves stirring up that axis of evil's sizeable Azeri minority.
I went Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to find what the Armenians, who seemed so lost and doomed in all of this, are saying -- and the kind of trenches they were digging.
"Did you know that Azerbaijan is doubling its military budget and threatening to take back Karabakh by force?" I asked Ruslan.
He just shrugged his shoulders.
"So what if they spend more money on their military than we do, it doesn't mean anything. Let them spend ten times more, it won't matter. The Turks don't have a mind for machinery. They don't know how to operate it and when they break it, they don't know how to fix it. They're horrible mechanics and engineers. Right now, all of their machinery is rusting out," he said coolly.
"So you call Azeris Turks?" I asked.
He smiled. "No, not Turks. Defective Turks."
Ruslan was a scrawny 23-year-old bakinets , an ethnic Armenian from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku. He fled the city with his mother after a roving mob of Azeris tore his father to bits with their bare hands. That was in 1988, just when the Azeri pogroms against the Armenians were igniting in Sumgait and Baku. Ruslan and his mom got out through Georgia and bounced around Abkhazia and Ukraine before settling in a kamunalka apartment filled with Armenian refugees in Yerevan. The rest of his family settled in a village 30 miles from Yerevan.
Ruslan went to school and was drafted into the Armenian army at 18, and served in Nagorno-Karabakh.