Is There A Way Out of the Karabakh Deadlock?
No. 1 2008 January/March
Vladimir Kazimirov


Russian diplomat, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, retired


The political
settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is entering a phase of
stagnancy, which is unavoidable in the run-up to the presidential
elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan. This makes it possible to
examine the problem in more detail and to look for ways out of the
long stalemate.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the first armed conflict in the
post-Soviet space and the biggest in terms of the scale of military
action. It also has a very specific configuration and

First, it began back in 1988, when the
territory was still part of the Soviet Union, and reached its peak
in the period between 1992-1994, when military operations involved
an already independent Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh proper that
enjoyed strong support from Armenia. That is why the
Nagorno-Karabakh problem is further complicated by internal and
external contentions.

Second, the conflict involves two military
camps – the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, but three political
forces, since the governments in Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital
Stepanakert and in Yerevan have similar, but not identical

Third, Baku was unpleasantly surprised by
its military failures, as well as by a full loss of control over
five districts around Nagorno-Karabakh and a partial loss of
control over another two districts.

The long history
of the conflict adds to its acuteness. The clashes of 1905 and
1918, the expulsion of ethnic Armenians from the Nakhichevan area
and the squeezing-out of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, the tragic and
bloody events in times of peace (in the cities of Sumgait and Baku)
and during military operations (Hojali and Maraga) fertilized the
mutual animosity fanned by radical nationalists and
pseudo-patriots. Mutual mistrust is still slowing down the entire
process of a peace settlement.

Finally, there is
no other conflict in the former Soviet Union where there is such an
overt desire for revenge. In this light, the position and arguments
of the Azerbaijani side require close attention.


Nagorno-Karabakh conflict stems from and spins around the problem
of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan is seeking to
legitimize the region’s withdrawal from Azerbaijan, but Baku has
ruled out any prospects for this. The positions of both sides have
remained practically unchanged during the 13-year armistice – they
remain widely different and mutually exclusive. Azerbaijan
continues to postpone decisions on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status and
confines itself to pledging the broadest possible autonomy for

It is clear that
no one will be able to determine Nagorno-Karabakh’s status without
the region’s own participation in the process, and yet an attempt
to use a resource as democratic as a plebiscite has also caused
sharp discord. Azerbaijan’s 1995 Constitution only allows the
holding of nationwide referendums (the young state has an
inclination for unitarianism due to its patchy ethnic make-up). The
Constitution slashes the mechanism of direct democracy in
Azerbaijan for the exact purpose of denying the Nagorno-Karabakh
population’s right to independently decide its future. (Yet it is
well known that far from all Canadians voted in a referendum on the
status of Quebec; far from all Spaniards on the status of
Catalonia; far from all Ethiopians on the status of Eritrea; and
obviously far from all the British will vote in a possible
referendum on the status of Scotland.) References to the
inviolability of the Azerbaijani Constitution do not hold water, as
any changes in Nagorno-Karabakh’s status (including the cultural
autonomy proposed by Armeniaphobes) will require constitutional

In the meantime,
Baku is unwilling to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh even as a party to
the conflict, although it signed ten various agreements with
Stepanakert during the war, and none of those documents involved
Yerevan. No one can explain in Azerbaijan now what capacity
Nagorno-Karabakh was perceived in when it was a warring side. Alas,
there are many such logical controversies. Persecutions of
Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and a refusal to have any contact
with them stand in discrepancy with the promises of recognizing
their status as fellow-citizen and granting them a most advanced
autonomy. This lack of realistic thinking and the logic of “total”
struggle block any positive acts, even measures to build


Officials in Baku
realize only too well that Nagorno-Karabakh’s status is the main
problem, and yet they are reluctant to recognize it and do their
best to emphasize the importance of eliminating the unfavorable
aftermath of military action – the occupation by Armenians of seven
districts in Nagorno-Karabakh – as the top priority. Azerbaijan
claims that the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is also occupied.
Ethnic Armenians, who constitute three-fourths of
Nagorno-Karabakh’s indigenous population, control most parts of the
region with the assistance of neighboring Armenia, and Baku
interprets this fact as occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia,
all the more so that Azerbaijanis have fled those

Occupation is a
product of incursions and combat operations. This should have
turned into an anomalism with the arrival of the twenty-first
century, but zones of occupation still exist in other parts of the
world. Take Afghanistan, Iraq, or the territories around Israel for
example. It is equally important to clarify the situation with the
seizure of lands in Karabakh, to trace down the logic that the
parties to the conflict espoused in the 1990s, and to analyze the
aftermath of their actions at the time. No claims about occupation
would have been made if military action had been avoided, and the
repercussions would not have been so perilous had it been curbed
quickly. Military action would have stopped somewhat earlier then,
and the towns of Susa and Lacin would not have fallen to the
Armenians. Consequently, there would have been no seizure of
Kelbajar, Agdam, Fizuli or southwest Azerbaijan.

Mediators called
constantly for an immediate end to the fighting, but the chances
for a truce were ignored for more than two years. Four ceasefire
agreements and other peacemaking initiatives were disrupted.
Although the intermediaries condemned seizures of territory and the
expansion of the conflict, the overwhelming spirit of the struggle
pushed the sides toward giving increasingly more attention to
military, not political, strategies. It was the dragging out of the
hostilities – and not “Armenian appetites” at all – that led to the
seizure of Azerbaijani lands and the occupation.

As an
intermediary, I remember perfectly well who would evade the
cessation of hostilities then – it was the side that would
eventually sustain the most telling blow. Azerbaijan bet on a
quick, forceful resolution to the conflict for too long (and there
are still relapses of such thinking). It was Baku that abolished
the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region in 1990, yet it accuses the
Armenians of failing to stay within its borders during the military
conflict. The side that for more than a year (from 1993 to 1994)
ignored a UN Security Council Resolution demanding that military
operations be stopped and continued to pile on preconditions should
realize its immediate responsibility for the consequences – for the
loss of ever more territories and for the swelling waves of
migrants and refugees.

The events also
had a purely military underpinning. In addition to superior
numbers, Azerbaijan found itself with many more weapons than
Armenia did after the breakup of the Soviet Union and this
predestined the tactics of the sides to some degree. Baku attempted
and launched offensives, set up a blockade around Nagorno-Karabakh,
and frequently subjected its territory to shelling and bombing. The
imbalances of manpower and armaments, the lack of military
aircraft, rugged terrain and irregular supplies forced the
Armenians to adopt more flexible tactics. They had to concentrate
their forces on the most decisive sections of the front line and to
organize raids and seizures to push the enemy away from the region,
to interfere with the bombing and shelling, and to make the front
narrower to adjust for the shortage of forces. The Armenians were
helped greatly by an ability to mobilize quickly and the motivation
for survival (which is stronger than considerations of prestige or
anything else). Disorganization and feuding in enemy ranks also
proved helpful.

This is a brief
outline of the beginning of Karabakh’s occupation that eventually
had repercussions. Had Baku held back from furnishing the Armenians
with the above-mentioned chances, they would not have seized so
much land. On their part, the Armenians cut all corners skillfully
– they would not reject or disrupt ceasefire proposals and would
sometimes accept unfavorable recommendations from mediators, doing
so in the hope that the enemy would act as predicted and would
frustrate ceasefire agreements anyway. The May 12, 1994 armistice
agreement fixed the quo status at the time – Armenian control over
Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan proper,
as well as Azerbaijani control over some areas that had had a
mostly Armenian population.

In pushing
Armenian occupation into the spotlight in every way, official Baku
hushes up (mostly from its own citizens) how it came about and what
role betting on the use of force and regular disruptions of the
ceasefire played in it. The incumbent authorities look incapable of
analyzing the past. They only rebuke the Popular Front of
Azerbaijan and former president Abulfaz Elcibey, and misrepresent
the occupation for the sake of beefing up the image of Heydar
Aliyev (incidentally, his rule was marked by far more rejections
and disruptions of the ceasefire, as well as by the loss of five
out of seven districts). There are numerous instances where the
situation regarding Karabakh was hushed up. For example, each side
accused the other of ethnic cleansing, while refusing to admit that
its own actions can scarcely be described otherwise.

Azerbaijan, by
citing its own sovereignty and the hardships of refugees, is
seeking a virtually unconditional withdrawal of Armenians from the
lands they have occupied. In order to gain more time, Azerbaijani
President Ilham Aliyev has shifted the focus to what he calls “the
occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia” and is demanding a
pullout of troops from there. This provides him with a reliable
guarantee against an agreement that would be much more dangerous
for him now than it was for his father.


By “staying
behind” in the occupied territories, the Armenians said at first
that they did not have claims on the territories, except for the
Lacin corridor that ensures land communications between
Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. A mistrust of Baku’s amicability
compelled the governments in Stepanakert and in Yerevan to
reinforce the line of contact as much as possible, as Armenia had
deployed its military there. The Armenians started asserting later
that the occupied territories were their historical lands which
they had ostensibly liberated and which were not subject to return.
Officially, Yerevan was more cautious in this respect, pledging its
readiness to pull out of the territories gradually and holding back
Kelbajar and Lacin for the time being until a referendum on the
status of Nagorno-Karabakh was held. Diehards in both Armenia and
Nagorno-Karabakh are sharply critical of the withdrawal concept and
are quite able to fight against its implementation.

The sides have
been impeding the settlement process for years by making inordinate
demands and using versatile gimmicks. The Armenians, under the
slogan ‘territories for status,’ pressed Azerbaijan to give them
Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the Armenian withdrawal from the
occupied lands. On his part, Heydar Aliyev put all the blame on the
Popular Front in the hope that public opinion would accept the deal
if, by way of compensation, control was ensured over a road linking
Megri and Nakhichevan (i.e. Azerbaijan proper and its enclave via
Armenia). However, the idea failed to take hold in both Baku and

The ‘territories
for status’ formula is imbalanced and looks like an arbitrariness
of the victor, since it is based on “the last test of forces.” On
the other hand, Baku’s eagerness to offset it by calls for revenge
looks highly unpromising, too. While the Azerbaijani calls refer to
a future war, the Armenian formula refers to a past war. This is a
quagmire, since no one will resurrect the victims of the past, and
revenge would mean numerous new victims and unclear results. A more
modest equation suggesting ‘territories for security’ would look
much better, as it would reflect the balance of interests of people
living in Nagorno-Karabakh and in neighboring parts of Azerbaijan.
It also implies much more justice. Compared with the current
situation, all the sides involved would be winners then, and each
in its own way. The key here lies in the degree of reliability of
general security and in the sides’ commitment to their


From the very
start, the Karabakh talks recognized that finding a solution to the
status of Nagorno-Karabakh would take time and would be formulated
after the consequences of the military conflict were eliminated. At
the same time, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh insisted on a package
resolution to all problems.

The argument over
whether to adopt a gradual or a package method lost its
significance over time as the mediators and parties to the conflict
opted for a mixed version, incorporating both gradual and package
elements. Now the package focuses not on the region’s final status
but on the procedure for determining it by the free will of the
Nagorno-Karabakh people. The Armenians have agreed to an initial
withdrawal from five districts around Nagorno-Karabakh before its
final status is determined. All the sides have agreed to a
stage-by-stage implementation of any agreements that they may

An agreement on
Nagorno-Karabakh’s provisional status might defuse tensions during
the transition period during which talks will continue and the
sides will effectuate coordinated steps. However, unlike
Azerbaijani political analysts, the government in Baku does not see
any sense in such an agreement, even though Nagorno-Karabakh’s
provisional status is inescapable and already exists – de facto
without being endorsed de jure.

What is needed
then to pull the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement problem out of its
long deadlock and to begin a gradual cession of the occupied –
mostly Azerbaijani – lands?

In the first
place, it is essential to pull the problem out of the previous
military context and to put it into the domain of politics, law and
morals, given the importance of the quickest possible – and
unconditionally voluntary – return of displaced persons and
refugees to their former homes.

This is where
psychological and emotional factors trouble the Armenians, who
claim that these territories form a security belt around
Nagorno-Karabakh, especially since so many lives were lost fighting
for these lands. Radical nationalists insist that the population be
moved there as a kind of compensation for the fact that scarcely
none of the 350,000 to 400,000 Armenian refugees will want to live
under the authority of Azerbaijan again (although the Azerbaijanis
may also demand a return to Armenia of their fellow-countrymen
expelled in 1988). Or the other party may issue counterclaims for
the expulsion of Armenians from Nakhichevan. These appeals to the
past might roll on endlessly.


The biggest
obstacle to freeing the territories, however, is posed by regular
threats on the part of the Azerbaijani leaders to resort to the use
of force. These threats contain an element of bravado that aims to
support domestic politics, but Baku’s eagerness to intimidate
Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia has forced them to consider the
problem in the previous military key and to hang on to the
well-reinforced line of contact. Besides, this is the best present
to those who condemn a pullout from the occupied lands. Will anyone
reduce their line of defense, especially given the current degree
of mistrust and incessant threats from official quarters? Yerevan
and Stepanakert believe that it could only be possible to pull out
of any of the occupied districts (and thus destroy the ‘Maginot
Line’) if there is total confidence that hostilities will not

scientist Fikret Sadykhov characterized Baku’s mood this way: “For
the past ten years Azerbaijan has been placed on the same bench
with a country that occupied the territories belonging to us. We
are forced into talks with it and it is demanding that we find a
peaceful solution, although the occupation of our lands was carried
out militarily. Naturally, this state of affairs rests on elemental
injustice.” Could it be that Dr Sadykhov is unaware of what
happened and how? His line of logic looks somewhat

The interests of
a peaceful resolution and an end to the occupation demand that all
the parties strictly abide by the principles of the OSCE that call
for a peaceful settlement of disputes and refraining from the
threat or use of force. These principles were laid out in the
Helsinki Accords as a basis for the peaceful resolution of


A resumption of
hostilities, should it become a reality, might have far worse an
impact and inflict far greater losses and devastation than the
military action of 1992-1994. This time, well-equipped armies would
replace the then semi-guerilla groupings. Still, none of the sides
will be capable of a blitzkrieg of this sort in the next four or
five years, given the current proportion of forces. Moreover,
protracted military operations play havoc primarily on those who
launch them. The fact per se requires a conscientious approach on
the part of top leaders.

A war would be
equally dangerous for the international community. The South
Caucasus is not the region where one should stand by and watch
indifferently as things unfold. It would not be easy to justify a
new slaughter by references to the Armenian occupation, since
everyone sees that both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are insisting
unequivocally on a compromise peaceful solution. Amid this
background, Baku is threatening them with a war if they do not
capitulate, which means a demand for an unconditional retreat from
everywhere, including Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A new use of force
in this region would be viewed as a still greater anomaly than the
detestable heritage of the past war – the occupation of foreign

The side which
violates the armistice will come under fire as an encroacher on
OSCE principles and on its obligations to the Council of Europe. It
will be condemned by member-states of the OSCE’s Minsk Group and by
its powerful co-chairmen. High-ranking officials from a number of
countries and influential international organizations have spoken
out openly against armed action. Many may recall that war is
against Azerbaijan’s Constitution, in which Article 9 denounces
hostilities as an instrument for resolving international conflicts.
Bellicose threats from Azerbaijani leaders are already undermining
respect for the country’s basic law. They keep citing the
Constitution on the issue of a Nagorno-Karabakh referendum, but
never say a word about Article 9.
New hostilities will also give others an opportunity to remember
the buildup of the arms race in the region and a sharp increase in
Azerbaijan’s defense spending. The disregard with which Baku
treated the February 4, 1995 agreement with Nagorno-Karabakh and
Armenia on stopping incidents at the line of contact (signed at
Heydar Aliyev’s instruction) will also contribute to this. Barely a
day goes by without a report by the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry on
violations of the armistice by the Armenians and on victims of
Armenian gunfire. Here we come across another flaw in logic. If
Baku wants to see an end to these armed incidents, why does it not
think about meeting the provisions of a document officially signed
under the auspices of the OSCE?

Armenia and
Nagorno-Karabakh have on many occasions issued statements that they
are ready to observe the agreement if Azerbaijan shows its
readiness to do the same, but Baku has kept silent on this issue
for more than ten years. If Baku finds the agreement imperfect, it
would only be logical to adjust it, amend it or sign a new one. Yet
it looks like victims are more preferable as a pretext for fanning
tensions and conducting vociferous propaganda.

So for the time
being forceful revenge seems to be an unprofitable adventure at
least, but it might entail very grave consequences. As the U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried indicated, a war would
ruin Azerbaijan’s future.


Hawkish blinders
are not letting Azerbaijan see that it will benefit from renouncing
an armed solution to the conflict. Not only will this renunciation
help funnel more money to the development and improvement of
people’s lives, but it will also strip Armenians of the arguments
in favor of ‘the Nagorno-Karabakh security zone.’ The return of
many districts without a single shot being fired would mean an
important success for the Azerbaijani authorities and would find
broad international support. This will not solve the problem of
Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, but it would radically improve the
atmosphere and open up ways to find a compromise at further

The sides have so
far ignored the apparent benefits of a productive approach toward a
peace settlement. None of the sides is ready to declare a long-term
course toward a historic reconciliation between the Azerbaijanis
and Armenians that would be the only correct solution in this
situation, and none is ready to offer to the opposing side that
this be done together. In the meantime, an evasion or rejection of
this offer is fraught with dire costs in the international arena.
The international community would actively support even a
unilateral declaration of this kind of course and would thus put
the other conflicting side into an unprofitable position. And yet
Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh underestimate this resource, while
Azerbaijan fans negativism and is pushing itself deeper and deeper
into a blind alley where it will be still harder to turn toward a
constructive solution, which might simply resemble a capitulation
against today’s background. A change of leaders will give the
Armenians more room to maneuver, since it will be easier for new
people to take steps toward a settlement. In contrast, an
Azerbaijani president seeking re-election is much more shackled by
the policies he conducted during this term of office.

The only way to a
political breakthrough in Karabakh and to the earliest possible
withdrawal from the occupied lands is to completely abandon the
chimera of a forceful resolution to the conflict. The sides should
ensure comprehensive conditions for the non-resumption of
hostilities under the mediation of the international community.
This is not an area where one can exclusively rely on oneself or on
external patronage. Neither way is reliable if taken alone and
there need to be a combination of efforts.

It is widely
known that the sides have pledged to resolve the conflict
peacefully. So what is stopping them from formalizing those pledges
in an agreement on the non-resumption of military actions,
considering that the case in hand is a confirmation of previous
obligations, not the assuming of new ones? There is no doubt that
these pledges were given to international organizations, not to the
opposite sides in the conflict, but this does not change the whole
situation. The parties should create grounds for attaining the
first plausible shifts in the settlement process and eradicate the
calls for war that one could hear over recent years.

The sides could
sign an agreement declaring that there is no alternative to a
peaceful solution. A divergence of this kind would be difficult for
the Azerbaijanis, but Baku cannot blame anyone for this. Guarantees
from the UN Security Council or, at least from the co-chairmen of
the Minsk Group, are needed to ensure that the document does not
boil down to a sheer declaration and to prevent the sides from
renouncing or disrupting the commitments it specifies.

It looks rather
strange that high-ranking officials at the OSCE have not yet
proposed an agreement like that, since their mission is to
promulgate an exclusively peaceful resolution to the conflict. They
do not have the right to offer feeble reactions to serial threats
coming from officials, to incidents at the line of contact, or to
the acceleration of the arms race. Mediators are not referees, and
yet they are obliged to defend the peace mission that the parties
to the conflict undersigned a long time ago. The OSCE is first of
all an organization for security, and cooperation in Europe comes

A practical
question unavoidably arises then: Where should the
Armenian-Karabakh troops retreat to until the final status of
Nagorno-Karabakh is defined? Both the central Azerbaijani
government and the Nagorno-Karabakh government eliminated the
borders of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region long ago.
In addition, those borders had an overly indented contour that is
totally unsuitable for placing forces along their perimeter even
during a transition period. In order to begin an earliest possible
withdrawal from these occupied territories, the parties need direct
talks on straightening the border and making it serve as a
conventional border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, Yerevan will hardly take upon itself the organization of
such talks. And will the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities allow it to
do this?

It would be
highly desirable to launch talks between Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh
as early as possible, even prior to an agreement on the exclusively
peaceful resolution of the conflict, in order to avoid intentional
delays in the pullout of troops. As Baku brushes Nagorno-Karabakh
aside at the negotiations with Yerevan, it only impedes the start
of direct talks with the much-troubled region, all the more so that
“contacts between the two communities in Nagorno-Karabakh” are a
poor replacement for negotiating.


Considering the
heavy burden of past conflicts between the Azerbaijanis and
Armenians, there have been many specific demands issued to the
international peacekeeping operation in Nagorno-Karabakh. It must
be flexible in form and tough in essence, short in deadlines (just
two to three years) due to its huge cost and reliable in what
concerns final results.

It will require a
two-stage mandate, including the right to use force at any time
against those who violate the agreement. Control over demilitarized
territories in the first phase will require that military observers
be deployed along the line of contact and the line of disengagement
(especially in the spots where communication routes cross the two
lines). A mobile strike force will also need to be deployed. Once a
signal is received from the observers, the force should be able to
advance quickly to the place where the violation occurred (or,
possibly, to two places at once) to block or even repel the enemy.
Moreover, measures against violators, ostensibly coming from the
civilian population, should also be considered.

The mandate for
the second phase should from the very start predestine the
transformation of peacekeeping efforts into the enforcement of
peace. The countries taking part in it will be expected to offer
firm guarantees for resuming it in this very form. A changeover
from peacekeeping to peace enforcement, if need be, would rule out
or considerably limit the possibility that one of the sides would
be tempted to return to forceful methods after the first phase is

Such toughness of
the international operation in Karabakh is justified by the fact
that, unlike in Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the Dniester region,
much more is at stake here than the settlement of this particular
conflict. The case in hand deals with the importance of fully
eliminating bloody clashes between the Azerbaijanis and Armenians
in the long term, as such misadventures have regularly plagued life
in the entire Caucasian region in the past and can aggravate the
international situation on the whole in the present.