Saturday, September 29, 2012

ARTICLE: Test of Will?: NKR announces opening of airport as Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions remain high. By John Hughes

( Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh are now saying that the self-declared republic’s airport – which has already been a flashpoint of regional tension and controversy – will open “next week”.

Test of Will?: NKR announces opening of airport as Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions remain high  

The announcement has dominated Armenian media since Wednesday, when the head of civil aviation in the internationally-unrecognized NKR Government stated that flights will begin, and that the airport just outside capital Stepanakert will serve 100 passengers per hour with flights on “Artsakh Air”.

The airport was first predicted to open nearly two years ago, drawing immediate anger from Azerbaijan officials, who said any flights in “occupied” airspace would be viewed as provocation, and subject to being shot down. For more than a year, opening of the airport has been delayed “for technical reasons”.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan – a native Karabakhi – responded to threats in March 2011, by saying that he would be the first passenger to fly out of the airport, underscoring his confidence in safe operation from the troubled territory which has been under cease fire since 1994.

As recently as July of this year, Baku restated its right to shoot down aircraft over Karabakh, which covers some 7,000 square kilometers of land viewed by Azeris as still belonging to them.

When the OSCE Minsk Group stated in July that opening the airport would be seen as a means of strengthening the potential for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the director of Azerbaijan’s State Civil Aviation Administration Arif Mammadov reiterated the earlier statements on downing planes.

“This is the right of the Azerbaijani side, according to the law on aviation. Whether this right will be implemented or not, it is for the government to decide,” Mammadov said.

The apparent decision to now begin operating commercial flights out of Karabakh comes as tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have piqued since last month. Hungary extradited an Azeri army officer, Ramil Safarov, who had brutally killed an Armenian officer in Budapest. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev immediately pardoned the killer, promoted him from lieutenant to major, paid him a salary equivalent to the 8 years he had been in jail in Hungary, and gave him an apartment.

The action drew international condemnation against Azerbaijan, and was widely viewed by political analysts as proof that the warring nations – Armenia is Christian, Azerbaijan is Muslim – are too far apart in any meaningful way for reconciliation to be expected.

Since the “Safarov Affair”, a peace settlement seems more distant than at any time in the protracted conflict. It is likely that international attention and concern will focus on the tiny airport should there, indeed, be planes flying “soon” as announced by head of the NKR Civil Aviation Dmitry Adbashyan.

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