Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict In Contemporary Age

Analysis 9 October 2018
Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict In Contemporary Age

"The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the contemporary age: What brings Parties closer, what distances them away" was published by Afgan Aslanov who took the third place in the first essay competition organized by the Baku-based independent think tank, the Institute for Strategic Analysis.

Sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) region of Azerbaijan is the source of the confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as, between respective nations since the early period of the 20th century. Despite its Armenian majority, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast(NKAO) was established within Azerbaijan in order to eliminate this territorial dispute and establish peace between these nations during the soviet times.

According to the statistics in the last years of Soviet Union, demographics of the NKAO corresponds the majority of Armenian population making nearly 75% and minority of Azerbaijani people who make approximately 25% of the total population in the region . As such, Shusha was only city inside the province that Azerbaijanis were in majority. Additionally, the province had consisted of 6-Martuni, Martakert, Askeran, Shusha, Hadrut regions and a capital city Stepanakert before 1991 .

The full-scale war became inevitable in Nagorno-Karabakh in the years of 1991-1994 when political resolutions failed in the first period of the confrontation. Although the ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, small military confrontations have continued. The long “no war no peace” situation lead to failure of political efforts by mediators to end the conflict. Claims to each other and position of hardlines in both parties have made this conflict unresolved till today despite for the long period of time. Hence, it would be beneficial to analyze the positions of these two rival states in order to understand the failure of peace negotiations.

Brief History of Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

On February 13, 1988, Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh began demonstrations in Stepanakert demanding the unification of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast with the Armenian SSR (Ar SSR).  One week later, regional soviet appealed to Azerbaijan SSR (AzSSR), Armenian SSR and the Supreme Soviets of the USSR asking them to authorize the secession of the autonomous oblast. This demand was rejected by Soviet Azerbaijan and Supreme Soviets of the Union. However, the ethnic tension increased dramatically in the whole region which made the political resolutions ineffective. Initially, Armenians and Azerbaijanis confronted in Askeran region of NKAO that two Azerbaijanis were killed. This resulted unrest in Sumgait and death of several Armenian nationalities. The unstable circumstance and threat to life forced Azerbaijanis to flee from Armenia and Armenians to escape from Azerbaijan.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan and Armenia regained their independence. Furthermore, NKAO declared its freedom and in response, Azerbaijan abolished the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani attempts to establish the control over NK failed and Azerbaijani-populated settlements were invaded one by one by Armenians. The first main target of Armenian forces was Khojaly, it was occupied in February 1992 and its population was massacred. After Khojaly, the main Azeri stronghold in NKAO-Shusha fall to Armenian control and Lachin was taken after a short period. As a consequence of these conquests, the corridor was established between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan army began huge offensive in northern part of Karabakh and created control over the Mardakert region during the summer of 1992.

It also attacked to Lachin targeting to close the corridor and stop military supply from Armenia. However, despite initial Azerbaijani successes, Armenian counter-attacks in 1993 resulted the occupation of not only liberated territories but also 6 other regions (Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Kubatli and Zangilan) of Azerbaijan adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. The United Nation Security Council adopted four resolutions regarding the occupation of territories and demanding withdrawal of all occupying forces . Hardships in both states forced to agree ceasefire agreement which was signed in Bishkek in 1994 with the help of Russian Federation.

During the negotiation period, the mediators offered three proposals for the purpose of achieving peace. Over the last decades, several peace proposals by the Minsk Group have been rejected because of various reasons either by one party or another. The first proposal to resolve the conflict is a “step by step” method was rejected by Armenia due to the perception that Yerevan would lose an important bargaining chip (the occupied territories) without security guarantees over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh . The following proposals, the “package deal” and “common state”, were also rejected in which second offer envisaged arrangement of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in a common federative state. Over the last years, peace talks have centered on the “Madrid Principles”. However, both parties cannot achieve to the basic principles because of opposing and uncompromising perspectives. This kind of attitude is a main barrier which requires huge efforts to overcome.

Possible Common Grounds

Unfortunately, Armenia and Azerbaijan have few on the ground to cooperate and overcome the conflict. Despite several meetings of Presidents and Minister of Foreign Affairs, any substantial consent has not been achieved. In this concern, the Russian Federation played a key role on establishing formal relations with these foe states. As a common czarist and soviet heritage, Russia can pressure both sides by playing essential role in internal affairs of both states. Similarly, the Commonwealth of Independent States is one of the organizations lead by Russia that both states are party and might cooperate. The Russian influence on both sides is crucial, but it cannot exceed its limit by forcing Azerbaijan and Armenia to compromise.

Furthermore, Azerbaijan and Armenia are represented European institutions. European Union (EU) introduced The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) as a foreign relations instrument which concentrates to establish strong relations between EU and interested neighbor states. Association Agreements were concluded between EU and respective states  in exchange for commitments to political, economic, trade, or human rights reforms in a country and tariff-free access to the EU markets and financial or technical assistance. This policy has been developed into the Eastern Partnership (EaP) which aims to extend and reinforce relations between the European Union Eastern neighbors including Armenia and Azerbaijan. Despite opportunity, these efforts have been ineffective because each side usually makes a reservation in relation to opposite side. However, the EU remains the possible future area to establish cooperation and overcome the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In regional level, the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation is another possible communication field. In this organization, each member states presented in the organization lead to one branch of this organization in a certain period and consensus is major requirement in decision-making. Participation in discussions and holding different positions can create opportunity to Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives to start communication. Established confidence and trust between them might help to bring parties together and find a common ground. However, efforts in this organization are also unsuccessful till nowadays.

Disagreements and Confrontations

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has severe and adverse consequences on both sides in terms of national hatred to each other and legitimatizing attempts regarding NK. This dispute hurts the relation between not only the states but also the nations that needs special reconciliation process.  Initially, national interpretation of the history is one of the crucial area of the dispute. The position of the Armenia matches the thought that Nagorno-Karabakh region had been a part of the Kingdom of Armenia in ancient times and Azerbaijani Turk tribes arrived in this territory after a while. On the other hand, Azerbaijanis refers to several states including Caucasian Albania and Karabakh khanate displaying Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of historical Azerbaijan.

The mass immigration and settlement of Armenians in South Caucasus during the Czarist Russia are also highlighted with the aim of proving positive increase in the weight of Armenians in total population during the second half of the 19th century. Likewise, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh during the period of short independence of ADR and FRA has been a source of confrontation for many years. Armenians argue that Nagorno-Karabakh had never be a part of ADR, so that modern Republic of Azerbaijan as a successor of ADR cannot claim sovereignty over the territory. In response, Azerbaijanis emphasize the agreement of August 15, 1919 in which Karabakh Armenians recognized the domination of Azerbaijan. This claim is also supported with the  information provided in the book of American-Armenian historian-Richard G. Hovannisian .

In a similar way, the status of NK in early times of the soviet period and the decision of the Caucasus Bureau of Central Committee of the Communist Party are considered from different perceptive. Armenian historians refer to the Declaration of Narimanov (who was the Azerbaijani Bolshevik leader at early soviet period) in which self-determination was recognized to Nagorno-Karabakh. They also believe that NK was transferred to Azerbaijan as a direct pressure from Stalin who was a Chairman of Nationalists. In response, Azerbaijani scholars argue the word “remain” used in official document by stressing that NK was a part of Azerbaijan, so that it was approved in this decision . They also blame Armenians to use false information and confuse the reality by using the word “transfer”. Likewise, both side claim that NK is a center of their culture, so that compromise remains difficult especially on the status of Shusha.  As a result, this kind of national interpretation of the history make the conflict more difficult to resolve.

In addition, the legal status of the NKAO and its secession have been challenged by Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to support their claims. Initially, Regional Soviets of the NKAO adopted resolutions to secede from Az SSR and to join to Ar SSR despite rejection by Supreme Soviet of USSR and Soviet Azerbaijan. Opposing parties rely on different articles of the Soviet Constitution of 1977 with an aim of legitimizing their activities. Armenians argue the determined right in the constitution about self-determination in relation to above-mentioned secessionism act while Azerbaijanis underline the Article 78 which prohibits alteration of the territory of a union republic without its consent . Similarly, Armenians consider using the rights that were guaranteed on the Law on Procedure for Resolving Questions Connected with a Union Republic’s Secession from the USSR April 3, 1990.

It is believed that this law secures the right of autonomous province to secede from union republic. In return, Azerbaijan emphasizes that this law determines that autonomous province can remain in USSR or in seceding republic. Therefore, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians declared their independence based on this law and hold referendum to validate this declaration. Azerbaijani population of NK did not participate in this referendum, and Baku takes these activities as illegal and illegitimate.

Besides that, Armenia and Azerbaijan also justify their actions based on the international rules and norms. The main argument used by Armenia is the right of self-determination which means freely determination of legal status by population. More tolerant attitude to unilateral declarations of independence in international community triggers more confidence and less political will for Armenian and NK administrations. For example, these authorities have welcomed the recognition of Kosovo and the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in this regard. Armenian side attempts to show it as precedent and achieve the recognition of Karabakh independence by international community . However, this strong and universally recognized right is challenged by Azerbaijan based on another international right that is territorial integrity of the states.

Azerbaijan believes that NK and 7 districts were occupied by the Republic of Armenia and it is a serious violation of international rules and threat to the peace in the region. This argument was supported by the decision of the European Court of Human Rights which approved that Armenia exercises effective control over the occupied territories of Azerbaijan . Likewise, Baku argue that Armenian population of NK can use the right of self-determination within Azerbaijan such as “possible highest autonomy”.

Consequently, the approach displayed by parties is a core reason on failure of determining the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan refuses to accept any proposals and resolutions that put the sovereignty of Azerbaijan over NK under danger. In return, Armenia and NK do not agree Azerbaijani jurisdiction and vertical relations between NK and Azerbaijan .  Additionally, the parties confront on the issue of the returns of occupied territories adjacent to NK, especially Kalbacar and Lachin corridor because of their strategic importance. Azerbaijan requires immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from all invaded territories while Yerevan resists against it and demands security guarantees Furthermore, the restoration of trust to each other in societies and mutual respect are serious problems. Coexistence of these nations cannot be achieved without eliminating the mentioned challenges. As such, it would be difficult for population to forget the hardships of the war, especially for refugees. For instance, Azerbaijanis always highlight the Khojaly massacre that was organized by Armenians.

Brutal and bloody annihilation of civilians in Khojaly is confirmed as a genocide in Azerbaijan and several states. Armenians respond to it by claiming Operation Ring and shelling of Stepanakert from Shusha which caused civilian casualties. The brutal violence is one of the significant reason in failure of peace negotiations. Similarly, the case of Ramil Safarov who murdered the Armenian officer during the NATO training program in Budapest, Hungary is also barrier before the coexistence. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary, but when he was extradited to Azerbaijan, he was released from prison by the President Ilham Aliyev. The paradox and challenge are that Ramil Safarov is considered hero in Azerbaijan and murderer in Armenia.

In addition, anger in Azerbaijani society because of occupations and refugees trigger to the dehumanization of the enemy and the similar policy is also conducted in Armenia due to the ethnicity of Azerbaijanis and so-called Armenian Genocide. This condition causes the intensive violation of the ceasefire in the front-line. Azerbaijan has spent billions to upgrade its military and purchase modern vehicles and equipment while Armenia has received huge military support from Russia. Culminating tension resulted the largest military confrontation in April 2016 that Azerbaijan took the control of several areas previously controlled by Armenian forces . The casualties in both sides were numerous, and it lead to social mobility respectively in states, thus, demand to go to new war was heard much more. This tension between the states and hatred in both communities turned the conflict into frozen and fragile one.

To conclude, position of Azerbaijan and Armenia turned the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh to deadlocked problem. Fundamental disagreements over the sovereignty and self-determination demand compromising efforts in achieving peace and friendly relations. However, social and national attitude to the conflict, intensive militarization and violent past decrease the efficiency of peace negotiations and process.

1. Waal-de T. (2003), Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press.
2. United Nation Security Council Resolution 822, 853, 874 and 884--
3. The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Current Trends and Future Scenarios by Fariz Ismailzade, November 2011
4. The Republic of Armenia: The first years, 1918-1919 by Richard G. Hovannisian
5. Necə oldu ki, Qarabağa muxtariyyət verildi-Cəmil Həsənli ilə
6. Soviet Constitution of 1997, Chapter 9, Article 78
9. Law on Procedure For Resolving Questions Connected with a Union Republic’ Secession from USSR APil 3, 1990
10 European Court of Human Rights  Case of Chiragov and Others v. Armenia
11. International Crisis Group: Nagorno-Karabakh  A Plan For Peace