The Azerbaijani government's pre-emptive measures are likely to mitigate risks of terrorism and public protest while concerns over a likely Russian response will keep the war with Armenia a low probability.
The Azerbaijani authorities' ongoing clampdown on civil society is geared towards parliamentary elections in 2015. Russia's defence commitments serve to dissuade Azerbaijan from considering military options to solve the Karabakh conflict, as do its obligations to host major international events. A potential terrorism threat posed by the return of Azeri militants from Syria is exaggerated.
A decimated opposition is unlikely to mount large-scale protests in the run-up to elections in 2015. An anticipated Russian reaction makes the outbreak of war with Armenia unlikely. Security co-operation with Turkey and domestic surveillance reduce the terrorism threat posed by the Azeri militants returning from Syria.
Civil unrest, war, and terrorism risks in Azerbaijan are unlikely to increase in 2015–2017.
On 6 October, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee awarded 98 political prisoners in Azerbaijan the prestigious annual Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award. Since the beginning of the year, the Azerbaijani authorities have been carrying out a systematic campaign against the opposition and civil society by arresting prominent political dissidents, democracy activists, and human rights defenders. In September, security officials raided the office of apolitical, US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), which is exclusively engaged in promoting educational activities. The government froze IREX's bank accounts as well as those of the local office of Transparency International. IHS assesses that the campaign is orchestrated by the influential head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mehdiyev, President Ilham Aliyev's main adviser on domestic policy, in response to the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, which increased suspicions in the ruling order that the Western-funded NGOs will likely be used to foment civil unrest in Azerbaijan. This would explain a series of measures that the government implemented to cut off financial support for these groups from abroad. By weakening both civil society and any political opposition, President Ilham Aliyev is hoping to avoid protests in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for November 2015. The crackdown is likely to succeed and ultimately result in the desired election outcome.
Russia's pressure and major international events mute war risks in three-year outlook
A ceasefire violation, resulting in several fatalities, along the Line of Contact (LoC) between Azerbaijan and the breakaway regions of Nagorno-Karabakh, which occurred on the night of 31 July/1 August, marked the most significant escalation since a similar incident on 4 June 2012 (see Azerbaijan - Armenia: 5 August 2014: Major ceasefire violation likely intended to put pressure on mediators of Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia).
Recent reports from Azerbaijani IHS sources in Baku necessitate adjustment of the initial IHS assessment of the cause of the violation. Azeri minister of defence Zakir Hasanov was on a vacation with his family in the Turkish resort town of Bodrum when it occurred, suggesting that the violation was not planned by the Azeris. In response to the violence, Russian president Vladimir Putin arranged a meeting in Sochi over the weekend of 8–10 August, attended by the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents. Although no progress was achieved, it allowed Putin to demonstrate his influence to the West, as he was able to prevent any further deterioration of the security situation along the LoC. Furthermore, Aliyev was reportedly warned not to entertain any notions of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force, according to several Azerbaijani military analysts. A potential Russian military interference on the Armenian side in the event of the outbreak of hostilities is likely to be one of the key factors deterring the Azerbaijani side from reigniting the conflict. In this context, at least part of the Azerbaijani political establishment tends to give more credence to Russian security commitments to Armenia than to similar defence arrangements Turkey has with Azerbaijan.
In an attempt to mitigate a potential Armenian ballistic missile threat, Azerbaijan is developing missile defence capability, which was demonstrated in air defence drills held on 13 August. Likely modelled after Israel's "Iron Dome", this air defence system is designed to shield Azerbaijan's key government buildings, military installations, and critical energy infrastructure, including the Sangachal terminal, from potential retaliation by Armenia using its Russian-supplied Scud-B and Tochka-U ballistic missiles. The extent of Russia's military involvement in Ukraine is likely to be the chief factor that will determine Azerbaijan's perception of whether Russia would be willing to interfere in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the Armenian side. The current stalemate over Ukraine creates strategic uncertainty and makes it more likely that the Azeri government will abstain from provocations for fear of potential miscalculation. Finally, Azerbaijan will host major international sporting events in 2015 (First European Games), 2016 (42nd Chess Olympiad and F1 European Grand Prix), and 2017 (Islamic Solidarity Games), which also mitigate war risks in the three-year outlook. However, these would not be a deciding factor should the security situation deteriorate to the point where Azerbaijan's government feels action is necessary.
Terrorist threat posed by return of Azeri militants from Syria exaggerated
On 23 September, the Ministry of National Security (MNS) issued a press release detailing the detention of 26 Azeri citizens who are accused of participating in militant movements in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. To date, close to 100 Azeri nationals are reported to have died in the Syrian conflict, but there are no reliable estimates of the number currently fighting there. News reports from Azeri open sources suggest there are between 100 and 400, with the majority coming from Sumgait, Azerbaijan's third-largest city. Azerbaijani militants take advantage of a visa-free regime with Turkey to travel to Syria. However, IHS assesses that the destabilising impact of their return on Azerbaijan's domestic security has been greatly exaggerated by both local and foreign media. Co-operation between Turkish and Azerbaijani security services regularly results in the arrests of Azeri militants in Turkey and their subsequent extradition to Azerbaijan, as was the case with a five-member group detained in June. In addition, Azerbaijani police use a nationwide network of informants to conduct preventive surveillance of potential terrorism suspects. In Sumgait, for instance, the local police monitor 230 such suspects, which is the highest number across Azerbaijan. A number of factors have resulted in Sumgait emerging as the hotspot of Sunni extremism, including the influx of internally displaced persons from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the collapse of the industrial base, which resulted in high unemployment and an increase in organised crime in the city. There are periodic police raids in Sumgait and other hotspots, including northern areas populated by ethnic minorities (Qusar and Qakh districts).
Outlook and implications
The stability of Azerbaijan's security landscape in the three-year outlook is predicated on three converging trends. Firstly, the government's pre-emptive crackdown on civil society and opposition will considerably reduce the likelihood of anti-government protests ahead of parliamentary elections in 2015. Secondly, despite the acquisition of advanced weaponry, Azerbaijan remains wary of Russia's likely response in the event of war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Finally, co-operation with Turkey and utilisation of domestic informant networks are likely to mitigate the terrorism threat posed by the return of Azeri militants from the Syrian conflict.