The Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh:

negotiating   self-determination ?




Blanka Hancilova, Ph.D.

Tufts University

December 2000





The History of the Conflict                                                                                      

Narratives of the past                                                                                                                      

Legal aspects of the conflict                                                                                   

Moral Arguments                                                                                                                            

Right for Self-Determination in international law                                                                       

Nagorno Karabakh  in the USSR and in international law                                                              

International Law and Self-Determination                                                                                     


Issues and Interests in negotiations                                                                                                

Factors favoring/hindering a solution at this point of time                                                            






The first major ethnic conflict to mark and to accompany the break-up of the Soviet Union was the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The conflict had a decisive influence over both the domestic and foreign politics of Azerbaijan and Armenia for more than ten years. It is one of the major political and economic determinants in the post-Soviet Caucasus and, beyond its regional significance, it has had profound international consequences which influenced both U.S. and Russian policies. Similarly, as all other conflicts that broke out in the region in the 1990s – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, North Ossetia/Ingushetia, and the Chechen wars – Nagorno Karabakh remains unresolved.

The core of the dispute is the territorial status of 1700 sq mile territory of Nagornyj/Nagorno Karabakh, a hilly region in the western part of Azerbaijan separated from Armenia by a relatively narrow strip of land. The last Soviet census from 1989, which predates the outbreak of full-fledged war, states the population of Nagorno Karabakh as 189, 000; 75% of which were Armenians, and 22% were Azeris. Since the end of the 1980s the Armenians demanded unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia or, after 1992, independence. A population exchange took place between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1988 and 1989 and during the conflict practically all Azeris were driven out of Karabakh. Further 600 000 Azeris and Kurds were forced to leave territories adjacent to Nagorno Karabakh, so called occupied territories.

The conflict continues to be set by mutually exclusive narratives of history and conflict of Armenians and Azeris, but economic considerations play an increasingly important role. While the economic strength of Azerbaijan grows, mainly thanks to its oil and gas reserves, the Armenian economy, which is poor in natural resources, continues to suffer the consequences of the break up of the Soviet economic system. This situation is worsened by the economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey.  So far, the general public and a significant part of the elites of both countries reject any compromise, which would come short of their ideal outcome of settlement of the conflict.

In the justification of their positions, both parties recall historical narratives and rely on international law. While Nagorno Karabakh wants to exercise its right for self-determination; Azerbaijan claims its territorial integrity.

This conflict is another one in a long row of post-Cold War period self-determination struggles. In this respect the conflict has the potential to be relevant in a global perspective. It can serve as a case for the examination whether a new understanding of the right for self-determination has developed after the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The History of the Conflict

Narratives of the past

Though the conflict is often perceived as an outcome of irreconcilable ancient hatreds between the Armenians and Azeris, in the past these people often shared the same territory in the region of what is today’s Southern Caucasus, Eastern Turkey and Northern Iran. In Nagorno Karabakh Armenian farmers and semi-nomadic pastoralist Muslims, who brought their flocks to the mountain meadows each summer, coexisted peacefully. Armenian and Azeri historians have developed competing and mutually exclusive narratives about the ethno-history of Nagorno Karabakh.[1] Both ethnic groups claim the region as a part of their ancient homeland and deny the historical presence of the other ethnic group.

For Armenians, Nagorno Karabakh presents the only part of historic Armenia, “where a tradition of national sovereignty was preserved unbroken until the late medieval period.”[2] According to this view, the initial arrival of Turks/Azerbaijanis into the region began only around 1750, when a Turkic tribe came to the region of Nagorno Karabakh.[3] The Azeri historians claim, however, that the Azeris are descendants of Caucasus Albanians, a medieval state of the region, and the Armenians living there are merely “Armenianized Albanians, and thus Azerbaijanis.”[4]

The cultural differences between the two communities were aggravated in the 19th century by the conflicts in the economic sphere (unskilled Muslim laborers versus Armenian merchants and entrepreneurs, rural Muslim population versus urbanized Armenians). During World War I, in early 1915, ethnic cleansing and massacres of the Armenian population from Anatolia led to numerous deaths (600,000 – 2,000,000) among the Armenian population. Armenian and Turkish historians have interpreted the events from radically different, ethnocentric points of view. Many Armenian historians argue that it was genocide; Turkish historians charge the Armenians with engagement in revolutionary and subversive activities. The events of 1915 acquired for Armenians a symbolic meaning; it is “a negative form of self-definition.”[5]

In the turmoil after the end of World War I and the consolidation of Soviet Russia, territorial disputes between Azeris and Armenians increased. Three ethnically mixed territories, Nakhichevan, Zangezur and, above all, Nagorno Karabakh, were the main subjects of the disputes in the delimitation of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.[6] The status of Nagorno Karabakh was changed several times between 1918 and 1921. Finally, despite the protests of Armenians, it was put together with Nakhichevan under Azerbaijani jurisdiction and in July 1923 Nagorno Karabakh obtained the status of an autonomous oblast (oblast = province), NKAO.[7]

A new phase in a conflict over Nagorno Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s.[8] In 1988 and 1989, most of the Armenian population of Azerbaijan decided to leave or was forced to leave, mainly for Armenia or Russia. At the same time, the Azeri population of Armenia was driven out to Azerbaijan. Some 350,000 Armenians fled from Azerbaijan and 155,000 Azeris fled Armenia.[9]

Since 1988 numerous calls for unification with Armenia and declarations of independence took place – all of them rejected by the Azerbaijani and/or Soviet authorities. Initially, the Soviet authorities wanted to keep status quo, but under the pressure of the situation on 12 January 1989, they removed Nagorno Karabakh out of jurisdiction of Azerbaijan and placed it under the control of the “Committee for the Special Administration of NKAO.” Both sides, Armenia and Azerbaijan, were not satisfied with this solution and accused Moscow of being a dishonest broker. On November 28, the USSR Supreme Soviet voted to abolish the special status of Nagorno Karabakh and to put it back under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan as NKAO.

On December 1, 1989, the Supreme Soviet of Armenia adopted a resolution on the unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia.[10] This resolution, never rejected by authorities of independent Armenia, can be interpreted as an official claim of Armenia to Azerbaijani territory.[11]

Between 1988 and 1991, the situation became very tense and the number of ethnically motivated incidents grew. Real power was in both countries increasingly in the hands of nationalistic movements; the Communist structures loyal to Moscow could not any longer control the situation. On August 30, 1991 Azerbaijan declared its independence. The NKAO authorities declared its independence as the Nagorno Karabakh Republic on September 2, 1991.[12]

The Soviet Union’s dissolved on 31 December 1991 and former interstate borders were at once international borders. At this time, the conflict of Nagorno Karabakh resembled already a full-fledged war rather than just local riots. By February 1992, Karabakh Armenian forces seized parts of Nagorno Karabakh, including Azeri settlement of Khojali, where more than 200 civilians were killed. In May Armenian forces gained strategically significant Shusha, the last Azeri stronghold in Nagorno Karabakh - an irreplaceable loss to the Azeri side.[13] In the course of the conflict about 600,000 Azeris were displaced, most of them were driven off from the so-called “occupied territories” captured in 1993. The front line remained stable since the fall of 1993. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan was able to reverse the military equilibrium. In May 1994 Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan signed a Russian brokered cease-fire.[14]


Legal aspects of the conflict

From the very beginning “the stage for conflict had been set by completely incompatible ideas on the future status of that enclave. Armenia formally ‘annexed’ Karabakh; Azerbaijan officially abolished its autonomy; and Karabakh declared itself an independent republic (…).”[15]  Currently, a self-proclaimed entity Nagorno Karabakh Republic, which has some of the attributes of a state (population, power), exists. It lacks clearly defined territory and it was not internationally recognized by any state.

During the Soviet period, the Armenians called for the transfer of Nagorno Karabakh from the Azerbaijani jurisdiction under the Armenian jurisdiction, i.e. de facto unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia. Since 1992 Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh have been seeking an independent state, claiming their “right for self-determination” in accordance with the international legal norms. Armenia is only supporting Nagorno Karabakh in its quest to exercise fully its right for self-determination.[16] Of course, once there is an independent Nagorno Karabakh, the unification with Armenia is possible. Azerbaijan reasserts its right to territorial integrity.

Both Armenians and Azeri parties maintain that their respective claims are in full accordance with historical arguments as well as international law. Armenians claim as well a moral right for secession. While the historical arguments cannot serve as a basis for the solution of the conflict, all parties (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh) and the mediators agreed on international law as a basis for a settlement.


Moral Arguments

Some authors see secession as morally permissible given that the state refuses to cease serious injustices it is perpetrating against the seceding group. The types of state perpetrated injustices justifying secession are its violations of basic individual civil and political rights as well as its exploitation of one group to benefit others. Under certain highly circumscribed and extreme conditions, the need to preserve a group’s culture and the necessity of a group’s defending itself against the threats to the survival of its members by third-party aggressors when the group’s own state is not protecting it, can justify secession.[17]

The Armenian community of Nagorno Karabakh repeatedly alleged that it had little decision-making power and that it was discriminated against the Azeri population of Azerbaijan in economic and cultural terms to the extent that the survival of the community in one state with Azeri majority was threatened.[18] In the words of one of the proponents of the Nagorno Karabakh independence: “The policy of aggression, massacre, expulsion and national discrimination against the Armenian population carried out by Azerbaijan, enhances the legal and moral importance of ensuring the state independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. The joint Turkish and Azerbaijan aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh has led to the destruction and expulsion of about half a million Armenians from the territory of the so-called ‘Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan’.”[19] However, closer examination of the situation does not support these statements.

According to the German scholar Stadelbauer, the capital investments in Nagorno Karabakh were during the last three decades of the Soviet Union significantly lower than the in Azerbaijan itself.[20] It is however not clear, whether this can serve as a sufficient basis for the conclusion that Nagorno Karabakh was systematically discriminated against in economic terms. Given the industrial basis of Azerbaijan, it seems logical that most of the investments went into the oil related industries located along the Caspian Sea shore. Nagorno Karabakh was traditionally an agrarian and shepherding region without major industrial units. Other authors maintain that the Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh were not discriminated against. Kurbanov argues that economic differences among the nations of the Soviet Transcaucasus were insignificant. [21] According to leading Russian anthropologist Yamskov, “the population of Nagorno Karabakh … enjoys a level of social and economic development that is somewhat higher than that of the general population of Azerbaijan.”[22] However, we could convincingly argue, that there had been in fact a difference in living standards in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia. At the end of the Soviet Union, the gross domestic product per inhabitant in Azerbaijan was 75% of the Soviet Union’s average; for Armenia it was 94% of the average.[23] The core of the Armenian dissatisfaction with their economic standing in Azerbaijan may be their perception of the differences between Armenian and Azerbaijani economic situation.

In order to provide a moral ground for secession “the culture in question must in fact be imperiled.”[24] It is difficult to argue that the Armenian culture in Nagorno Karabakh was imperiled, especially given the 75% majority of the Armenian population in the region, their representation in local administration and the proximity of the mother state. However, there is widespread conviction among the Armenians that the Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh were discriminated against regarding access to education and to employment. It may be held that there had been a certain degree of discrimination in terms of access to higher administrative positions in Azerbaijan, because all Soviet titular nations tended to favor members of their respective nations in order to secure greatest advantages for their respective ethnic fellows and republic. Even more importantly, the Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh with university education were not able to find appropriate work in their home region. Therefore they tended to migrate elsewhere – primarily to Armenia or to Russia.

Even if we take the discrimination of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh as granted, the moral claims can be questioned on the ground that it was not in fact Azerbaijan but Soviet Union that was discriminating against the Armenians. There had not been time when Nagorno Karabakh was a functional part of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Therefore, it cannot be convincingly argued that Nagorno Karabakh is or will be discriminated against by Azerbaijan. However, it is questionable that Azerbaijan is a democratic country. The lack of democratic political culture combined with the complete absence of democratic traditions and the presence of a segmented society did not allow the establishment of an effective democratic regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of that, Azerbaijan continued to be an authoritarian country with a poor human rights record. At the same time, it should be noted that neither Nagorno Karabakh Republic nor Armenia has showed their respect for democratic norms and human rights.

In sum, it cannot be convincingly argued that the Armenians in Azerbaijan were discriminated against by Azerbaijan economically or culturally. Furthermore, Buchanan notes that the potentially seceding culture must meet minimal standards of moral decency. Taken into account the atrocities and the violations of human rights committed during the Nagorno Karabakh conflict by both sides, it could be argued that Nagorno Karabakh does not fulfill this criterion. Neither does Azerbaijan. Finally, the regime of Nagorno Karabakh Republic violates basic human rights and denies free exit to the people of Nagorno Karabakh.[25] It may be concluded therefore that Nagorno Karabakh fails to fulfill any of the moral criteria for secession.

Right for Self-Determination in international law

Self-determination appeared as a political force in the 19th century and it developed as a legal principle in the 20th century. The post World War I order, which was primarily based on the results of the Versailles Peace Conference, could not satisfy and did not aim at satisfying the claims of all nationalities or their parts. In the time of the League of Nations, the principle of self-determination was not a part of the international legal order.

The prevailing opinion in Western Europe and the US after the World War II was that the principle of self-determination should not be anchored in international law, “in part because of the inconsistent manner in which the principle … was applied following the First World War.”[26] Yet, contrary to the wishes of the Western (and often colonial) countries, some states, foremost of which was the Soviet Union, pressed for the inclusion of self-determination into the Charter of UN.[27] Finally, a compromise formulation was found: “self-determination of peoples”. Self-determination was established as an internationally recognized legal principle, but not as a fundamental right. 

The pressure of colonized countries and Soviet bloc for de-colonization grew over the next years. At the end of 1960 the Declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples (UN GA Resolution 1514) was adopted. Further reaffirmation of the principle/right for self-determination came with the adoption of the International Covenants on Human Rights adopted in 1976. Only these two Covenants are actually legally binding treaties proclaiming the right for self-determination.[28] Identical Article 1 proclaims: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” However, Article 46 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 24 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have the same wording: “Nothing in the present Covenant shall be interpreted as impairing the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations and of the constitutions of the specialized agencies which define the respective responsibilities of the various organs of the United Nations and of the specialized agencies in regard to the matters dealt with in the present Covenant.”[29] The total text limits the eligible peoples to those who are still “dependent” and those subjected to “alien subjugation, domination and exploitation.”[30]

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and even more the break-up of Yugoslavia have newly reinforced the discussions about the relationship between self-determination, secession and the right for territorial integrity. Mindful about the dangers of secession, the international community treated in legal terms both USSR and Yugoslavia as dissolving states and not as cases of secession.[31] Secession is as a rule sanctioned by international law only in cases, where the claimants (original states) agreed to it. This was the case of de-colonization as well: the “mother” states had to agree with the self-determination of the former colonies.[32]

Nagorno Karabakh  in the USSR and in international law

At the end of its existence, the Soviet Union was constituted from four groups of different legal entities. There had been 15 Soviet Union republics, which had according to the Art 72 of the 1977 Constitution a right of exit from the federation. It could be argued, however, that the right to exit the Soviet Union was a formal one only, because the Art 75 of the Constitution provides for the territorial integrity of the entire USSR.[33] Under the administrative level of Soviet Socialist Republics, there had been three distinct levels of autonomous territorial units. The rights linked to the different levels of autonomy were linked to the jurisdiction of the respective Union republic. Any decision taken by autonomous entities had to be confirmed by the Soviet of the Union Republic (Articles 78 - 88).

Based on the Soviet legal provisions, the former status of Nagorno Karabakh as an autonomous region within the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, did not give Nagorno Karabakh any right for external self-determination inclusive secession. The Soviet legal provisions state clearly, that any change of borders needs the consent of Azerbaijan Soviet Socialists Republic or later of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan did not give its consent with any change of its borders.

In assessing the right of Nagorno Karabakh for self-determination under the provisions of the international law numerous issues cannot be addressed fully and convincingly. Firstly, it remains unclear what kind of unit the “self” that aspires for external self-determination should be. Should it be defined ethnically or territorially? Can the Armenians from Karabakh claim to be a people (a nation)? If the Armenian Karabakhis should have the right for external self-determination, should the same right be exercised by the Azeri inhabitants of Nagorno Karabakh? Secondly, since independent homeland (Armenia) exists, it may be held that the Armenians living in Azerbaijan are a national minority rather than a ‘people’. As a national minority they are entitled to a number of rights, which, however, do not encompass the right for secession. Thirdly, was the Soviet Union a colonial empire? Can Nagorno Karabakh be considered a colonized country? As it was outlined in the section on the evolution of the principle/right of self-determination, the right to pursue external determination was, in fact, granted to colonized people only. Only territories (peoples) geographically separated from the colonizing country were defined as colonized territories. The Russian empire, however, acquired new territories that were adjacent to it.

Even if the three outlined issues do not present convincing answers, it may be convincingly argued that in fact the case of Nagorno Karabakh is not a self-determination case, but a case of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan. Though officially never admitted, the evidence shows that Armenian military forces did take part in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.[34] The conflict is then a case of use of force against another state, which is prohibited in international law, despite the fact that Armenia or Azerbaijan never officially declared war each other. Neither did Armenia did denounce its December 1989 claims to Nagorno Karabakh.[35]


International Law and Self-Determination

Many would like to believe that international law is an unbiased source of guidance for the resolution of conflicts among states and other actors. However, a detailed examination of its provisions oftentimes reveals a fundamental lack of clarity, which makes the legal provision subject to arbitrary interpretations. Yet, this is highly functional: the underlying logic suggests that clarity is not desired, because the final outcome should stay dependent on the will of the international community, or more realistically, the most powerful countries. The international community has always accommodated in its legal view political will and the considerations of its members.

The right of self-determination has always been balanced against other rights. The last ten years have brought rapid developments, which challenge our understanding of sovereignty and self-determination. It is difficult to argue that the case of Yugoslavia is merely an exception to the rules of international law. It is even more difficult to foresee what the fate of Kosovo will be. In the light of these developments, it is understandable that Nagorno Karabakh hopes for a political decision, enabling it to gain international recognition and hitherto independence despite the insufficient provision for it in the existing international law. As Hannum suggests, a new definition of self-determination evolves, under which “autonomy and self-government may be the primary expressions of a people’s right to self-determination….”[36]


Following the acceptance of Armenia and Azerbaijan into the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1992, CSCE (since 1994 renamed OSCE, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) mediated the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. In fact, it was the first conflict, in which the UN gave the regional security institution OSCE the mandate for negotiations. Besides the OSCE, different actors (Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan) facilitated negotiations in the initial stages of the conflict.

As of now, no significant results beyond the Russian-brokered 1994 cease-fire were achieved. It can be explained by a number of different reasons. During the first years of the conflict (prior to the end of 1993) the situation on the ground kept changing rather quickly and the side having the military advantage was unwilling to make concessions. Later, when the military situation stabilized, the extensive military victory made the Armenian negotiation position very strong and therefore Armenia was unwilling to make compromises. Given the broad international nature of the OSCE (55 member countries), the organization was always under strong pressure from different states with mutually exclusive interests. From the onset of the negotiations, the rivalries between the US and Russia have had a negative influence on the negotiations. In addition, old rivalries have been renewed between Turkey and Iran; Iran and Russia; and Russia and Turkey. As a former Armenian negotiator, Mr. Libaridian, summarizes:  “The real question today is, ‘Whose peace will it be?’ Pax Russica or Pax Americana.”[37]

The U.S. policies in the Caucasus region are shaped by absence of real understanding of the region. The Caucasus is not vital for the U.S. interests (despite occasional rhetoric claiming the opposite). While the U.S. certainly does not want to become militarily engaged in the region, it does not want to abandon the Caucasus entirely in the Russian sphere of interest.

From the Russian point of view, the Caucasus is forms part of  “Near Abroad”, sphere of vital national interests. It is widely held that Russia is not genuinely interested in a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict since it would diminish the leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In general, Russia viewed OSCE involvement as an intrusion into the sphere of Russian vital interests. The politics of Russia in the Caucasus over the past decade can be briefly described as an example of a classic policy of divide and rule. The Russian support for Armenia was in fact aimed at pressuring Azerbaijan into the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Another reason for the lack of effectiveness of OSCE sponsored negotiations can be found in the weaknesses of the OSCE conflict resolution framework, which overestimates the attraction of the economic development arguments and underestimates security concerns and the role of history in the shaping of a group’s strategic choices. The framework constitutes a rational set of objectives and arguments, which do not reflect the lessons of the collective memory of conflicting parties.[38] As Anthony Baird observes, values, a part of national identity, are at stake in the conflict of Nagorno Karabakh. Value-related conflicts are difficult to negotiate, because values are not compromizable.[39] This kind of conflict is very prone to Western negotiating techniques, which are based on a culture of rational self-interest.

In 1999 the negotiations moved back to the bilateral level. There were direct secretive negotiations between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan reportedly on the basis of a territorial exchange. A deal might have been in place before the October 1999 assassinations of the Armenian prime minister and several his colleagues.

Issues and Interests in negotiations

In general, the Armenian interest is to secure a viable future for the Armenian nation in the region.  Based on their historical experience (foremost the 1915 killings in Eastern Turkey), Armenians feel often threatened by Turks. The interest of Azerbaijan is to secure its territorial integrity as well as effective power over the currently occupied territories that lay in the East of Nagorno Karabakh (i.e. not Lachin). It wants to keep de jure power over all territory of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno Karabakh, but it does not insist on de facto power over Nagorno Karabakh and Lachin. Azerbaijan is offering Nagorno Karabakh a high degree of autonomy within its jurisdiction.[40] Azerbaijan is concerned that any other outcome would send a wrong message to numerous minorities in Azerbaijan, who would then claim their self-determination and try to secede.

The main issue in the negotiations is the future political status of Nagorno Karabakh. While the preferred solution for Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia is its independence; for Azerbaijan it is the reassertion of jurisdiction over all of its territory, including Nagorno Karabakh. One of the underlying difficulties of the negotiation process is the determination of the parties to the conflict. The negotiation status of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic is subject to disputes and is as such an issue that has to be still negotiated. Azerbaijan is unwilling to accept the NKR authorities as a party to the conflict, because they believe that it would legitimize the NKR and its claims. [41]  If Nagorno Karabakh is to be present as a party at the negotiation table, it would be represented by delegates of two distinct communities – one for the Armenian community (NKR authorities), another representing the Azeri population which was in fact driven out of Karabakh.

Another problem presents the determination of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. While there are several historical regions that constitute Nagorno Karabakh, other regions considered by the NKR party as vital for their survival, were never part of it. The most important of these regions is the Lachin corridor, a narrow strip of land, occupied since spring of 1992 by Karabakh and Armenian forces. From the Armenian point of view, the main problem is a security guarantee for Nagorno Karabakh, which would have to be “absolute.”[42] In any case, Nagorno Karabakh/Armenia does not want to give back the Lachin corridor.

The Armenian forces were able to seize a significant part of 7 regions (Lachin, Kelbajar, Aghdam, Fizuli, Gubadli, Jabrayil, Zangelan) adjacent to Nagorno Karabakh.[43] The Azeri and Kurd population of these territories was driven out and presents now the bulk of IDPs in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is especially concerned about the return of displaced persons to these “occupied territories.” While in the past the authorities of Nagorno Karabakh were divided over whether to give them back or not, nowadays it becomes clear that Nagorno Karabakh cannot keep the occupied territories if it is to reach a settlement with Azerbaijan.

Factors favoring/hindering a solution at this point of time

The economic reconstruction of war-torn societies of Azerbaijan and Armenia is extremely difficult if not impossible without a settlement. The lack of a final settlement hinders the stability of the region and investments to it.

The current stage of negotiations is characterized by an increased sense of urgency for a solution, which is felt by both Armenia and Azerbaijan to the conflict. There are, however, still substantive differences between the positions of the parties and the way they envision any solution. The parties are exhausted politically and economically (this is more true for Armenia than for Azerbaijan) and this pushes them toward a solution. At the same time, however, their economic and political weaknesses make it difficult for them to reach and implement a settlement internally, among their respective constituencies.

Armenian military superiority depends to a very large extent on Russia, who has proved to be an unstable coalition partner in the past. The Armenian side has realized that a victory in war does not mean necessarily an international recognition of the new realities on the ground. Currently, Armenia is involvement in regional reconstruction and investment programs, and hence its prospects of economic recovery, are severely limited.

The longer the current status quo in Nagorno Karabakh remains, the less likely it become for Azerbaijan to negotiate a solution on its own terms. Azerbaijan considers launching a new military offensive, but so far it Azerbaijan has not been able to do so. Since 1994, however, Azerbaijan has been able to secure significant deals related to the exploration of its oil and gas reserves and therefore it can hope to secure sufficient financial resources to launch a new offensive in a foreseeable future. At the same time Azerbaijan faces serious internal divisions, which will make a success in military offensive difficult. Azerbaijan is not ethnically coherent, and its power elites are not fully supportive of the president. The power of the current establishment, which holds the state together, is based on the personal authority of the President Aliyev rather than on a widely accepted establishment of power-holders and institutions. Aliyev is aging and it is likely, that he will leave the office shortly. When Aliyev does leave office, Azerbaijan is very likely to witness a period of instability before his successor (possibly his son) consolidates power. At the same time, Russia could use the unstable situation to increase its influence over Azerbaijan. Russian influence is likely to be aimed at the reintroduction of Russian military bases to Azerbaijan. In exchange for it, it may provide military support for Azerbaijan or at least withdraw its military support for Armenia.

The reconciliation of different interests within one’s own constituency and dealing with the opponents of the settlement is a crucial issue. In both countries it is needed to prepare the public for an acceptance of a deal, which will not be a preferred solution of either party, but a compromise. The rhetoric of war, still widespread in the media, has to be replaced by conciliatory vocabulary and approaches. In order to achieve durable political settlement, the Armenian leadership has to ensure the support of the Armenian public, NKR as well as the diaspora. Any settlement must ensure that both parties can achieve an honorable peace. This is sine qua non for the very existence of any long lasting settlement. In the absence of this, the settlement will not be able to reach even minimal support of people and elites in their respective countries. A negotiated settlement must be acceptable to both Russia and the U.S., otherwise there is a chance that one of them will block its conclusion or implementation.

Finally, it has to be questioned, whether there is a zone of possible agreement. The positions of both parties are so far mutually exclusive. Substantial compromises are needed from both parties, if a settlement is to be reached and implemented, yet neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is willing to consider seriously a settlement, which would inevitably come short of an envisioned ideal deal.



Throughout history, the lack of congruence between ethnic realities and state boundaries often produced violence. International law should provide more imaginative answers, if it is to prevent new conflicts and help to settle existing conflicts peacefully. So far we witness the sovereignty of states becoming less and less absolute but the concept of territorial integrity remains one of the most rigid principles and rights of international legal order. Current application of international law does not offer solutions capable of satisfying the needs of all parties in conflict. Under the current understanding of international law, the quest of the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians for their own state is very likely not to materialize.

While the OSCE has been successful in numerous East European states, it is difficult to envision its effectiveness in other parts of the world, such as Kosovo, Chechnya or the Caucasus, where weak and undemocratic states often respond to political conflicts violently.

Although the parties to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict signed a cease-fire and accepted international law as a basis for settlement, they have not yet been able to find an acceptable settlement. One of the underlying reasons, as explained in the section on narratives, is that the conflict is not interest-based, but value-based and values are non-negotiable. It is not proposals for settlement that are currently lacking in the negotiating process, rather real will and power to conclude and implement any settlement is absent.[44] While it is ultimately the responsibility of the parties to the conflict to reach a settlement, the conflicting interests of the U.S. and Russia and the reluctance of the international community to engage international peacekeeping forces did contribute to the current unsatisfying status quo significantly.

Though there still are some incentives for the parties to reach a final settlement, as time passes by, the conflict may increasingly resemble Cyprus or, given that brief military operations will be carried out, the Arab-Israeli conflict. The continuing instability in the region will not allow the weak states in the Southern Caucasus to consolidate and develop democratic institutions capable of preventing further conflicts. Weak and instable states will be an easy prey for Russian neo-imperial ambitions. Continuing instability will make the region (sometimes seen as a periphery of the globalized world) increasingly prone to organized crime. Yet, its integration into the global economy will take place but in a perverse way.

[1] Walker, Christopher J: “The Armenian presence in mountainous Karabakh,” in Transcaucasian Boundaries, John F Wright, Suzanne Goldenberg, Rochard Schofield (eds), (New York, St Martin’s Press, 1996), 89-112; Alijarly, Sulejman: “The republic of Azerbaijan: notes on the state borders in the past and present,” in Transcaucasian Boundaries, John F Wright, Suzanne Goldenberg, Rochard Schofield (eds), (New York, St Martin’s Press, 1996), 113-133.

[2] Donabedian, Patrick: “Ancient and medieval Karabakh,” in Armenia and Karabakh: The struggle for unity, ed Christopher J. Walker,  (London, Minority Rights Group, 1991), 79.

[3] Donabedian, Patrick: “Ancient and medieval Karabakh,” in Armenia and Karabakh: The struggle for unity, ed Christopher J. Walker,  (London, Minority Rights Group, 1991), 81.

[4] Croissant, Michael P.: The Armenia – Azerbaijan Conflict: Conflict and Implications (Westport, Praeger, 1998), 11.

[5] Libaridian, Gerard J.: “Postscript” in:  Armenia at the Crossroads: Democracy and Nationhood in the Post-Soviet Era (Watertown, MA, Blue Crane Books, 1991), 160.

[6] Pipes, Richard: The Formation of the Soviet Union  (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1997, 6th printing), 208.

[7] Pietzonka, Barbara: Ethnisch-territoriale Konflikte in Kaukasien: Eine politisch-geographische Systematisierung (Baden Baden, Nomos, 1995), 82.

[8] In mid sixties, a group of Armenian Karabakhis started in Moscow and Yerevan campaigning for greater autonomy of Nagorno Karabakh (especially cultural and linguistic) and later for its unification with Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. In: Nagorno Karabakh: A white paper, section Karabagh as a Distinct Entity,; accessed October 8, 2000; Swietochowski, Tadeusz: Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition (New York, Columbia University Press, 1995), 182 .

[9] Rutland, Peter: “Democracy and Nationalism in Armenia,” in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 5, 1994, 842.

[10] Mollazade, Jeyhun: “The Legal Aspects of the Karabakh Conflict”,, accessed 9 December 2000.

[11] Mollazade, Jeyhun: “The Legal Aspects of the Karabakh Conflict”,, accessed 9 December 2000.

[12] Manasjan, A.S.: “Konflikt mezhdu Azerbaidzanom i NKR v pravovom kontekste raspada SSSR” (Conflict between Azerbaijan and NKR in legal context of the dissolution of USSR), in: Status Nagornogo Karabacha v politiko-pravovych dokumentach i materialach, (Yerevan 1995), 18.

[13] Azerbaijan: Seven Years of War (Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, New York, 1994), 4-5.

[14] MacFarlane, S.  Neil and Minear, Larry: Humanitarian Action and Politics: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh, (Occasional Paper #25, Thomas J.  Watson Jr.  Institute for International Studies, Brown University, Providence, 1997), 124.

[15] Laitin, David D and Suny, Robert Grigor: “Armenia and Azerbaijan: Thinking a Way out of Karabakh,” in: Middle East Policy Journal,, accessed 8 October 2000.

[16] Presentation by Armenian Ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Kirakossian, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, 11 October 2000.

[17] Buchanan, Allen: Secession: The morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec (Boulder, Westview Press, 1991), 152-153.

[18] Azerbaijan: Seven Years of War (Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, New York, 1994), xiv.

[19] Zargarian, Rouben: “International Legal Status of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh” in: Contrasts and Solutions in the Caucasus, Ole Hoiris and Sefa Martin Yürükel (eds) (Aarhus University Press, 1998), 343.

[20] Pietzonka, Barbara: Ethnisch-territoriale Konflikte in Kaukasien: Eine politisch-geographische Systematisierung, (Baden Baden, Nomos, 1995), 126.

[21] Kurbanov, Erdjan: „Mezhdunarodnoje pravo o samoopredelenii i konflikt v Nagornom Karabache“, accessed 10 December 2000.

[22] Yamskov, A.  N.: “Ethnic Conflict in the Transcaucasus: The case of Nagorno Karabakh,” in Theory and Society, Nr 20 (1991), 640.

[23] Götz, Roland and Halbach, Uwe: Daten zur Geographie, Bevölkerung, Politik und Wirtschaft der Republiken der  ehemaligen UdSSR, (Sonderveröffentlichung der BIOSt, February 1992).

[24] Buchanan, Allen: Secession: The morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec (Boulder, Westview Press, 1991), 61.

[25] Based on author’s visit to Nagorno Karabakh in 1997 and on interviews with OSCE personnel and journalists.

[26] Hannum, Hurst: Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination: The Accommodation of Conflicting Rights; (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1996), 33.

[27] Scheckener, Ulrich: Das Recht auf Selbstbestimmung: Ethno-nationale Konflikte und internationale Politik; (Hamburg 1996), 88.

[28] Hannum, Hurst: “The right to autonomy: Chimera or solution?”, accessed 10 December 2000.

[29] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;, retrieved 8 December 2000 and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;, retrieved 8 December, 2000.

[30] Pomerance, Michla: Self-determination in Law and Practice, (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), 14.

[31] Hurst Hannum: “Self-determination, Yugoslavia, and Europe: Old Wine in New Bottles?,”,  accessed 4 October 2000.

[32] Pomerance, Michla: Self-determination in Law and Practice, (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), 16.

[33] Pietzonka, Barbara: Ethnisch-territoriale Konflikte in Kaukasien: Eine politisch-geographische Systematisierung, (Baden Baden, Nomos, 1995) 79-81.

[34] Azerbaijan: Seven Years of War (Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, New York, 1994), 67-73

[35] Mollazade, Jeyhun: “The Legal Aspects of the Karabakh Conflict”,, accessed 9 December 2000.

[36]Hannum, Hurst: “The right to autonomy: Chimera or solution?”, accessed 10 December 2000.

[37] Libaridian, Gerard J.: “Conflict Resolution in the Post-Soviet Era: The Case of Nagorno Karabakh;” draft of paper, February 2000, 13.

[38] Libaridian, Gerard J.: “Conflict Resolution in the Post-Soviet Era: The Case of Nagorno Karabakh;” draft of paper, February 2000, 13.

[39] Baird, Anthony: “An Atmosphere of Reconciliation: A Theory of Resolving Ethnic Conflicts Based on the Transcaucasian Conflicts” in: OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution, (Issue 2.4, November 1999),, accessed 13 October 2000.

[40] Heydar Aliyev: Speech at the Summit OSCE in Lisabon, December 2, 1996;, accessed 9 December 2000.

[41] Starovoitova, Galina: National Self-Determination: Approaches and Case Studies, (Occasional Paper #27, Thomas J.  Watson Jr.  Institute for International Studies, Brown University, Providence, 1997), 68.

[42] It is not clear what does it mean, in NKR in 1997 it was understood as horizontal relations with Azerbaijan and the right to NKR army units, interviews in NKR, September 1997.

[43], accessed 9 December 2000.

[44] For a comprehensive proposal see: Laitin, David D and Suny, Robert Grigor: “Armenia and Azerbaijan: Thinking a Way out of Karabakh,” in: Middle East Policy Journal,, accessed 8 October 2000.


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