Looking for a Way Out of
the Karabakh Impasse
№4 2004 October/December

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which
broke out in 1988, was the first armed clash on the territory of
the Soviet Union. It was the first conflict to erupt into a
full-scale war (1991-1994) and it surpassed all subsequent
conflicts in the post-Soviet space in terms of its magnitude,
bitterness and duration. The word ‘Karabakh’ became a common noun
used to describe any armed conflict on the territory of the former
Soviet Union.


bloodshed in Karabakh was brought to an end on May 12, 1994. Since
then, however, efforts to achieve a political settlement have been
unsuccessful, largely due to the conflicting parties’ excessive
irreconcilability and lack of flexibility. These are explained not
so much by the traditionally hot temperament and mentality of the
two peoples as by peculiarities of the conflict proper.


conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the past centuries:
bloody clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis broke out
occasionally in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This led to a
high level of mutual mistrust and emotional strain in the present
conflict, not to mention its bitterness and protractedness. These
factors help to explain the gross violations of international
humanitarian law: the warring sides often delivered strikes at
populated areas and civilian facilities, inflicting heavy
casualties on the civilian population and bringing about a mass
exodus from the region (the number of refugees and displaced
persons exceeded one million people). Characteristically, the
number of captives during the hostilities in Karabakh was much less
than the number of those killed and missing: prisoners were taken
as a very rare exception.


At the
first stage of the conflict, the warring sides deported the
civilian population. Later, the civilians themselves left their
homes en masse – tens and even hundreds of thousands of people – as
enemy forces approached, sparking fears of forced deportation and
cruel treatment. The hostilities, as well as the transport and
energy blockade, brought much suffering and deprivations to both
peoples, crippled the economy of the entire region and impaired the


isolated seats of hostilities gradually merged into a single front,
and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted into a real war which
involved heavy armaments, such as battle tanks and other armored
vehicles, artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, and bomber
aircraft. The warring sides conducted large-scale offensive
operations and seized big chucks of territory. The fighting soon
spilled over into adjacent areas, far beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh
boundaries, approaching the frontiers of other countries; the
fighting stopped short of crossing the threshold where the conflict
would have acquired an international dimension.


conflict has directly affected the interests of neighboring
countries (Russia, Georgia, Turkey and Iran) and has captured the
attention of Western powers – for geopolitical reasons and because
it is in direct proximity to the Caspian region with its rich
energy resources. The West’s attention had both positive and
negative consequences: the countries and international
organizations involved in the efforts to settle the conflict have
developed an unsound competition among themselves, giving the
conflicting parties room for maneuver and possibilities for evading
compromise. Meanwhile, a Karabakh settlement is of greater
international importance than the settlement of other conflicts on
the territory of the former Soviet Union.


difficulties in the settlement process were initiated by the
unusual political configuration of the Karabakh conflict. Unlike
the ’two-dimensional’ conflicts in Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan,
where there were direct clashes between two parties on an ethnic,
clan or other basis, the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh
politically involved not two but three parties – Azerbaijan,
Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia (however, only two warring camps
participated in the actual fighting). The situation surrounding the
legal aspects of the settlement was further complicated by the
breakup of the Soviet Union, after which the conflict ceased to be
internal, that is, in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Socialist
Republic of Azerbaijan, and became an international conflict
between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia.
This is the only conflict that has directly involved two former
Soviet republics, now sovereign countries and members of the
Commonwealth of Independent States.


factor helps to explain the cause of the argument over who should
conduct the negotiations and with whom; this dispute has been
continuing for over ten years. Before 1994, the Republic of Armenia
pretended that it was not a party to ‘the conflict between
Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.’ Indeed, Baku and Stepanakert
reached mutual agreements on ten separate occasions without
Yerevan, and only twice with its participation. In late 1993,
Azerbaijan started a game of its own, refusing to recognize
Nagorno-Karabakh as a party to the conflict and denying it the
right to participate in negotiations. Unfortunately, these
practices continue to this day. For these purely subjective
reasons, the negotiating process has been deformed; meaningful and
regular negotiations have not been conducted since 1997. Rather,
they have been replaced by shuttle trips of go-betweens, and the
occasional meetings between the two countries’ presidents and
foreign ministers.


parties have been deliberately delaying the settlement of the
conflict: the Armenians hope that everyone will get accustomed to
the status quo, while Azerbaijan pins its hopes on an oil boom and
the reinforcement of its army. Each party believes that time is on
its side, but in actual fact the hardships are great for both. The
excessive emphasis laid on propagandist arguments and disputes over
procedural issues prevents the discussion of the conflict’s
essential problems. Another obstacle standing in the way of a peace
settlement is the information war waged by all of the parties
involved: they distort the way things really stand, seek to defame
the other side and stoke distrust and mutual enmity; this is going
to have a baneful effect on the younger generation. The abundant
newspaper reports covering the settlement process are a distorting
mirror of the reality, as everything there tends to be distorted by
propaganda and false arguments. The parties often display a lack of
information or, conversely, cynically exploit the lack of
information among the population.


Nor does
the political situation in the two countries help the prospects for
a peace settlement. The respective leaders have little room for
maneuver and concessions, and domestic politics often cause them to
toughen their positions at the bilateral negotiations. For example,
the persistence with which Armenian leader Robert Kocharyan demands
a ’package settlement’ is largely explained by the fate of his
predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who did not rule out a
stage-by-stage settlement of the Karabakh conflict – his position
did not meet with public support and he had to resign from his
post. Similarly, Azerbaijani leader Heidar Aliyev in 2001 was about
to surrender Nagorno-Karabakh for a token payment in order to
relieve his successor of the unsettled burden of conflict. However,
even his administration did not support the idea, and he was
eventually forced to give it up. Besides, Aliyev (and later his
successor, his son Ilham Aliyev) strongly opposed the participation
of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiation process. One of the reasons
was that Aliyev’s main political rival, ex-speaker of parliament
Rasul Guliyev, recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a party to the


efforts to achieve a political settlement of the conflict involved
the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as
Iran and Kazakhstan, which all acted as intermediaries. Yet the
decisive contribution to the settlement was made by Russia. This
was proven by the CSCE Budapest summit in December 1994 where the
CSCE was reorganized into the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe. Russia achieved a ceasefire and launched the
negotiating process. Following the Budapest summit, Russia became a
co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group. [This group was formed de
facto in June 1992 after Azerbaijan refused to take part in the
CSCE Minsk conference on Nagorno-Karabakh until Armenians pulled
out their troops from the towns of Shusha and Lachin which they had
invaded in May 1992. The Minsk Group then comprised representatives
of 11 countries that were to take part in the conference: Armenia,
Azerbaijan, Belarus, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy,
Russia, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. Later, the group’s
composition was slightly altered. – Ed.] 


the Budapest summit, the co-chairmanship institution became the
main settlement mechanism, while the Minsk Group was used as a
platform for political consultations. The Western powers, however,
feared Russia’s growing influence in Transcaucasia and repeatedly
foiled its intermediary efforts, often through the Minsk


in 1997, international intermediaries made up of the co-chairmen of
the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, the U.S. and France) proposed three
different variants for a peace settlement: a package agreement, a
stage-by-stage settlement, and the establishment of a ’common
state.’ However, the parties rejected all of them. Then the
intermediaries proposed that Azerbaijan and Armenia work between
themselves to solve their problems with the help of intermediaries.
Now, following two dozen summit meetings and an 18-month interval
caused by a series of elections in the two countries, as well as
the illness and death of Heidar Aliyev, the presidents of
Azerbaijan and Armenia (Ilham Aliyev and Robert Kocharyan) and
their foreign ministers (Elmar Mamedyarov and Vardan Oskanyan) are
entering into dialog.


dialog can only be welcomed, of course, yet its potentialities are
obviously limited since the positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan are
even more divergent than before. They still have a very long way to
go before full-scale negotiations begin; thus far, the two parties
have only held consultations in order to forward their positions
and find, at least, some common ground. In order to realistically
approach a peace agreement Stepanakert must join the negotiations;
it continues to remain on the sidelines. The confidentiality of the
meetings and the stepped-up efforts of some international
organizations (the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the
Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly) on the Karabakh issue are
only providing fertile soil for new speculations and


Of the
many problems that provoked the conflict and were caused by the
conflict itself, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the most
pressing, despite the fact that Baku has been trying hard – and not
without success – to divert international attention to “the
occupation of Azerbaijani territory,” one of the conflict’s
consequences. Baku upholds the principle of territorial integrity,
while Yerevan advocates nations’ right to self-determination.
Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh call for a comprehensive ‘package’
solution to the outstanding problems, which would provide for
Nagorno-Karabakh joining Armenia or acquiring independence. Only on
such terms are the Armenians ready to withdraw their troops from
seven Azerbaijani districts outside Nagorno-Karabakh, which they
describe as a ‘security zone.’ The occupation is used as a trump
card (‘status in exchange for territories’). Baku insists on a
stage-by-stage solution, with the liberation of the occupied
territories as the first step. At the same time, Azerbaijan gives
only vague promises to grant Nagorno-Karabakh “the broadest
autonomy possible” and prefers to postpone the solution of the
status problem for an indefinite period of time. The
incompatibility of the parties’ demands is obvious. The disputes
about what must be done first (removing the causes of the conflict
or its consequences) is like arguing about which came first – the
chicken or the egg.


the present leader of Azerbaijan is unable to follow up on the
negotiations held by Robert Kocharyan and Heidar Aliyev in Paris
and Key West in 2001 since those negotiations focused on a package
agreement. Such an agreement would be an ideal solution, but in the
foreseeable future it will hardly be attainable: it would be
tantamount to political suicide for the Baku leaders if
Nagorno-Karabakh ends up independent of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Similarly, the leaders of Yerevan and Stepanakert run the risk of
losing their power if Nagorno-Karabakh remains part of


developments over the last few years show that the future of
Nagorno-Karabakh would best be decided not at the negotiating
table, but through a free expression of the population’s will.
Stepanakert insists that such a referendum was already held in
Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991, while Baku argues that ethnic
Azerbaijanis did not take part in it. A new referendum would be
very difficult to hold, although its outcome is quite predictable
since there are no more Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh.
(Similarly, there are no more Armenians in Baku, Gyandzh,
Shaumyanovsk and Nakhichevan.) The two peoples, which formerly
blended with each other, are now split. A voluntary return of the
refugees to their respective homes is a wonderful idea, but it
would be difficult to implement even on the territories subject to


officially the Armenians do not have claims to lands outside
Nagorno-Karabakh (except for the Lachin corridor connecting
Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia), they often refer to them as
“liberated;” they have even set up a movement that is named “For
the Defense of the Liberated Territories.” As a result, they have
done a disservice to Armenian diplomacy and played into the hands
of Baku’s propaganda of anti-Armenianism. Few people would take
such a claim seriously; it is also of doubtful value as a tactical
bargaining chip at the negotiations.


Baku goes
too far, as well, equating occupation with aggression or posing
itself only as a victim of the conflict. No doubt, occupation is a
malignant tumor of war, and one of the products of its cruel logic.
But why does Baku hush up the circumstances that brought about the
situation? It is not only the Armenians, but the leaders of
Azerbaijan, as well, who are to blame for the occupation. It was
Baku that chose to use force to settle the conflict. In the early
1990s, it more than once missed the chance for a political
settlement and repeatedly violated the cease-fire agreement that
was achieved with Russia’s assistance. Its actions ran counter to
four resolutions of the United Nations Security Council adopted in


these resolutions cannot be considered outside the context of the
hostilities in Karabakh. Of the many demands set forth in the
documents, the main one was a cease-fire and cessation of
hostilities and military actions. Resolution 853, adopted after the
Armenians seized the district of Agdam, demanded “the immediate
cessation of all hostilities and the immediate, complete and
unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces.” However,
Resolutions 874 and 884 no longer contained the words “complete and
unconditional” before “withdrawal.” By thwarting the cease-fire
arrangements (see Resolution 884), Azerbaijan itself has turned the
‘liberation of territories’ from an unconditional demand into a
subject for negotiations.


The new
leaders of Azerbaijan have taken an even tougher position on
Nagorno-Karabakh, ruling out any concessions and compromise. Baku
has abandoned itself to the chimera of military revenge. Its
threats to settle the conflict ‘at any cost’ – that is, by force –
largely meet the requirements of Azerbaijan’s domestic politics and
run counter to its international commitments. Nevertheless, this
factor does not make the threats less harmful, nor does it spare
the outside world from necessarily reacting to them. Paradoxically,
Baku’s policy plays into the hands of the Armenians as it gives
them one more argument against their pullout from the fortified
line of contact with the adversary.


Unfortunately, the spirit of a policy of force still prevails
in the conflict zone over the spirit of law. No progress will be
achieved in settling the Karabakh conflict unless the warring
parties give up their unfeasible goals. In order to enter into new,
more effective negotiations, the parties must, to their mutual
advantage, discard their fixed ideas: the Armenians must drop their
demand for a ’package settlement,’ while the Azerbaijanis must stop
issuing threats of military revenge. Both parties must officially
renounce the use of force in settling the conflict. This change in
policy will not be a loss for the parties, but will deliver them
from vain illusions.


As the
warring sides fight for their ’national interests,’ the respective
leaders ignore the common interests of the Azerbaijani and Armenian
peoples, deny them the advantages of natural and friendly relations
with their neighbors, and doom them to a life of tension and
stagnation. Since mutual mistrust is the main psychological
obstacle, it is time the leaders of the Armenians and the
Azerbaijanis proclaim (better jointly) a policy toward an historic
reconciliation. The proclamation of this lofty goal will give their
leaders the ability to negotiate balanced concessions with each
other – something which their societies are not ready to accept at
the moment. Concessions are inevitable, and even the most painful
of them will be repaid through lasting peace, economic revival and
growth for the entire region. There is much sense in the statement
that ’compromise is above victory.’


parties must restore a normal negotiating process. The best way for
this to begin is to initiate intensive talks at the level of
plenipotentiary delegations on four points simultaneously: 1) the
consolidation of the armistice regime; 2) a temporary status for
Nagorno-Karabakh and elements of its final status; 3) the
liberation of the occupied territories and the return of displaced
persons home; and 4) other points that will lead to the
normalization of mutual relations. Negotiations which are
structured around compromise would let the parties discuss all the
problems involved in the settlement, alternating the aforementioned
four issues and removing the present situation when the parties try
– persistently but vainly – to impose their own priorities on each
other. Instead of the endless debate about the hierarchy of
principles, there will emerge a possibility for pragmatic ’deals,’
for combining the parties’ interests and looking for possible ’swap
solutions,’ even though these may be dissymmetrical. Even if the
first signs of progress are made in negotiating minor issues, this
would still be important for it would be a first step out of the


compromise can also be reached on the format of the negotiations:
general issues can be discussed by the three major parties, while
more specific issues can be discussed by Azerbaijan and Armenia, or
by Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh (the third party should attend
the negotiations only as an observer, without the right to express
its own view). Furthermore, there will emerge a valuable
opportunity for ’talking in the corridors.’


the proposed negotiating scheme is not a panacea for all problems.
It would only serve to show the way out of the long deadlock and
open up prospects for gradually reducing tensions and improving the
situation in the conflict region. Considering that no headway has
been made in relations between the conflicting parties over the
last decade of the armistice, the opportunities that such a
negotiating plan can provide must not be

It is
important to note in closing that this plan would not damage the
legitimate rights and interests of any of the conflicting