In Search of Reciprocal Compromises
No. 1 2012 January/March
Gulshen Pashaeva

Dr. Sc., is Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic Studies (Baku).

Nagorno-Karabakh: The Right to Self-Determination Does Not Contradict the Principle of Territorial Integrity

Despite the years-long negotiations and intensive efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group mediators, the armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is still far from final settlement. Hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan were terminated in 1994, but the sides remain divided over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku argues, with reliance on European practices, that the sole way towards reconciliation between the two neighboring peoples lies in the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and the highest degree of self-government granted to it.


The dispute over that region, which started in 1988 with the demand for transferring the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Area (NKAA) from the Azerbaijan republic to the Armenian republic (both parts of the Soviet Union at that time), grew into a full-scale inter-state armed conflict after the breakup of the Soviet Union. As a result of military operations, Armenia established full control not only over the territory of the former NKAA, but also over seven neighboring administrative districts of Azerbaijan, which had never been populated by Armenians. This is a fundamental factor that makes the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict different from the situation in Kosovo, Abkhazia and – until August 2008 – South Ossetia. Ethnic Serbs and Georgians are still residents in the respective territories, whereas Armenia has forced the Azerbaijani population to leave Nagorno-Karabakh and some territories beyond it. Also, it has been preventing Azerbaijanis from returning to their home places. Moreover, the occupied territories, which Yerevan regards as a “buffer zone,” are used for accommodating Armenian migrants.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the original calls for transferring Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia turned into a demand for recognizing the full sovereignty of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), which proclaimed itself in the territory controlled by Armenia. Officially, Armenia does not recognize the independence of the NKR, but it is in close alliance with it and has actually been conducting an irredentist policy towards it (irredentism advocates annexation of territories populated by an ethnic minority by a state where this ethnic group forms a titular majority of the population). Armenia has been furnishing military, political, diplomatic, social and economic assistance to the NRK. Without such assistance the existence of the self-proclaimed territorial entity would have been impossible. The NKR gets tangible financial and information support from the influential Armenian diaspora.

Naturally, Baku does not recognize the legitimacy of the “republic” which emerged as a result of the use of military force, expulsion of the Azerbaijani population and violation of many principles of international law. Despite the grave aftermath of the armed conflict, Azerbaijan continues to consider the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh as its citizens, and it has been urging them not to ignore the centuries-old experience of cohabitation of Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Baku points to the facts of the recent past, such as the great number of mixed marriages, the existence of settlements where there had never been any inter-ethnic problems before the conflict (for instance, the village of Tug in Nagorno-Karabakh), and Azerbaijanis and Armenians of Karabakh sharing the same old names (Melik-Yeganov – Melik-Yeganian).

Baku also believes that the rigid position on the right of part of the Nagorno-Karabakh population to self-determination (to separation, in fact) has already led to the abuse of the rights of those who populate the entire Karabakh region. Historically and geographically, Karabakh has always consisted of highland and lowland parts. Highland Karabakh includes, besides the territory of the former NKAA, the Lachin and Kalbajar districts of Azerbaijan. These two districts, and practically the entire territory of lowland Karabakh which borders the former NKAA, are currently under the control of the Armenian side.

In socio-economic terms, Karabakh has always been an integral organism, largely because of the specifics of the local agriculture. The Azerbaijani population of lowland Karabakh (and also partially of the territory of modern Armenia bordering the same region) has long used highland Karabakh as summertime grazing land for their cattle. For that reason, and also for some geographic peculiarities of the region, the transport links between the highland and lowland parts of Karabakh traditionally stretched from east to west across what was once the NKAA. This refers, above all, to the territories of highland Karabakh outside the boundaries of the former NKAA – the northern part of the Lachin district and the whole of the Kalbajar district, separated from the other parts of Azerbaijan by the Murovdag Mountain Range, rising more than 3,000 meters above sea level.

The NKAA, established in 1923 in an Armenian-populated area of highland Karabakh, was in the center of a larger Karabakh region where the Azerbaijani population had prevailed before the conflict. The Azerbaijani community of the NKAA (21.5 percent according to the 1989 national population census) had lived side by side with the Armenians, while the city of Shusha, founded by Panah Ali Khan as the capital of the Karabakh Khanate, is still perceived by the Azerbaijanis as one of the historical centers of their national culture.

Consequently, the existence of tight links between the highland and lowland parts of Karabakh, and also the factor of the city of Shusha indicate that a genuine settlement of the conflict will be possible provided not only the interests of the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh are taken into account, but also the aspirations of all of its residents. This would be feasible if the unity of the region is preserved, vital economic ties and transport links are restored and developed, and the water resources are used jointly.



Regrettably, the factor of united Karabakh has remained underestimated or ignored by Armenia and international mediators, who prefer to see this conflict exclusively within the framework of an ethnic confrontation of the Armenian minority and the Azerbaijani state. However, even in this context the attitude of the leading world and regional powers and international organizations to the conflict is dual. On the one hand, they recognize the territorial integrity and advocate the inviolability of Azerbaijan’s borders; on the other hand, they oppose any attempts of “coercion to peace,” merely paying lip service to the readiness to act as guarantors of a final settlement in case Armenia and Azerbaijan find mutually acceptable compromises on their own.

One of the reasons for such duality is that in the post-Kosovo world there is no agreement among the leading world powers on the basic principles of international law as concerns the territorial integrity of states and the right of peoples to self-determination. At the same time, the consensus-based principle of decision-making inside the OSCE (currently the sole organization having the mandate to settle this conflict) leaves practically no chances for devising a common concept of resolving the conflict that international mediators would be able to not just propose, but also to “dictate” to the rival parties.

For truth’s sake one should note that one of the first attempts to officially draw a fundamental framework for settling the conflict was made back at the OSCE Lisbon summit in 1996. The co-chairs of the Minsk Group proposed three principles that might facilitate an Armenian-Azerbaijani settlement:

  • territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan;
  • self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, with the region’s receiving the highest degree of self-government;
  • security guarantees for Nagorno-Karabakh and its entire population.

Armenia is the sole country that rejected these principles and, regrettably, the elapsed period of time has seen no considerable changes in Yerevan’s attitude. Armenia’s rigid stance at the negotiations stems, above all, from the fact that the results of the 1992-1994 military campaign are regarded as Armenia’s unconditional “victory,” and the territories it controls around Nagorno-Karabakh are viewed as a war trophy. After the conclusion of the ceasefire agreement in May 1994, Armenia started using these territories as its main argument in determining the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and a means of pressure on Azerbaijan. Yerevan believed that in the context of the asymmetric balance of power, negotiations with the loser – Baku – should be solely about the forms of “capitulation” and not about equitable compromises. In full accordance with the principles of Realpolitik, it assumed that Baku would eventually have to recognize its “defeat” in the struggle for Nagorno-Karabakh and agree to a final settlement of the conflict under the “territories-in-exchange-for-independence” formula, and regain control of part of the occupied areas in compensation.

However, Azerbaijan derived the correct lessons from the events of the early 1990s: first of all, it achieved national consensus on prohibiting the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh from being used as an instrument of internal political struggle. Then, by the beginning of the 21st century, the pragmatic use of a favorable geostrategic location and successful development of the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea secured for Baku a possibility to establish a full-fledged foreign policy dialogue with the leading world and regional powers, thereby minimizing possible pressures on it using the unsettled conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, Azerbaijan’s growing economic potential and key role in maintaining the energy security of European countries, and a steady growth of its military budget have brought about a new balance of power in the region, which has largely neutralized the notorious factor of “military-political realities.”

Yerevan’s non-participation in major infrastructural projects due to its standoff with Azerbaijan, and the lack of a ground transport link with Russia after the events of August 2008 have caused Armenia’s chronic social and economic problems. They, in turn, have had adverse effects on the demographic situation. In recent years there has grown an awareness that in contrast to Azerbaijan, which has been developing dynamically despite the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia continues to experience problems precisely due to that conflict.

Regrettably, the emergence of a new balance of power was not followed by a significant change in the approaches of international mediators. Although the co-chairs of the Minsk Group more than once declared the status quo was unacceptable, they focused their efforts on preventing an escalation of the conflict, rather than on a search for solutions to problems that are critical for Baku. Specifically, there has been no support of Baku’s demand for the unconditional withdrawal of Armenia from the occupied Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh (which, incidentally, the respective resolutions by the UN Security Council and other international organizations call for).

Moreover, to improve the geopolitical situation around Armenia and create opportunities for it to gain immediate access to the West, the leading mediator countries made attempts at normalizing the Armenian-Turkish relations and opening the inter-state border, which Turkey closed in 1993 after Armenia occupied the Kalbajar district of Azerbaijan. Regrettably, the initiators of this project, the United States for one, had underestimated the importance of synchronizing – at least partially – this process with the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As a result, the protocol signed in Zurich has never been ratified.

Alongside this, after the signing of the Meiendorf Declaration in November 2008 there began a new, Moscow-initiated phase in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Over the past three years Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took part in ten meetings of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, where various versions of the so-called Madrid settlement principles were discussed. The principles are based on the main provisions of the Helsinki Final Act – the non-use of force or of the threat to use force, respect for territorial integrity, and the right of peoples to decide their own future.

True, Russia’s mediation has enabled the conflicting parties to considerably narrow their differences on some issues, yet the settlement remains hostage to Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status because the negotiating process still hinges on the formula: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Unfortunately, the Armenian side, in defiance of the new balance of power, is unprepared to give up the notorious formula “territories in exchange for independence” or its various modifications (“territories in exchange for a referendum”), which predetermine the status of Nagorno-Karabakh at the early settlement phase. Moreover, Azerbaijan maintains that a future status of Nagorno-Karabakh will be legitimate only in case of a consensus with the Armenian and Azerbaijani population of the region. And this, as Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev put it, “may happen in a year from now, in ten years, possibly in 100 years, or may be never.” Therefore, it has been proposed to conclude an agreement on the interim status of Nagorno-Karabakh for an indefinite period. It is believed to ensure legitimacy of the self-governing territory, and enable the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities to independently form legislative, executive, municipal and other regional bodies. Also, this period is supposed to promote the creation of favorable conditions for a future referendum on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh.



A meaningful discussion on granting an interim status to Nagorno-Karabakh requires that the sides make major reciprocal concessions and simultaneously pledge not to regard the conflict solely as a “zero sum game.” It is worth considering a number of preliminary conditions that must be met to implement the idea of an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Azerbaijani side has articulated the conditions more than once. They suggest multi-phased termination of the occupation of areas around Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of forced migrants to their homes. In the context of an agreement on the interim status this would mean the return of Azerbaijanis to Nagorno-Karabakh and the formation, jointly with the Armenian community, of new bodies of self-government, which, in Baku’s opinion, is a natural prerequisite for making democratic expression of popular will possible for all peoples that will live in the region in the future.

The conditions set by the Armenian side can be considered within the framework of the following three principles: security guarantees for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, a ground corridor linking it with Armenia, and no vertical relations with the authorities in Baku.

Clearly, security is to be maintained within the framework of the reciprocal formula “territories in exchange for security,” that is, withdrawal from the areas around Nagorno-Karabakh in compliance with one of the Madrid principles. This formula is to be reinforced by the conclusion of an agreement on complete renunciation of the use of force by the parties, measures to ensure international security guarantees, and a peace-keeping operation.

Baku has reiterated that the beginning of the withdrawal from the occupied areas around Nagorno-Karabakh may accelerate other processes related to the opening of borders, the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations, and the involvement of Armenia in regional infrastructural projects. In this context, in combination with the above formula another reciprocal formula will be activated – “territories in exchange for economic cooperation.”

As for a ground corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, a compromise on this issue will be easy to achieve if, in line with the reciprocal approach, Azerbaijan enjoys the right to free transit to Nakhichevan through Armenia. Such transit traffic would be possible via the motor road Agdam–Nagorno-Karabakh–Lachin–Goris (Armenia)–Nakhichevan–Turkey and via the Baku–Nakhichevan–Yerevan railway, now blocked.

Simultaneously, the achievement of a principal accord on the interim status may facilitate the resolution of such a complicated problem as the involvement of Nagorno-Karabakh’s unrecognized authorities in the negotiating process. Clearly, such issues as measures to ensure safe return of Azerbaijanis to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and the formation of new bodies of government for the transitional period would be impossible to resolve without joint work with the elected or appointed representatives of the Armenian community. In fact, this would be tantamount to legitimizing such representatives as a party that conducts negotiations on the details of the interim status and signs agreements and bears the responsibility for their enforcement.

Of course, the configuration of Azerbaijan’s future relations with Nagorno-Karabakh’s new, yet-to-be created bodies of self-government (specifically, how “horizontal” these relations will be) within the framework of the interim status is the knottiest problem. This is where the successful experience of European autonomies may be of great use, for example, Finland’s Aland Islands, or Trentino-Alto Adige (South Tyrol) in Italy. The European practice indicates that harmonious combination of political institutions, based on the concepts of self-government and joint solution of issues of mutual interest, is capable of forming equitable (in fact, “non-vertical”) relations between ethnic regions and the center.



The idea of using European models in the South Caucasus has remained rather popular among representatives of some international organizations and government institutions, the expert community and the public in the countries of the region since the mid-1990s. After studying the level of local self-government in the Aland Islands and South Tyrol, even the most radical advocates of independence usually recognize the advantages of these models, and have no principal objections to using them for the settlement of the conflicts they are involved in. However, the possibility of tapping the European experience is still called in question by virtue of historical, ethnic, and cultural distinctions between Europe and the South Caucasus. One has to acknowledge that a mere fifteen years ago it was very hard to contravene these arguments, which I find not very convincing. However, let us not forget that Azerbaijan and Armenia have for more than ten years been members of the Council of Europe, have been cooperating closely with many Euro-Atlantic structures and even contesting the right to become an integral part of Europe at some future date.

Naturally, the European model of local self-government in poly-ethnic regions must be considered not as a template for mechanical replication, but as some socio-political, economic and cultural concept, making it easier to overcome the costs of excessive centralization and to create a modern system of territorial self-government. On the other hand, the long periods of the evolution of the European autonomies (for instance, in South Tyrol the process lasted for nearly 50 years – from 1946 to 1992) indicate that the “interim mode” may facilitate the drafting of mechanisms of cooperation between the corresponding self-government bodies of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, and form clear legal procedures for achieving consensus in case of a conflict of interest. Except for a very limited number of issues of joint competence, Azerbaijan, in accordance with the European subsidiary principle, may delegate the remaining powers to new bodies of government in Nagorno-Karabakh, formed under an interim status agreement. Such bodies may include the local parliament, government, municipalities and other bodies of power, in which representatives of both communities of the region would participate on an equal footing.

Naturally, since ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh prevail, an interim status agreement should establish extra privileges that would guarantee the protection of the language, religious and cultural identity of the Armenian population. But these privileges must by no means infringe on the rights of the Azerbaijani minority in the region. If this condition is met, the agreement may provide for the Nagorno-Karabakh bodies of self-government the exclusive right to conduct independent policies in the following areas:

  • decisions regarding the heraldry of Nagorno-Karabakh (the flag, the emblem, the anthem);
  • control of the use of official languages of Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian and Azerbaijani);
  • education, culture and the arts, religion, protection of the language, ethnic identity and toponyms (adjusted to the Armenian-Azerbaijani bilingual realities), and the development of direct humanitarian ties with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora;
  • healthcare and medical services; postal service;
  • the right to broadcast local radio and television programs;
  • legislative control of the socio-economic sphere of Nagorno-Karabakh;
  • legislative control of the demographic situation in Nagorno-Karabakh for the purpose of preventing artificial changes to the ethnic composition of the region’s population;
  • legislative control of restrictions of the active voting rights of persons not residing in Nagorno-Karabakh permanently (except for residents of the territory of the former NKAA of the former Azerbaijani Soviet Republic and their direct descendants);
  • formation of a local police force;
  • legislative control of the mechanism of ethnic quotas for employees of local self-government bodies proportionate to the number of citizens representing the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities;
  • enforcement of the requirement for the mandatory knowledge of the Armenian and Azerbaijani languages for applicants for jobs in local self-government bodies, etc.

Naturally, the list of the rights of self-governing bodies and their specification can be a subject matter of further negotiations. However, it is likewise clear that by virtue of the interdependence of individual parts of the Karabakh region a future agreement must identify activities to be agreed with the authorities in Baku.

For instance, provisions should be made for cooperation between the bodies of self-government of Nagorno-Karabakh with the central bodies of power in Azerbaijan in the field of environmental protection and the use of natural resources, uninterrupted operation of communications, major transport and energy facilities, i.e. in those spheres that have traditionally concerned the immediate interests of the Karabakh region and/or the whole country. Most of these issues could be addressed easily under various post-conflict restoration programs, and the discussion, adoption and implementation of any of these would be impossible without the active involvement of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-governing bodies. It is noteworthy that despite the lack of tangible progress in conflict settlement Azerbaijan is already drafting such programs. Last year a project authored by independent experts titled Conceptual Basics for the Reconstruction of Post-Conflict Territories of Azerbaijan was presented to the public at large for discussion. It addresses all aspects of the social and economic reconstruction of Azerbaijan’s seven administrative districts around Nagorno-Karabakh, currently under the control of the Armenian armed forces. The program for the restoration of the region will be extended over five years and require 19.4 billion dollars of direct government investments (inflation excluded).

The current state of the Azerbaijani economy and perspectives of its development for ten years to come are a reason to say that the country has enough financial resources of its own to carry out such costly reconstruction. Moreover, the authors of the above project proceeded from the hard fact that the highland and lowland parts of Karabakh make up an integral social and economic entity. Therefore, in case an interim status agreement is achieved, the program mentioned above may be easily complemented with a corresponding section devoted to the social and economic development of Nagorno-Karabakh. Also, it should be born in mind that the potential of the Azerbaijani economy allows for easily covering a possible deficit of Nagorno-Karabakh’s budget, invest tangible resources in its economy, and delegate to the region all powers to collect and distribute tax revenues and promote the creation of a free economic zone with a free circulation of currencies in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On the other hand, the competencies that have traditionally been in the hands of the central government, such as foreign policy, defense and border guard service, constitutional legislation and others should be Baku’s exclusive domain, on the condition the agreement establishes clear mechanisms for taking Nagorno-Karabakh’s interests into account.

In general, in a situation where the parties lack confidence in each other, a future agreement should incorporate such a major element as a comprehensive system of guarantees that the decisions made will be enforced. Alongside natural international guarantees, for instance, those from the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, mutual liabilities assumed by the parties and mechanisms and procedures of resolving disputes must be enshrined in law, and measures of international monitoring of the agreement’s implementation established. For addressing such issues it might be possible to use the experience of Finland and Italy, whose legislation provides for the creation of special conciliatory mechanisms of making consensus decisions, should any of the parties (the central government or an autonomy) suspect that the other party has exceeded its legal powers.

In any case, at the initial phase the interim status agreement should promote, above all, the solution of the region’s social and economic problems and the restoration of decades-old economic ties between Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest of Azerbaijan. Then the Karabakh region will regain one of its historical transit functions, linking Azerbaijan and Armenia. Only the return of Azerbaijani displaced persons to their home places will be able to give a powerful impetus and motivation for a mutually beneficial process, while further full-fledged re-integration of the Azerbaijani community in the socio-political and socio-economic life of Nagorno-Karabakh must, in effect, become the main result of a future interim status agreement. Baku maintains that only after that the political and legal process of determining the region’s future status through an equitable dialogue can be launched, and that only decisions made as a result of such process can be considered legitimate both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan.



At the dawn of Armenia’s and in Azerbaijan’s existence as independent states, many were naХve enough to think that a solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be possible only on the condition one external power dominates the region. In the meantime, for a period of 70 years both republics had been under the patronage of the Soviet government, which, although it ensured temporary ethnic truce, failed to undo the knot of problems existing between the two neighboring peoples. Besides, in today’s pragmatic world order, all outside players in such a region as the South Caucasus, very sensitive in geopolitical terms, are focused not so much on abstract expansion of their spheres of influence as on concrete and firm protection of their own national priorities, and the list of these may not necessarily include an early settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, it remains unclear whether a new version of “ethnic truce,” adopted under foreign pressures, will last longer, and, what is still more important, whether it will meet the interests of both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

True, the parties to the conflict will be able to steer the negotiating process out of the dead end on their own, but only if they “rationalize” approaches to settlement, end unsuccessful attempts to reconcile uncompromising positions, and search for points of agreement between the genuine national interests of both peoples. Progress along these lines runs into such major obstructions as decades-old ethnic stereotypes of behavior and a high level of distrust towards each other. In the meantime, it is obvious that Armenia and Azerbaijan share such interests as internal and external security, stable development and greater well-being for the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities.

If that is really so, an interim status agreement, based on reciprocal compromises, might ease tensions over the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s sovereignty, very sensitive to both sides, and become an essential instrument of addressing the vital problems of the population of that region and of Armenia itself.

Regrettably, there have been no indications so far the Armenian side is prepared to act in compliance with this rational logic. Most clearly this was seen in an interview Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan gave Russia’s Moskovskiye Novosti weekly. When asked about the possibility of Armenia’s full-scale economic growth without the solution of the obvious geo-political problems, Sargsyan remarked hopelessly: “Geography is one’s verdict, one’s fate.” Azerbaijan does not share this peculiar geopolitical fatalism. It believes that the future of Armenia should be in the hands of the Armenian people and its political elite. Whether Armenian society succeeds in making a rational choice before “geography” becomes an “unappealable verdict” will be clear in the near future.