The International Crisis Group recently published a comprehensive report titled “Nagorno-Karabakh’s Gathering War Clouds”. One of the key messages of the report was the looming threats of large scale war in the South Caucasus because of this conflict. The report referred also to the growing militarization in South Caucasus and the stalemate stemming from the unsuccessful negotiation process, which was indeed bogged down due to unconstructive position of Armenia and the political procrastination of the mediator countries. The protraction of status-quo in the conflict zone emboldens the parties to the conflict to bolster their military capabilities. The period since April was marked another “a lost year” for settling the conflict. Both sides have “nuclear weapons” of sorts, but it is unlikely that they would use those weapons against one another in a haphazard manner. “Iskander” tactical missiles (which can carry nuclear warheads too) were donated to Armenia by Russia, and is a frequently discussed topic in terms of their potential threats to the regional stability. Meanwhile, the acquisition of “Iskanders” is usually justified by the Armenian side through misleading arguments about trying to tie it to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But Armenia’s ability to wield a military arsenal does not empower official Yerevan to abscond international law in the framework of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Nagorno-Karabakh region is internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan occupied during 1998-1994 Karabakh War by Armenian armed forces and separatist forces which is supposed to be part of the self-proclaimed “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” established on the basis of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and surrounding seven occupied regions of Azerbaijan (which had never constituted the part of NKAO). Their so-called “statehood” is not recognised by any of international actors or state- not even by Armenia. The unilateral institutional secession of NKAO from Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was conducted by both Armenia Soviet Socialist Republic and NKAO in between 1988 and 1992, first under the thesis of “reunification” with Armenia, but later the “independence” of NKAO from Azerbaijan under the “self-determination” clause. It was rejected by Azerbaijan SSR and Supreme Soviet of USSR did not authorize the proposed unification/secession without Azerbaijan’s consent due to its illegality and but remaining under the Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.
History of the conflict backs to the period when the Nagorno-Karabakh Khanate went under the Russian rule in accordance with the “Treaty of Kurakchay” (1805) signed between Ibrahim Khalil, Khan of Karabakh Khanate and General Pavel Sisianov, representative of the Russian Emperor. After the Gulustan (1813) and Turkmanchay (1828) peace treaties between Russia and Iran, very rapid massive resettlement of Armenians in the region took place and the subsequent artificial territorial division emerged. After the Bolsheviks invaded the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1918–1920), the Russian Communist Party decided to grant Nagorno-Karabakh the status of an “autonomous region” within the territory of Azerbaijan SSR. The administrative boundary line of the NKAO was defined in such a way as to carve out the Azerbaijani villages and artificially create a new demographic situation in the region. Armenia’s territorial claims towards Azerbaijan, besides Karabakh, extended to the Nakhchivan region and also to the Akhalkalaki and Borchaly regions of Georgia. The demographic picture of the region was changed between 1828-1973, at the expense of the immigration of Armenians living in Iran and Turkey, and the forcible resettlement of the Azerbaijani population from Armenian SSR to Azerbaijan SSR, as well asthe large-scale massacres against Azerbaijanis during1905-1918. Soviet authorities remained blind to the artificial change of demographic composition of the region and the massacres, which consequently set at odds both Azerbaijani and Armenia nations.
Armenia whimpers for “illegal blockade” of the country’s borders by Azerbaijan, though this policy is backed by the United Nations’ charter. Article 41 of the charter clearly points to the right of any country faced aggression to isolate aggressor party through “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations”. If these measures have proved to be inadequate, then according to Article 42, adequate “action by air, sea, or land forces may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security through demonstrations, blockade, and other operations”. Article 51 describes the inherent right of individual self-defense, should an armed attack occur against a member of the United Nations. Resolutions of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and General Assembly (2008) -along with a commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan – evidently articulated the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory. Those resolutions also condemn the occupation of Azerbaijan’s districts and demand the complete and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces from the Azerbaijan’s occupied territories. The UNSC made it absolutely clear that the unilateral declaration of independence through the occupation of sovereign territories is invalid. Armenia implemented none of the resolutions.
The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on the case of “Chiragov and others vs. Armenia” attested the international non-recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh; Armenia’s military presence in and support for Nagorno-Karabakh; high integration of the armed forces of Armenia and the “NKR”; and the survival of the “NKR” by virtue of military, political and financial support from Armenia – which, consequently, exercises effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied territories. The “effective control” is conditio sine qua non, i.e. one the indispensable indicators of an occupation of sovereign territories of one country by another hostile one (once territory comes under the effective control of the foreign armed forces, the laws on occupation are applicable).
The agreement on and the charter of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as the Alma Ata Declaration, which were signed by former Soviet republics including Armenia, underlined the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states; the inviolability and recognition of states’ existing frontiers; and the inadmissibility of illegal acquisition of territories. Article 12 of the CIS’s charter declares that, should a threat to sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of one member states arise, then that member state shall immediately employ mechanisms to undertake measures, including the use of the armed forces pursuant to Article 51 of UN Charter (right for individual self-protection), to eliminate the threat.
Armenia’s attempts to secede Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan through military methods clearly failed to meet international standards on “self-determination”. The principle of “self-determination” does not imply a right of secession in the international law, but it appears in the UN Charter under the condition of development of friendly relations among nations (Article 1.2) or in the context of foreign military occupations (Article 55). Internationally recognized nature of the principle of self-determination neither authorises secession through prejudicing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states; nor does it entail any legal norms granting ethnic groups and minorities the right to secede with a view to becoming a separate international entity. This is against the primacy of the principle of territorial integrity and political unity of sovereign states. Azerbaijan repeatedly voiced that the changing the internationally recognized borders of the country could be decided through the nationwide referendum, in accordance with the requirements of the Azerbaijan’s Constitution (Article 3.II.2).
In accordance with the universally recognized uti possidetis juris doctrine, former Soviet republics are recognized as new independent states and accepted to the UN as a full-fledged member with borders previously existing within the USSR. The fundamental aim of uti possidetis principle is to underpin the legitimation of statehood/independence/sovereignty of new entity under international law with the previous international boundaries and territorial base at the moment when independence is achieved from the colonial power. Although, before World War II, uti possidetis was deemed an option for peoples to split from the mother state as an independent entity even through the “war”, since 1945 the international community has refrained from endorsing unilateral secession, due to concerns over guaranteeing the territorial integrity of states. Thus, the UN has not accepted as a member any state created by unilateral secession—such as Tibet, Kashmir, Chechnya, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, the unlawful attempts of “reunification” with Armenia or unilateral secession of NKAO without Azerbaijan’s consent were invalid in the light of the applicable law. On 30 August 1991, Azerbaijan SSR adopted a declaration on the restoration of state independence (even before NKAO did the same). Accordingly, Azerbaijan came to independence with the territory and borders that it was recognised as having as Azerbaijan SSR within USSR.
Over the past decades, Armenia has continued its military build-up and illegal economic activities in the Azerbaijan’s occupied territories. It has deployed there hundreds undeclared military hardware and military personnel and conducted large-scale military exercises therein. These activities have shattered the expectations for an achievement of a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The international community overwhelmingly rejects Armenia’s attempts to present the unlawful separatist entity it established in the occupied territories as an “independent state” and refuses to recognize as legitimate the situation created through the use of force against the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
Nonetheless, Armenia tries to portray the April fighting in 2016 as “Azerbaijan’s military aggression”, the military response provided by Azerbaijani army were merely counteroffensive operation in response to the large-scale military provocation of Armenian armed forces along the line of contact. This was confirmed by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev at the meeting with a group of Azerbaijani army servicemen on the anniversary of the April fighting. This demonstrated that “territorial occupation” is vulnerable due to a changing military balance in the region that is in favour of Azerbaijan right now.
During the April battles, Armenia was abandoned from the military and political support of its allies within Collective Security Treaty Organisation, including Russia. President Aliyev underlined that “The events that are occurring and may occur in Nagorno-Karabakh and on all our occupied lands are our internal affairs. No international organization or country can interfere in our internal affairs. Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized by the whole world and the Minsk Group co-chair countries as an integral part of Azerbaijan”. Aliyev stressed that Azerbaijan demonstrated only a small fraction of its capabilities in the April battles, adding – unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan does not, for the sake of propaganda, demonstrate its newly ordered and purchased weapons possessing high precision and destructive power.
Armenian diaspora has been long lobbying the U.S. foreign policy in hopes that the United States might demonstrate a “pro-Armenian” stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Due to those lobbying efforts, Congress restricted U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan through Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. Whereas, due to the geopolitical importance of Azerbaijan, the restrictive dimension of Section 907 was partially waived on the condition of assistance to Azerbaijan when it is necessary to support the U.S. to counter international terrorism and important to provide the security of Azerbaijan’s borders. It was Armenian diaspora who stormed the statement (2014) of John Heffern, former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia and current U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, on “the return of the territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan”. After Donald Trump came to the White House, he signed a decree banning administration officials from lobbying the United States on behalf of foreign governments. Those who would lobby for the interests of Armenia in the U.S. foreign policy, as former Senators Claiborne Pell and Robert Dole, as well as John Kerry and Joseph Biden did, would simultaneously harm the Washington’s interests.
Instead of stepping up with the constructive proposals, the Armenian government is hitherto pushing a small scope of initiatives to gain time for consolidation of its military-political position on the conflict. Armenia’s attempts to annex Nagorno-Karabakh, the territorial gain at the expense of sovereign territories of neighbouring country, its forcible displacement of Azerbaijanis, its altering the demographic structure of the occupied territories (with settlement of Syrian Armenians), and its demolishing the Azerbaijan’s cultural and historical heritage will not bring prosperity neither to Armenia nor to the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Self-determination implies neither an ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis nor the complete Armenianisation and de-Azerbaijanisaiton of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories. Although the conflict has usually been portrayed as religiously motivated and has depicted “Armenians” as a sole victim, it should be noted that there are around 1 million Azerbaijanis who have had to abandon their homeland and seen their historical legacy destroyed behind. It is unlikely to reach a peace agreement which reckons for breaching the constitutional order and state sovereignty of Azerbaijan. Additionally, the continued military occupation with annexationist aspirations and hectic militarisation of Armenia to counterbalance Azerbaijan’s military capacity promises a new threat of military escalation in the region.
None of these things have generated a tangible result so far. Instead, they have merely misled the negotiations and wasted time that could have been better spent on constructively engaging in a conflict settlement process capable of spawning sustainable peace.
This article is originally published in The National Interest – Will Violence Increase Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?