Why Third-Party Mediation Efforts Have Failed in Nagorno-Karabakh

19 July 2019

In March of 1992, an Iranian delegation led by then-Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahmoud Vaezi visited Baku, Yerevan, Stepanakert, and Nakhichevan to meet with leaders from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR) (1). Their delegacy marks the first third-party endeavour, involving all three main belligerents, to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.


Ever since, Iran, the U.S., Russia, and Turkey, amongst other nations, have made numerous efforts of varying degrees of involvement to pacify the conflict. Given the 2016 Four Day War along the Nagorno-Karabakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact, as well as the renewed border clashes that have occurred since (2), one can say with certainty that all third-party mediations in the area have hitherto failed.


The failure of these mediations can be attributed to two factors. The first is that cultural clashes between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis escalated the conflict, rendering a mediation incredibly difficult. The second is that each third-party’s justification for involvement was different from that of the primary belligerents’; far too many political actors tried to move the conflict in different directions (towards Azerbaijan’s goals/towards Armenia’s goals/towards their own goals etc.). The result is that the situation is unable to move in any direction; it remains frozen in erratic conflict.

A trilateral meeting between the presidents of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—Dmitry Medvedev, Serzh Sargsyan, and Ilham Aliyev—in 2009

NKR’s religious, linguistic, and ethnic makeup (which forms its culture) is drastically different from Azerbaijan’s. Ethnically, people in NKR (sometimes referred to as Artsakhians) are 76% Armenian. Their clade descends from the Armenian Highlands (3). Azerbaijanis are a mix of those originally from Caucasian Albania, and various Iranian people who settled in the region (4). Although neighbouring in geographic origin, the ethnicities have become different over the vast stretch of human history. Linguistically, most Artsakhians speak the Karabakh dialect of Armenian (the most widely spoken dialect of the language), an Indo-European Language (5). Dissimilarly, Azerbaijanis speak Azeri, a language that is part of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic language family (6). Furthermore, both nations of people differ greatly in their religious beliefs. Artsakhians are reportedly 98% Armenian Apostolic, similar to Armenia’s 94.8% Christian population (7). By contrast, Azerbaijan has a 96.9% nominally Muslim population (8). When presented in the context of the NKR conflict, these discrete cultural identities become irreconcilable differences between both sides.


While an entire population of people’s cultural identities are unlikely to be altered, third parties’ motives for mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict can be changed for the better.


Thus far, third-party-motives for involvement have varied with each country. Their only commonality has been that they are all self-interested motives explicitly designed to further the agenda of the third-party country and not necessarily to further the agenda of either peace or NKR, Armenia, or Azerbaijan. Iran’s past role in seeking rapprochement between the primary actors of the conflict was to protect the 82.4% Shia Azerbaijani population (9). Their chief motive was to establish good relations with majority Shia nations so that they could eventually export their revolution to countries like Azerbaijan (a major goal of all Supreme Leaders since Iran’s 1979 Revolution) (10). Russia also spearheaded peace initiatives. While Russia supported Armenia as its strategic ally—as they are both a part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union—Moscow also values its commercial partnership with Azerbaijan as buyers of Russian weaponry (11). Towards the beginning of the NKR Conflict, Turkey aided Armenia in the spirit of good neighbourly relations. However, because the conflict generated a large flood of refugees into Turkey (the dispute created more than 1 million refugees and internally displaced people (12), they halted all aid efforts, closed their shared border, and cut all trade links with Armenia (13). These tangled motives illustrate why third-party mediatory efforts have been so ineffective in the NKR Conflict: no party—first, second, or third, is explicitly united in a single goal.


It is clearer than ever that direct cooperation between Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, and Azerbaijan may be needed to bring this “frozen” conflict out of the woods and into the clear. However, given that Armenia and Azerbaijan adhere to diametrically opposed positions—despite having reached joint declarations in the recent past—secondary actors may, in fact, be the only available means to broker peace in the Transcaucasian region. If progress favouring any position (i.e. pro-independence, pro-Armenia, pro-Azerbaijan, or pro-peace) is to be made, third parties must abide by a modified definition of involvement: it must directly align with a primary actors’ position, and it must be free of self-interest. Unfortunately for all those involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the latter is a tragically tall order for modern nations.


As violent skirmishes continue, it is up to HART and other internationally respected human rights organisations to aid civilians caught in the crossfire of both war and politics.


Lady Cox with patients of The Lady Cox Rehabilitation Centre in the capital of the Republic of Artsakh, Stepanakert.


If you wish to donate to The Lady Cox Rehabilitation Centre in Nagorno-Karabakh, please visit the HART website and put a reference to “The Rehab Centre.”

For more information about Nagorno-Karabakh and HART’s work there, visit this site.


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