Fighting drags on in Nagorno-Karabakh: is there a way forward?

The world is currently being shaken by a deadly pandemic, turbulent U.S. elections and escalating tensions in the Mediterranean. Among these developments, it is easy to lose sight of the current conflict being waged between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although clashes between the two nations are not new, the current iteration of fighting has proven more vicious and enduring than previous skirmishes. As of now clashes continue to rock the South Caucasus region. Ceasefires have been established, and broken. The death toll continues to rise on both sides. Pressure is mounting to suspend the brutal fighting and initiate peace talks. But before discussing matters of peace, it is crucial to understand the perspectives of the two nations engaged in the fighting, and to come to some sort of understanding of the antipathy that permeates the region.

Azerbaijan’s case

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia emerged as states in 1918, but were required to forcibly cede their territory to the Ottoman Empire during the very same year. The Ottomans, in turn, were defeated in World War One and signed the Treaty of Sevres, dividing the empire and forcing the Oblast (i.e. “region”) of Karabkh into British hands. What Azerbaijan points out is that The Karabakh National Assembly (which consisted of both ethnic Armenians and Azeris) then voted to exist under Azerbaijani administration, which the British agreed to.

Soon after, the Bolsheviks swooped in and took over the government of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Because Russia was attempting to curry favour with Turkey at the time – who held complete contempt for the Armenians – the Treaty of Moscow was signed. The signatories included the Bolshevik-controlled states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, and stated firmly that the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast would be an autonomously governed territory under Azerbaijan’s protection. In other words, Nagorno-Karabkh was now officially part of Azerbaijan. This was further reinforced with The Treaty of Kars, signed by the same parties (although at this stage they were known as the Soviet Socialist Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan).

Azerbaijan points out that under international law, a country can only gain territory through a few select methods (three to be exact). A country can occupy land that nobody resides on. It can also gain territory if the citizens of the land are thoroughly oppressed enough to warrant self-determination and as a consequence determine to go with them. And finally, it can control land that is ceded to them. Azerbaijan argues that the Nagorno-Karabakh territory was rightfully transferred to them. The Ottomans gave up the territory to the British, who permitted the people themselves to decide who would rule over the region. A vote was held, and the people chose Azerbaijan. This was done legally under international law. Twice.

This status quo held for the remainder of the USSR’s existence. But amid the passing decades, something interesting occurred. The Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabkh swelled. Indeed, by the late 1980s, they made up an estimated 75% of the population. At this point, the autonomous government of Nagorno-Karabakh appealed to the Soviet Union to allow for Armenian rule of the region. This was denied. Violence erupted as a result, and a deadly war was waged over the territory. Azerbaijan’s claim is simple: international law dictates that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to us. Just because a certain piece of land is dominated by a people who desire to secede, does not mean that their wish must be granted. Countless nations across the world deal with this same problem. What kind of precedent would it set if any inkling toward self-determination afforded a right to independence? Finally, Azerbaijan argues that Turkey’s presence in the conflict is not unwarranted or illegal. Article 51 of the U.N. Charter permits its intervention so long as Azerbaijan consents. The only country breaking international law is Armenia, who according to U.N. Charter, are illegally using force against the territory of another state.

Armenia’s case

In 1991, a referendum was held to determine the independence of Nagorno Karabakh, and 82.2% of registered voters voted in favour of independence. Azerbaijan refused to honour this referendum, opting to wage war upon Armenia instead, which resulted in the death of approximately 30,000 people and many more thousands displaced. Armenia argues that Azerbaijan’s actions have repeatedly denied the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh their right to self-determination and their right to live freely and peacefully, from the moment independence was agreed to the present day; and the only way to bring peace to the region is if Azerbaijan recognise this right to self-determination.

The Nagorno-Karabakh is presently controlled by the internationally unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, which functions as a de facto part of Armenia. Although Artsakh has not been recognised as an official state by any UN member state, they have ruled the Nagorno-Karabakh region since 1994 when a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces was called. Artsakh is actively supported by Armenia and run by indigenous Armenians, and the Armenian population living in the region have said that they will never consent to living under Azerbaijan ruling.

The right to self-determination is contentious under international law, with complex and confusing precedent. However, the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been populated by indigenous Armenians for millennia, and Armenia argues that it has a historic claim to self-determination. Chapter One of the UN Charter gives all groups the right to self-determination, which is what Armenia’s case for this right rests on. Furthermore, the Montevideo Convention 1993 restated customary international law on the criteria required for statehood, and Armenia argues that all have been met for Artsakh to be an independent state. The criteria are as follows: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter relationships with other states. Artsakh has a population of around 250,000, with the territory being well-established and defined, not having changed since the 1990s. Artsakh is a presidential democracy and has held fair democratic general elections since 1995, with their most recent being in March this year. Finally, Artsakh has been engaged in eight diplomatic missions in other countries, fulfilling all of the criteria laid down in international law.

The Velvet Revolution in 2018 brought about a change in Armenian attitude, for those in both Armenia and Artsakh, and has ignited the fight for self-determination. For Armenians, it is clear that the fundamental human rights of those living in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot continue to be violated by Azerbaijan.

The current crisis

Violence in the Caucasus region erupted once again on September 27th 2020 along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Conflict, when Armenia claimed that Azerbaijan fired the first shots by launching air raids and attacks. On the other hand, Azerbaijan stated that these attacks were a “counter-offensive in response to military provocation”. This has now proved to be the deadliest fighting seen in the region since the 1990s. With support from Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan forces have been able to make use of many new means of war, deploying drones, sensors and long-range heavy artillery. Reports have also stated that Azerbaijan forces are also using cluster munition, which is explicitly banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions (neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia have signed this treaty, however, the ban on cluster bombs is widely accepted as being reflected in Customary International Law which binds all States, irrespective of whether they have signed the treaty). Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of also using these types of weapons. Around 70,000 people, almost half the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, have been displaced due to this recent outbreak of violence, and the death toll on both sides is now estimated to be in the region of almost 5,000, although the official numbers reported by Azerbaijan and Armenia forces are much lower.

Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, has recently vowed to “fight until the end” if ethnic Armenian forces refuse to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. The fear of a regional conflict is now mounting. Turkey is directly engaged in the fighting, supporting their Turkic allies in Azerbaijan by sending over Syrian mercenaries. Russia has also vowed to back Armenia once the conflict affects Armenia’s sovereignty.

Three ceasefires have thus far been agreed to and subsequently broken by forces on both sides of the conflict; it is clear that a short-term peace solution is not the way forward in mediating the conflict and bringing peace to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both sides have refused to recognize how diplomacy may settle the conflict, opting to continue military action instead.

The way forward

The bloodshed and lives lost cannot continue, and a new, fair peace deal must be brokered to end the conflict for good.

First, we must acknowledge that peace is possible in the region. The two states have existed peacefully together far longer than they have been at war. Unlike some reporters who enjoy describing the conflict as an intractable, ethnic and/or religious clash of historic proportions, the truth is that Armenia and Azerbaijan’s disagreements are largely political, and only emerged after lines were drawn across the territory. Thus, an end to fighting can certainly be reached with diplomacy.

Because the flames of nationalism have been stoked so heavily in both nations, both Pashinyan and Aliyev don’t want to risk ending up empty handed. Any one-sided concessions to the other side would be regarded as a national disgrace. Therefore, it is critical that a peace deal is mutually beneficial for both parties. Both leaders will need to begin speaking in the language of deals as opposed to concessions, especially when so many lives are on the line. However, this should not be confused with an abdication of responsibility by both nation’s governments. There must a desire to foster peace and a willingness to reach this goal, and this means softening the pugnacious language exchanged by both sides, along with pursuing a concerted effort to reach out to the international sphere for assistance.

The international community can play a pivotal role in assuaging the conflict and offering a way forward. With both Armenia and Azerbaijan so steadfast in their convictions and rhetoric, the need for outside mediators is more acute than ever. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, France, Russia and the U.S., can work towards making this happen. Specifically, they can refer back to the commitments made in 2016 following a previous period of conflict, which promised to re-initiate a peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is not such an implausible prospect – given that both Pashinyan and Aliyev sat down together to discuss reducing tensions between the two states as recently as 2018.

In order for a peace deal to be reached, the world must be willing to make the conflict a priority. While a host of other issues have justifiably caught the attention of the major international actors, they cannot forget that Nagorno-Karabakh is a powder-keg; one that could conceivably erupt into a far larger and more lethal conflict of global proportions. International engagement must therefore come with a sense of urgency.

Of course, before any longer-term peace deal can be initiated, the first step must be a robust ceasefire. In order for one to be effective, it must be supported by the U.N., and must include an on-the-ground ceasefire monitoring system. But once the guns stop firing, talks must begin immediately. The fact that both parties are beginning fresh talks in Geneva is a promising sign, and already they have agreed to avoid the intentional targeting of civilians. However, both sides must now muster the courage to agree on halting the use of banned weapons, delegitimising military gains as bargaining tool in negotiations, and emphasising the role of international law in the conflict.

Ultimately, when it comes to long-term solutions, both leaders must return to the “Basic Principles” agreed to by both sides in 2009. Also known as a “land for peace” agreement, the basic principles call for, according to the Atlantic Council:

“For the return of Azerbaijan’s control of its seven Armenia-occupied territories surrounding Nagorno Karabakh in exchange for Nagorno Karabakh gaining a temporary legal status, which would be finalized at an indeterminate time in the future by a vote of the region’s population. The ethnic Armenian residents of Nagorno Karabakh would also obtain security guarantees in the form of international peacekeepers and a transit corridor connecting Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia.”

Only a couple of years ago, Armenia’s leader had pledged to see to it that these principles were finalised. Azerbaijan’s leader also appeared to be on board, with both sides agreeing that the next step was to convince their respective populations of such a prospect (a daunting task, granted). It has only been over the past year that this agreement has slipped into obscurity. While disheartening, it also means that there is a potential way forward for the country. Peace and security are not out of reach in the region. Let us hope that both leaders assemble the courage to return to these basic principles and put an end to the cruelty of war.

This blog entry was written by Research Officers Alexander Shah and Lara Ibrahim and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Next Century Foundation.