Karabakh: Gordian Knot of Caucasus Region

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Bahram Amir Ahmadian
Tehran University Professor & Eurasia Affairs Analyst

A conference on Karabakh region was scheduled to be held in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz in November 2013, to be attended by representatives from various universities as well as scientific and research institutes. The event, however, was later postponed on the discretion of the Iranian officials. Due to high importance of the issue of Karabakh, the following article provides a review of the political developments in this critical region.

Despite the lapse of about 20 years from the implementation of the cease-fire between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan along the lines of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh region (which came into effect in May 1994), no promising outlook for permanent peace can be still seen on the horizon in this restive region. Even despite the emphasis put by both countries’ presidents on the need to solve the existing crisis and continue negotiations on bilateral and multilateral levels, and in spite of the fact that both the incumbent governments and their predecessors have engaged in bilateral talks over this issue, a clear picture of the political future of Karabakh is still out of reach and the legal status of the enclave is still in limbo.

There are a number of questions which may occur to any analytic mind in relation to the current situation in Karabakh. Is it true that the Karabakh region is of special strategic importance? Is the Azerbaijan Republic motivated enough to embark on waging a new war in that region under conditions when the country is experiencing relative stability as a result of its high oil revenues? Will the Armenians inhabiting Karabakh be ready to let go of the territory that they claim to have liberated from Azerbaijan – where they have already established a self-proclaimed republic – and let Azerbaijan take charge of it? Will the Republic of Armenia forgo its perceived right in Karabakh and withdraw from its position on supporting Karabakh after all the human and financial cost it has already sustained in the war over this region? Will the government of Azerbaijan accept to give up part of its own territory (in Karabakh)? What answer will both governments give to their people in case of such measures? Will the same unwritten law that allowed Azerbaijan, Armenia and other former republics of the Soviet Union break away from the Soviet Union and declare their independence, also make way for the embryonic states in Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Kosovo, and Transnistria to break away from their motherlands? If the first group of countries could do it, why the second group should be denied the right to do the same? These and tens of other questions have been haunting the public opinion on three sides of the conflict.

Azerbaijan never accepted to allow the representatives of Karabakh take part in the peace talks as a third party. Azeri officials argued that they do not recognize the self-proclaimed authorities of Karabakh because if they accepted to engage in negotiations with them, then they would have to recognize them as a party with a claim to sovereign rights over Karabakh. But is it really a good option for Azerbaijan not to engage in negotiations with Karabakh? It is noteworthy that even the Russian officials entered into direct talks with Chechen rebels and the government of Sudan finally had to negotiate with South Sudan rebels. So, why Azerbaijan should be an exception and does not sit down at the same table to negotiate with Karabakh? We believe that since Karabakh is part of the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, Azeri officials should enter into negotiations with Karabakh instead of engaging in talks with Armenian government. By bringing the opposition in Karabakh to the negotiating table and offering them special rights of autonomy, which has been offered as an option by Azeri officials, the government in Baku will be in a good position to cut the hands of Armenia off Karabakh. Establishment of such new countries as East Timor (in 2002) and South Sudan (in 2011) represents just two examples of the creation of new countries at international level. Is it possible for Karabakh to emerge as a new small country in Caucasus region 20 years after it has been separated from the Republic of Azerbaijan? Perhaps, some analysts would say that the Azeri government will never allow this to happen. But let’s not forget that international law has already taken a different approach to East Timor and South Sudan.

The process through which any new country is established takes place in stages which are usually controlled by the United Nations. Whenever a region in the world claims independence and declares its decision to be recognized as an independent state, it is for the member states of the UN to recognize that political unit as an independent country. This is why despite frequent and serious efforts made by the Palestinians, they have not been able to achieve independence yet and have not been recognized as an independent state. East Timor broke away from Indonesia and was recognized as an independent country. South Sudan, likewise, was separated from Sudan, proclaimed its independence and was recognized by the UN and its member states as a new independent country.

Now the world is facing these developments. Even in Europe, the true cases of separatism are more frequent than any other continent. The independence of the former republics which made up the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia took place through totally different processes: from quiet separation without any tension (in case of Slovenia) to all-out war, bloodshed and massacre (in case of Croatia as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina), to moderate tension (in case of Montenegro and Macedonia), to the deployment of peacekeeping forces and creation of a de facto state (in case of Kosovo). The Basque movement in Spain, the separatist movement of the people of Quebec in Canada, and the separatist movement of Northern Ireland (which seeks union with the Southern Ireland) in the UK are major examples of separatist movements which have different natures and are, at times, characterized with violence and bloodletting. In contrast, the people of Scotland are currently seeking independence from the UK and are going through a totally democratic process to achieve this goal. In Spain, the wealthy state of Catalonia is seeking independence from the central government and in Italy, the northern industrial and rich provinces are demanding independence from the rest of the country.

Considering the above facts, it would only seem surprising that the Azerbaijan Republic expects all the countries in the world to see the issue of Karabakh from Baku’s standpoint. As a result, it has made this issue a major component of its foreign policy and has even made it a precondition for the improvement or establishment of ties with other countries. However, according to allegations by strategic research centers of Azerbaijan, the hidden hands of Russia are supporting Armenia in Karabakh. They argue that without Russia’s support, Armenia would not be able to resist an onslaught by Azeri armed forces. Azerbaijan, at the same time, maintains close relations with its northern neighbor (Russia). However, certain people have regularly ignored these facts and have been more willing to accuse Iran of supporting Armenia, noting that the main precondition for the improvement of relations between Tehran and Baku is the severance of the Islamic Republic’s relations with Armenia. The mass media of the Azerbaijan Republic, have been regularly claiming that Armenia is a feeble and bankrupt country with poor economic conditions and low military capabilities. As a result, the politicians in Baku pretend that Armenia and its decisions are of no importance to them. At the same time, [due to such hostile policies] the two countries – Azerbaijan and Armenia – have been caught in a deadlock over the issue of Karabakh. Now, what they should actually do?

A major reason, which has led to the prolongation of the process of finding a final solution to the issue of Karabakh, is the psychological factor underlying this conflict as a result of which all the three involved parties consider this issue a matter of national pride and honor.

Azeri leaders consider Karabakh as part of their ancestral land and have made the idea of retaking the enclave as the main basis for their government’s political theory. In all their remarks, Azeri officials have always introduced Karabakh as an indispensable part of their territory and have announced that they will do their best to defend their right with regard to Karabakh in any resolution that may be offered for this issue in any forthcoming negotiation.

In Armenia, on the other hand, the government is considered accountable before the people who have suffered a lot in order to capture the land of Karabakh and its surroundings. As a result, they consider any kind of reconciliation and compromise for giving back the occupied territories as tantamount to betraying the national honor and ideals of the Armenians, and also betraying the cause of those people who have lost their lives and property to that end.

The Armenians inhabiting Karabakh consider that territory as part of their homeland, whose people have converted to Christianity since the third century AD and have been never conquered or ruled by Muslims. This is why the Armenians living in Karabakh consider it a holy land and part of the overall territory of the Christian world.

Two decades after the beginning of the conflicts in that region, Karabakh has been witnessing generational changes. The new generation is no more interested in Cold War institutions as it lacks a working memory of how the situation was under the rule of the former Soviet Union. As a result, the majority of the younger generation is now calling for a change in the status quo in favor of the establishment of peace and tranquility in that region and establishment of bilateral relations. The emergence of the cyberspace has also taught the young generation in Karabakh that there are more modern ways for ruling over people which should be taken advantage of. A change in the status of military strategy from the apex to the bottom of the national strategy pyramid of the states is a result of globalization, promotion of electronic trade, expansion of Internet-based networks, increasing exchange of information and the emergence of a digital world. As a result of these changes, the continuation of the existing conditions in the region is well-nigh impossible and, as a consequence, that region is in for major developments.

Since the occupation of Karabakh, the United Nations Security Council has adopted four resolutions on this issue. The UN Security Council Resolution No. 822, which was adopted on April 30, 1993, has reaffirmed “the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory.” Also, the first paragraph of the resolution “demands the immediate cessation of all hostilities and hostile acts with a view to establishing a durable cease-fire, as well as immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from the Kelbadjar district and other recently occupied areas of Azerbaijan.”

The UN Security Council Resolution No. 853, which was adopted on July 29, 1993, has reaffirmed “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Azerbaijani Republic and of all other States in the region.” It has also underlined “the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory.” The first paragraph of the resolution “condemns the seizure of the district of Agdam and of all other recently occupied areas of the Azerbaijani Republic.” Paragraph 3 of the Security Council resolution “demands the immediate cessation of all hostilities and the immediate complete and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces involved from the district of Agdam and all other recently occupied areas of the Azerbaijan Republic.” Also, Paragraph 9 of the same Security Council resolution has urged “the Government of the Republic of Armenia to continue to exert its influence to achieve compliance by the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the Azerbaijani Republic with its resolution 822 (1993) and the present resolution, and the acceptance by this party of the proposals of the Minsk Group of the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe).”

The UN Security Council Resolution No. 874 was also related to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh region and was adopted by the world body on October 14, 1993. It started by “reaffirming its resolutions 822 (1993) of 30 April 1993 and 853 (1993) of 29 July 1993.” The first paragraph of the resolution “calls upon the parties concerned to make effective and permanent the cease-fire established as a result of the direct contacts undertaken with the assistance of the Government of the Russian Federation in support of the CSCE Minsk Group.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 12 of the same resolution has requested “the [UN] Secretary-General, the Chairman-in-Office of the CSCE and the Chairman of the CSCE Minsk Conference to continue to report to the Council on the progress of the Minsk process and on all aspects of the situation on the ground, and on present and future cooperation between the CSCE and the United Nations in this regard.”

In the UN Security Council Resolution No. 884, adopted on November 12, 1993, the world body has condemned “the recent violations of the cease-fire established between the parties, which resulted in a resumption of hostilities,” and has particularly condemned “the occupation of the Zangelan district and the city of Goradiz, attacks on civilians and bombardments of the territory of the Azerbaijani Republic.” It has also “reaffirmed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Azerbaijani Republic and of all other States in the region,” while underlining “the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory.” The interesting point about this resolution is that in its Paragraph 2, it has called upon “the Government of Armenia to use its influence to achieve compliance by the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the Azerbaijani Republic with resolutions 822 (1993), 853 (1993) and 874 (1993), and to ensure that the forces involved are not provided with the means to extend their military campaign further.” Another noteworthy point is seen in Paragraph 4 of this resolution where it “demands from the parties concerned, the immediate cessation of armed hostilities and hostile acts, the unilateral withdrawal of occupying forces from the Zangelan district and the city of Goradiz, and the withdrawal of occupying forces from other recently occupied areas of the Azerbaijani Republic in accordance with the Adjusted timetable of urgent steps to implement Security Council resolutions 822 (1993) and 853 (1993) … as amended by the CSCE Minsk Group meeting in Vienna of 2 to 8 November 1993.”

In these resolutions, Armenia has not been directly introduced as an occupying country and has been even introduced as a country with a certain degree of influence on the Armenians inhabiting Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. All the aforesaid resolutions lacked executive guarantees for implementation and if the occupying forces refrained from compliance with the Security Council resolutions, there was no provision for the use of force to expel them from the occupied territories and put an end to the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

All these resolutions have put firm emphasis on inviolability of international borders. It should be noted that apart from the southern borders of Caucasus (which were in fact the Soviet Union’s border with other countries and included land borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan with Iran and Turkey), there were no other internationally recognized borders in that region. As a result, there were no definitive documents to show the limits of those borders and even if such documents actually existed, they would have been an internal issue for the Soviet Union.

Another noteworthy point is that all the member states of the Minsk Group (including the United States, Russia and France) are Christian countries. Therefore, it was quite natural for them to take a supportive stance toward Armenian Christians. Russia, itself accused of providing military backing for the Armenians in Karabakh, is also a member of this group. France, another active member of the group, has a powerful pro-Armenian lobby.

By gaining control over the mountains overlooking Shirvan Plain, the Armenian troops that have conquered Karabakh will also have full control over adjacent areas in the eastern part of Karabakh. Also, the entire Western parts of Azerbaijan as well as south-north and east-west logistical routes lie within the range of the Armenian forces’ heavy artillery. As a consequence, any possible offensive by Azeri forces on the mountainous areas of Karabakh can be repelled while inflicting heavy losses on the attacking force. Azeri officials are sure to be aware of these facts. This is why the government of Azerbaijan has been always hesitant about choosing a military option as the best way to deal with the current situation in Karabakh. The problem with the settlement of refugees, who lost their homes as a result of the war in Karabakh in the early years of 1990s, has not been completely solved by Azeri government yet and has generated a lot of secondary problems and hardships for the government too.

Another problem is creation of enough jobs for the economically active part of the refugee population, which has remained unsolved so far and has led to the growth of various kinds of social maladies among them. There are also serious obstacles on the way of meeting the needs of the families of people, who were either killed or maimed in the war, by Azeri state institutions. These problems have, at times, led to street protests and clashes between demonstrators and the police force. Adding to the number of these refugees, which can be a predictable outcome of renewed military confrontation between the two sides, is neither favored by the government of Azerbaijan, nor by officials of Armenia.

Last but not least, the Islamic Republic of Iran has always defended the territorial integrity of the Azerbaijan Republic in all international organizations. However, Azeri officials have frequently resorted to projection tactic when trying to justify the defeat they have suffered at the hands of the Armenian forces. In doing so, they have frequently accused Iran of supporting the Armenians, thus creating tension in bilateral relations between Tehran and Baku. However, it is noteworthy that they have never offered a reliable proof to back up their claim and will never do so because such evidence does not actually exist.

Key Words: Karabakh, Gordian Knot, Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Soviet Union, United Nations, Russia, Minsk Group, Iran, Amir Ahmadian

More By Bahram Amir Ahmadian:

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*Missile Defense Shield: Much Ado for Nothing!:

*Iran’s Opportunities and Challenges in Caucasus:

*Photo Credit: & Azerbaijan International

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