Life at the Heart of a Frozen Conflict: How does Nagorno-Karabakh’s Unrecognised Status Affect its Residents?  | HART Prize for Human Rights

April 21st, 2015

Life at the Heart of a Frozen Conflict: How does Nagorno-Karabakh’s Unrecognised Status Affect its Residents? | HART Prize for Human Rights

This essay, by Helen Lilley, was shortlisted in the HART Prize for Human Rights Senior Essay Category. View more entries here

In February 1988, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh came out to demonstrate in favour of leaving the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic and unifying with the Armenian SSR. Although Armenians formed the majority of the the population of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, the demographic balance had been gradually changing in favour of Azerbaijanis since Stalin assigned the region to the Azerbaijan SSR in 1923.[1] Relations between the two populations had been relatively peaceful since well before the Soviet period. Both within Nagorno-Karabakh itself and in surrounding regions, Armenians and Azerbaijanis had coexisted for hundreds of years with a high degree of multilingualism and shared cultural practices.[2] This is important to note, because it puts the ‘frozen conflict’ of the last twenty years into a context, not of inter-ethnic hatred and violence since time immemorial, but of a relatively recent nationalistic fervour manufactured to a large extent by national leaderships and exploited by international actors. For this reason the Nagorno-Karabakh region cannot be studied in isolation; its politics and economy are closely linked to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the roles of international actors must not be ignored. It is important not just to take into account the current inhabitants of the region, but also those that have been displaced by the conflict. This essay will examine the reasons why Nagorno-Karabakh has existed as an unrecognised, de facto state for over twenty years, and assess the effect this has had on democratisation, development and prospects for reconciliation.

Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1991 but has only been recognised as independent by three other non-recognised states: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria. The ongoing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh’s status can be simplified to a conflict between two fundamental principles regarding statehood: tnational self-determination and territorial integrity. Essentially, the Armenian party claims the right to national self-determination, whereas Azerbaijan demands international recognition of its territorial integrity in the face of Armenian aggression within Nagorno-Karabakh and in the surrounding regions. Many reasons have been suggested for the inability of the OSCE Minsk Group to resolve the conflict, principally geopolitical rivalry between the co-chairs,[3] the lack of experience or resources to provide a peace-keeping force,[4] the inability of civil society and women within track two peace-building to influence track one negotiations,[5] and the lack of political will and mutual suspicion on the part of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships.[6] In the meantime, however, ordinary civilians of both nationalities have suffered and will continue to suffer enormously until the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved and the conditions for peaceful coexistence are created.

As long as Nagorno-Karabakh remains an unrecognised state, the process of democratisation will inevitably be hindered, which negatively impacts the observance of human rights in the region. While elections have been held since 1991, these are fundamentally flawed in that they exclude the voice of the former residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani population that left during the mutual deportations of the late 1980s.[7] Even if the Azerbaijani population were somehow present however, they would be unable to participate in a civic democracy as the whole discourse of identity and ownership is predicated on Armenian ethnicity, rather than civic norms.[8] Despite the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh asserts its independence, the mobility of soldiers and politicians between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, the use of Armenian currency and even the republican flag, which depicts the flag of Armenia with a detached section waiting to be fitted back together like a jigsaw, all indicate the ethnic basis of Nagorno-Karabakh identity and therefore the impossibility of democracy.

The UN is predicated on respect for territorial integrity and thus the non-recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh means that it is beyond the reach of international conventions and monitoring. This creates a haven for criminal networks and, compounded by the economic isolation caused by trade embargoes and lack of investment, results in a large black-market economy.[9] Black-marketeers are not, however, the only actors to take advantage of the lack of transparency in an unrecognised state; the war in the early 1990s facilitated the emergence of “entrepreneurs of violence” who capitalised on the lawlessness for their own criminal ends.[10] In the relative peace that followed, there have been frequent rumours of illicit activities taking place within Nagorno-Karabakh, from drug smuggling to the hiding of Kurdish leaders.[11] It is unclear whether the overwhelming majorities reported in Nagorno-Karabakh elections are due to high satisfaction, a siege mentality or authoritarianism; the lack of transparency in these processes, however, is most certainly due to isolation brought about by non-recognition.[12]

Armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has left huge material destruction and the ongoing militarisation of the region and the ever-present threat of resuming the conflict have an enormous effect on the lives of civilians. For the population near the borders, snipers from both sides are a real and growing threat. Freizer gives an estimate of approximately 30 deaths per year in the conflict, of which many are due to border snipers.[13] Land mines left from the early 1990s are also a major threat to life in all parts of the republic; according to the Halo Trust, Nagorno-Karabakh has one of the highest per capita rates of mine-related accidents in the world.[14] The fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has never been resolved also means that the many hundreds of thousands of IDPs, particularly in Azerbaijan, are still waiting to return home. In Azerbaijan an estimated one-tenth of the total population are IDPs and, despite the length of time since their deportations and the country’s oil wealth, they have never been fully integrated into Azerbaijani society but remain a marginalised and impoverished group. The exact reasons for this are unclear, but it is believed by many that the Azerbaijani regime have neglected to settle them permanently on the grounds that this would undermine their claim to recover Nagorno-Karabakh and the lands occupied by Armenia, and that they serve a useful political purpose by being kept in poverty.[15]

The unrecognised status of Nagorno-Karabakh clearly has a very negative impact on the residents of the republic in that it inhibits democratisation and economic development, while ongoing militarisation puts innocent lives at risk. The negative effects of the unresolved conflict also extend beyond the borders of the republic to Azerbaijan where hundreds of thousands of IDPs are living in poverty, waiting to return home to Nagorno-Karabakh or the neighbouring regions. It therefore remains to ask what the prospects are for reconciliation. Unfortunately, while civil society actors report some positive outcomes from local peace-building exercises, the broader picture is one of a large-scale dissemination of what Halil Berktay calls “hate narratives”.[16] As the memories of good neighbourly relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis fade into the past, a new generation is growing up that never experienced life before the war and, fed on confrontational government propaganda that seeks to antagonise their respective populations and write the opposing side out of regional history, this generation seems to be moving further apart than the previous one.[17] However, history teaches us that inter-ethnic hostility need not be permanent, and therefore our imperative must be to work to combat the “hate narratives” and work for a new cooperation based on similarities, not differences.

[1]    De Waal, The Caucasus, p.105

[2]    De Waal, The Caucasus, p.102

[3]    De Waal, Black Garden, p.254

[4]    De Waal, The Caucasus, p.124

[5]    Freizer

[6]    Freizer

[7]    De Waal, The Caucasus, p.112, Broers, p.62

[8]    Broers, p.60

[9]    Kosto and Blakkisrud, p.505

[10]  De Waal, The Caucasus, p.116

[11]  De Waal, Black Garden, p.246

[12]  Kosto and Blakkisrud, p.502

[13]  Freizer

[14]  Halo Trust

[15]  De Waal, Black Garden, pp.218-221

[16]  De Waal, The Caucasus, p.106

[17]  Freizer


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Helen Lilley

By Helen Lilley

Shortlisted essay for the HART Prize for Human Rights Senior Essay Category.


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