Four obstacles to a Nagorno-Karabakh peace

21 January 2016

For many international observers, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may look as though it has gone cold. Although both Armenia and Azerbaijan news sources report that the other repeatedly breaks ceasefire conditions, such claims are largely unverified by independent news sources, and any attributing of blame should be taken with an extremely large pinch of salt. For the most part, violence has been sporadic and has not developed into another full-scale war. Instead, what pertains is stand-off between the two countries – no longer formally at war, but certainly not at peace.

This state of affairs is extremely fragile. Clearly, a long-term peace plan is required, yet statesmen in Yerevan and Baku seem to be incapable of getting round a negotiating table to navigate the road to peace. In fact, they even refuse to let the de facto authorities in Karabakh have a seat at the negotiating table. Naturally, each side blames the other for the failure to find a negotiated solution. In this blog I look at four issues that stop peace talks in their tracks: the zero-sum nature of the conflict, the disinterest of the internal and external actors in resolving it, the tension between the right to self-determination versus territorial sovereignty, and the right of those who have been displaced to return.

  1. Zero-sum game

Anna Hess Sargsyan, who writes for Stratfor, notes thatboth Armenia and Azerbaijan view the conflict as a zero-sum game and are unwilling to make concessions that would lead to any breakthrough in the negotiation process”. This is to say, the reason why a breakthrough has not been made is that a mutually beneficial outcome has not been sold to both parties. Instead, any gain that one side could make is perceived as a loss for the other. In any kind of conflict resolution, this is a disastrous starting point. In a zero-sum game, there can only be a winner and a loser. A large part of resolving a conflict is to convince each side that there is a non-zero-sum scenario available – one in which the two sides can cooperate for mutual gains. Such mutual gains could include a reduction in the loss of human life, money saved from each state’s defence budget, or a positive trade relationship between the two countries.

However, Armenia and Azerbaijan cannot seem to break the negative attitudes that each country, at both the official and civil society level, have for each other. In research undertaken by Aram Terzyan and Narek Galstyan, it was found that the majority of Armenians brand Azerbaijan as the country’s main enemy and that the President, Serzh Sargsyan, has repeatedly described Azerbaijan as destructive and uncommitted to a negotiated outcome to the conflict. Similarly, it was found that twenty percent of Azerbaijanis believed that the use of force to find a solution to the Karabakh conflict was “very likely” with a further thirteen percent believing it to be “rather likely”. Put simply, this is an attitude, by both countries, that is far more concerned with relative gains against each other than the possibility of absolute gains together. This must change before progress can be made.

  1. Disinterested Actors

Another reason why a resolution to the Karabakh conflict has not been forthcoming is that there are very few states who feel that they would benefit from an agreement. Of course, in a vacuum, peace is better than the current state of affairs. However, this does not account for the self-interest of elites in Yerevan and Baku, as well as other stakeholders in the region. Anna Hess Sargsyan argues that:

Azerbaijan continues to buy time through the negotiations while strengthening its economy through its oil assets and isolating Armenia from major regional energy projects… With a view to taking over Nagorno-Karabakh militarily, Azerbaijan is continuously upgrading its military arsenal. Despite heavy political and socioeconomic costs of the conflict, Azerbaijan is not interested in resolving the situation through the existing negotiation format”.

Similarly, she argues that Yerevan also shuns a negotiated peace:

Despite the high economic costs of the conflict, the Armenian government does not seem to be interested in achieving a real breakthrough…The status quo gives Nagorno-Karabakh the space to exercise its right to self-determination, even if it’s largely isolated and internationally unrecognised. The de facto NK authorities hope that over time, the independence of NK will become a fait accompli and that their territory will eventually be recognized internationally as an established state”.

For Armenia, the status quo is a continuation of the perceived victory that they gained in 1994 and they are not likely to give it up without a very favourable deal. Similarly, Azerbaijan’s strong military would easily outmuscle Armenia in a conventional war, and they are therefore unlikely to make concessions without receiving their goals. Each side feels that they hold the upper hand, and to negotiate for a ‘bad’ deal would be a very politically unpopular move domestically. Therefore, the result is the stalemate that we see today.

Similarly, other stakeholders in the region show little desire to resolve the conflict. The OSCE Minsk Group, chaired by Russia, America, and France, was created to find a peaceful solution to the conflict 23 years ago, has made little headway in recent years. Eduard Abrahamyan argues that Russia deliberately tries to disrupt the work of the group:

The main goal of Putin’s policy is to preclude the political influence and activity of Western powers in unsettled conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh. The Kremlin’s purpose is to marginalize and to distance itself from the OSCE Minsk Group…Putin strongly believes that settlement of the South Caucasian conflicts…[is] Russia’s prerogative only”.

Russia constantly looks to assert its power in the region and feels that multilateral solutions with NATO members are against its national interest. America and France seems to be disinterested in provoking Russia in its back yard, and the West’s reliance on Turkey – a strong ally of Azerbaijan – in the conflicts in the Middle East, make them unwilling to trade political capital over Karabakh. Without the forces of power politics to help broker a deal, the chances of breaking the political deadlock are slim.

The Armenian presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev have met several times but are yet to find a breakthrough. The Karabakh representatives are left out of negotiations.
The Armenian presidents Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev have met several times but are yet to find a breakthrough. The Karabakh representatives are left out of negotiations. Source:
  1. Territory versus self-determination

This issue goes right to the heart of the ‘Purposes and Principles’ of the UN Charter and is the crux of why the Karabakh conflict is so difficult to resolve. Article One (2) of the Charter speaks of the purpose of the UN being to develop the principle of the “self-determination of peoples”, while Article Two (4) asserts that members should refrain from “the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. Armenia’s position is that because at least 95% percent of the 140,000 residents of Karabakh are ethnically Armenian that any settlement “must be based on recognition of the [people’s] right to self-determination” and that the region should be “internationally guaranteed” and “should have uninterrupted land communication with Armenian”. They argue that Karabakh has only been part of Azerbaijan since 1923 when Stalin had arbitrarily awarded it to the Azeris. In 1991, 99.89% of the electorate in Karabakh voted for independence from Azerbaijan. Furthermore, Freedom House gives the autonomous region a higher ‘Freedom in the World’ score than it does Azerbaijan – rating the former ‘partially free’ and the latter ‘not free’.

Azerbaijan, on the other hand, believes thatthe occupation of the territory of [Azerbaijan] with its internationally recognized boundaries” must be rectified before any peace can be considered – after the 1994 ceasefire, Azerbaijan lost 14% its territory. They argue that claims of self-determination are a “false problem… [and that] the ethnocentric nationalism used as a tool to breakdown the national States is groundless.” This issue gets even more complicated when considering the territories around Karabakh, which Armenia is also annexing, citing reasons of security and the need of a common border. As we can see, the two states cannot even engage in a dialogue that accepts which core principle should have priority, each using their own as a basis for negotiating.

Key: Yellow – Territory of Azrbaijan occupied by Armenia, Dark Green – Territory of Armenia controlled by Azerbaijan, Red – Territory of Karabakh controlled by Armenia. Source:

Of course, there are models for scenarios in which land is disputed in this way. The so-called ‘Willy’s Plan’, which was first proposed in 1919 gave the people of Karabakh a great degree of autonomy and “envisaged the transformation of N-K into some “Special Zone” within Azerbaijan under a sort of US protectorate”. Similarly, the case study of the Aland Islands, which was disputed between Finland and Sweden, is often cited. In this case the League of Nations gave Finland the territory but also “the responsibility of guaranteeing to the population of the islands the preservation of the Swedish language, customs and traditions and the development of Swedish culture”. The Islands have special checks and balances to make sure they are not being spoken for erroneously by the government of Finland. Both of these models have been rejected by Armenia, Azerbaijan or Karabakh. Again, it seems as though there is a lack of willingness to make the sorts of compromises that would be required to reach an agreement.

  1. Right of Return

Finally, the right of those who lost their homes in or after the war to return remains a major obstacle to peace. After Armenia’s military victory in 1994, it occupied Karabakh, the Lachin Corridor – which gave it a connection to mainland Armenia – and seven Azeri districts as a “buffer zone” for the strategic defence of Karabakh. This conflict caused some 360,000 ethnic Armenians living in Azerbaijan, 250,000 ethnic Azeris living in Armenia, and 586,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Karabakh and the adjacent occupied territories, to seek refuge. However, as Tabib Huseynov correctly asserts, this is a lop-sided issue – it is far more important to Azerbaijan than it is to Armenia. He argues that:

“For most Azerbaijanis, regardless of whether they are displaced or not, return of displaced Azeris to the places of their [homes], is a critical component without which no peace proposal can hold. Accordingly, Baku treats [it] as a second major conflict resolution goal after the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity.”

Armenia, however, has very few refugees (around 3000). Those who fled Azerbaijan in the early 1990s no longer claim refugee status for three main reasons: mass onward emigration out of Armenia (largely to Russia), the granting of Armenian citizenship and an acceptance by the Armenian government that they no longer harboured any realistic ambition of returning to Azerbaijan.

This is an issue that must be resolved as quickly as possible. It only takes a cursory glance at the Arab-Israeli conflict to see that the right of return can explode into a completely unmanageable situation if left to fester for decades. Populations can grow quickly and hatred is passed down generations, sometimes with more fervour than before. Huseunov argues that “return will certainly not be an easy process…But time should not be wasted, because in the Karabakh conflict time works against the long-term interests of everyone”.

Individually none of these four issues are irresolvable. However, together they provide little hope that a peaceful solution to the Karabakh question will be forthcoming.



Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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