Opening out against closure – Nagorno-Karabakh’s democracy and the irony of the international reaction

20 July 2015


“In the context of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, we recognize the role of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding their future.  However, none of our three countries, nor any other country, recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state.  Accordingly, we do not accept the results of these ‘elections’ as affecting the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and stress that they in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

So said representatives from the USA, France, and Russia, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, commenting on the Parliamentary elections held in Nagorno-Karabakh in May. This, for elections that over 100 international, independent observers, following the OSCE’s standards, affirmed as “orderly, free, secret and equal” and that were carried out “in a professional and transparent manner”. So why were Nagorno-Karabakh’s elections not recognised as having any legal basis, and what implications do Nagorno-Karabakh’s moves towards democracy have for the peace process?

Elections are important for Nagorno-Karabakh’s understanding of itself as an independent nation. The land that is now Nagorno-Karabakh was given to Azerbaijan by Stalin, as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, but its inhabitants – ethnically overwhelmingly Armenian – never considered themselves part of Azerbaijan. They claim historical legitimacy from the ancient kingdom of Artsakh – “Artsakh” is the name that Armenian inhabitants of the region have chosen for their home. In the 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan’s “Operation Ring” in effect threatened the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population and forced the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh to fight for their very survival. Against this threat, and with the memory of anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku and Sumgait still burning, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan, forming the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) – just as Kosovo declared independence driven by the need to escape the threat of continued ethnic violence. There followed a bloody conflict as Azerbaijan tried to regain control of a region they still regard as part of their territory. Negotiations are still ongoing to reach a permanent peace settlement in this “frozen conflict”, overseen by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Minsk Group. NKR remains internationally unrecognised – friends of NKR say that is largely because Azerbaijan’s petrodollars allow it to fund a powerful propaganda campaign; others say that recognising NKR before a secure peace deal would only risk inflaming the conflict. Either way, an integral part of the peace negotiations is whether or not the state can claim to be an independent, self-governing nation.

NKR’s tradition of democracy stems from and affirms its declaration of independence – it declared itself independent following a referendum which, despite a boycott by the Azeri population, saw 99% of the 82% turnout vote in favour of independence, and the Constitution repeatedly stresses NKR’s right to self-determination and the fact that that right is a democratic one. Ironically, this is one reason why the OSCE doesn’t recognise the elections – to do so would be to acknowledge the democratic processes by which NKR affirms its independence, and thus to condone the declaration on independence. Ironically – because the OSCE itself states that “democratic elections form the basis of legitimate government”, and the encouragement of elections and democratisation form part of the OSCE’s aims. If democratic elections form the basis of legitimate government, then NKR’s elections – which no one except Azerbaijan denies were carried out following all democratic procedures – must surely be allowed to form that basis. The only reason they are considered to be not legitimate is that the international community assumes a priori that any democratic institutions in NKR are invalid. This provides no way for the citizens of NKR to demonstrate their ability to be an independent, democratic state – every time they progress towards democracy, they are told it is not democracy because where they started from was not legitimate. They cannot progress beyond the starting point.

Azerbaijan called the elections a “provocation”, and warned that their going ahead would be a threat to the peace process. One cannot help suspecting that this reaction is partly fuelled by the Azeri regime’s antipathy towards democracy in its own country. Azerbaijan is moving increasingly towards totalitarianism, limiting human rights and cracking down on the media. This in turn allows the Azeri regime to override any criticism of its militant policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh and to silence voices that try to report the truth of the situation in the region rather than the warmongering propaganda put out by Azeri media. A more democratic, open society is less likely to swallow Azeri propaganda and follow the Government’s belligerent lead.

And that is the case for NKR, as well. Freedom House ranked NKR as “partially free” in 2014. Among the main factors limiting freedom is the war-footing on which NKR has been since its very birth. The country remains under martial law, which, in theory, permits media censorship and restrictions on civil liberties. NKR officials maintain that these restrictions have not been effected in practice, but Freedom House believes that NKR journalists often practice self-censorship – largely because, in a society that perceives itself as permanently beset with enemies, criticism of the official line is too easily seen as treacherous. “Given the territory’s uncertain status, dissent—including political opposition—is generally regarded as a sign of disloyalty and a security risk”, Freedom House says. So the OSCE’s refusal to recognise the elections on the grounds that NKR is not a legitimate state may be counter-productive. It only deepens NKR’s isolation and thus potentially fuels nationalism, making a settlement less likely.

It cannot be denied that intransigence and resentment from both the Azerbaijani and the Armenian sides – not necessarily just over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but also other long-running tensions – are perpetuating the conflict. But NKR is making efforts to become more open. Freedom House noted an improvement in NKR’s democracy and civil liberties between the 2010 Parliamentary elections and the 2012 Presidential elections. The evidence from the 2015 elections suggests that this year’s elections were a step further still. And this progress is part of NKR’s increasing openness to the international community. NKR hopes for greater engagement with Europe, for which democracy is, in theory, a prerequisite. But here, again, the odds are stacked against NKR by the international community’s a priori bias against it. “Azerbaijan is a member of the OSCE, Nagorno-Karabakh is not. Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, Nagorno-Karabakh is not,” Märta-Lisa Magnusson, Senior Lecturer of Caucasus studies at Malmö University, points out. These are the very institutions that are meant to be encouraging a peace settlement. NKR’s voice cannot be adequately heard if it is denied democratic legitimacy and membership of these organisations, and denying NKR a voice makes it harder for it to prove its democratic legitimacy and so to become a candidate for membership.

This situation of double-binds and irony was played out when the President of Nagorno-Karabakh visited the UK last week to talk at Chatham House and discuss greater co-operation between the UK and NKR in the House of Lords. The visit caused controversy, as Azerbaijan protested to the British Ambassador, and the UK quickly issued a statement reassuring Azerbaijan that President Sahakyan’s visit was not official, but a private one on the invitation of Chatham House. So the democratically elected President arrived to discuss greater openness while Azerbaijan did all it could to close down that openness by, essentially, claiming that NKR has no right to be open and democratic.

That right – to openness and democracy – is one that is integral not only to peace itself, but also to the outcome that must be envisioned as the ultimate goal of the peace process. NKR is working towards a future of democracy in which its citizens are free from fear of attack, and have the opportunity to live as part of an open society. The international community’s refusal to acknowledge NKR’s openness is a denial of progress – for the peace process and for NKR itself.

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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