Who Is to Blame for the Karabakh Impasse?
No. 1 2008 January/March

© «Russia in Global
Affairs». №
1, January — March 2008

Fuad Ahundov
is a political scientist.

Contrary to
expectations, the end of the Cold War did not bring about a
strengthening of general security and one of the reasons for this
was a sharp deterioration of ‘local’ conflicts, most of which
flared up in the territories of former socialist federations – the
Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The conflict
between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region
stands out among other conflicts: the government in Baku and a
number of international organizations – first of all the Council of
Europe and the Organization of the Islamic Conference – have
qualified it as Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan.

Diplomats from
many countries are working toward finding a settlement for this and
many other conflicts. Yuri Merzlyakov, co-chairman of the Minsk
Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,
is taking care of the problem on Russia’s behalf. It goes without
saying that a durable peace settlement and finding a long-lasting
stable peace is impossible without understanding – including on the
part of the mediators – the essence of the conflict. In this light,
it is totally counterproductive to apply highly stereotypical and
unimaginably oversimplified schemes to this conflict.


One of the
over-simplistic formulas (which is popular, but still highly
erroneous) suggests an opposition between the right of nations to
self-determination and the principle of territorial integrity. This
was the opinion of Tigran Torosyan, speaker of the Armenian
parliament, who commented on the
Karabakh conflict
in Russia in Global Affairs (No. 4,

It is hardly
possible to consider such interpretations as correct. First and
foremost, the right of nations to self-determination does not
automatically mean the right to secession and endless fragmentation
of states. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a note once on the
dangers inherent in “broad interpretations” of the right to
self-determination when applied to local conflicts in former
socialist federations. As he commented on the West’s readiness to
press forward with recognizing Kosovo’s independence in spite of
objections from the Serbian government, Putin said: “Do you ever
think that employing the principle of self-determination for
nations will fuel negative processes far beyond the former
post-Soviet space?” “Why provoke this? I think this is highly
detrimental and dangerous,” he said.

politicians and diplomats have always recognized the degree of
risks coming from broad interpretations of the right to
self-determination, which Putin warned about. The UN Charter, as
the cornerstone of international law, does not contain anything
that would make it possible to consider this right as a basis for
an endless partitioning of countries up to the ‘self-determination
of streets’ and ‘sovereignty of households.’ Many researchers,
including Dr. Yuri Reshetov, point out the absence of an equation
mark between the right to self-determination and the right to
secession. The former right can and must be implemented in the form
of autonomies, local self-government, etc. Moreover, one should not
mix up the notions of nationality, nation, and ethnic

The evolution of
the principle of self-determination can be traced throughout the
process of forming the UN Charter. The proposals examined at a
conference in Dumbarton Oaks did not include provisions concerning
self-determination. They were put in the charter at the San
Francisco conference as amendments by the great powers. The
materials summarizing the process of looking over the amendments
said that the principles of equality of nationalities and the right
to self-determination are two integral elements of a single norm.
Participants in the conference also stipulated that the principle
of equality and self-determination of peoples conforms to the UN
Charter’s objectives by virtue of the fact that implies only the
right to self-government as opposed to the right to secession.
Thus, the origin and legitimate content of the principle of
equality and self-determination state unambiguously that the
principle initially ruled out secession. The Universal Declaration
of Human Rights did not contain the right to self-determination of
a nationality either.

The principle of
self-determination received a boost as the colonial system
collapsed. As huge ‘colonies,’ ‘overseas dependencies’ and
‘overseas territories’ that previously had names like British
Tanzania, the Belgian Congo, etc., shook off the colonial yoke,
European governments thousands of kilometers away could no longer
exercise power in the lands they had controlled in the past.
Colossal territories with huge populations were left without any
government at all, and this process, unique in its own way,
required a legislative framework, for which the principle of
self-determination alone could provide legal grounds.

Still, the wars
for mineral resources that broke out soon after (like the
rebellions in the Katanga province of the former Belgian Congo and
in Nigeria’s Biafra) made it very clear what staking on the rights
of peoples to self-determination was fraught with after the power
of far-away metropolitan European countries had disappeared.
European power was replaced with a chain of bloody wars of
extermination, the splitting of countries and the monopolization of
power by feudal princes, tribal chiefs, etc.

One way or
another, the UN agencies reaffirmed some significant postulations
in the wake of tough anti-colonial and, more importantly,
post-colonial experiences.

First, the right
of a nation to self-determination should not be mixed up with the
rights of ethnic minorities, as the authors of the UN Charter did
not intend this right for minorities.

self-determination must not undermine a nation’s unity or create
obstacles to exercising this unity to the detriment of national

Last but not
least, a research paper The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,
which the UN compiled in 1981, indicates that the principle of
equal rights and self-determination, as put in the UN Charter, does
not grant an unlimited right of secession to people living in the
territory of an independent sovereign state, and such a right
cannot be regarded as a provision of lex lata. Support for the
right of secession or instigation for it on the part of foreign
countries should be viewed as a gross contradiction to the
principle of respect for territorial integrity that underlies the
principle of the equality of states. It states further that it
would be dangerous to include recognition of a general and
unrestricted right to secession in international law, since the
rights of the population living in the territory of one or another
country are regulated by the national constitutional law of that

The authors of
the paper said at the same time that the principle of equality and
self-determination must serve the unification of peoples on a
voluntary and democratic basis and must not break up the existing
national state entities. It is important to avoid any formulations
of the principle that might be interpreted in terms of expanding
the sphere where it has an effect or preconditioning its
application to the peoples that already constitute an integral part
of an independent and sovereign state.

Acting in any
other manner would be tantamount to connivance with separatist
movements in sovereign countries and might provide a pretext for
putting the national unity and territorial integrity of sovereign
countries into jeopardy. The authors also believe that the right to
self-determination has been put into international documents for
purposes other than instigation of separatist or nationalistic

Also, the authors
voiced confidence that the international community has become
mature enough to be able to tell genuine self-determination from
ones that are fronts for acts of secession.

Dr. Natalia
Narochnitskaya, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s International
Affairs Committee and the chairperson of the Duma’s commission in
charge of studying the practice for ensuring human rights and basic
freedoms in foreign countries, summed up both the theoretic
development of international law and the political experience
painfully gained by the world community. “One should not make
references to the right of peoples to self-determination,” she
said. “In the first place, contrary to illusions, international law
does not recognize this right. Otherwise it would plant a bomb
under any federated or multiethnic state. This immediately sets a
precedent and gives a pretext for analogies – for example, Chechnya
in Russia or the Basques in Spain. The international community will
never accept this, all the more so that international law really
does not recognize it. International legislation interprets that
right currently as the right to cultural autonomy, in the first
place, that is, the right to maintain ethnic life within the
boundaries of a state where a different nation is

Dr. Valentin
Romanov, a professor of international law at the Russian University
of People’s Friendship, said that although the UN Charter lists
self-determination as a principle, the latter does not show up
among the principles that, according to the Charter’s Article 2,
provide guidelines for the activity of the organization and its
members. The principle of self-determination is not a
self-domineering concept but, rather, one of the basics for
peaceful and friendly relations between nations. Add to this that
the UN Charter inseparably links self-determination to equality of
peoples, which presupposes respect for the rights of not only a
self-determining ethnic entity, but also the rights of the
remaining part of the population, the life and future destiny of
which will be affected by the self-determination

An analysis of
international documents (as opposed to their quasi-scientific
interpretations) dispels all doubts that the thesis on the right of
peoples to self-determination does not apply to local conflicts in
the former Soviet Union in general and to the Armenian-Azerbaijani
conflict in particular, to say nothing of the fact that it cannot
provide grounds for sawing off a part of territory of an
internationally recognized sovereign state. It is noteworthy that
quasi-states usually ignore the internationally accepted meaning of
self-determination and cling to its so-called Leninist version,
which suggests “self-determination up to secession” that first
appeared in the documents of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’
Party (Bolsheviks). It showed up later on many occasions in the
documents of various Communist parties, and yet one will easily
notice that international law operates according to a different
interpretation, which straightforwardly says that secession is

The process of
self-determination – especially secession – can only be implemented
through legitimate methods. It means that secession is possible
only where it is envisioned in the national legislation. As life
shows, this clarification is more than important.

“self-determination” in both mountainous and lowland Karabakh went
hand in hand with acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing of
Azerbaijanis. The Hocali Massacre on February 26, 1992, was the
bloodiest, but far from the only such episode.

But most
importantly, the involvement of the Armenian army’s regular units
made up of draftees in military operations in Azerbaijani territory
rules out any talk of “self-determination.” The whole story stirs
up memories of the Third Reich’s concern for the “oppressed ethnic
Germans” in Czechoslovakia, Poland and other European countries at
the end of the 1930s.

Many analysts say
that the May 9, 1992, seizure of the town of Susa, where
Azerbaijanis made up the majority of the population and were
totally unwilling to accept ‘self-determination in the form of
secession,’ as well as the seizure of Lacin located outside of the
former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, provided evidence of a
war for territory. Even more, it is impossible to classify the
seizures of districts adjoining Nagorno-Karabakh and the expulsion
of all the population from there as acts of

In other words,
unlike numerous other conflicts, the Armenian-Azerbaijani standoff
over Nagorno-Karabakh reveals the presence of territorial claims on
the part of Armenia.

Incidentally, in
1988 when, according to Armenian claims, “deputies of
Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional council passed a resolution” [at a
session that was illegitimate, in fact, since the council’s
deputies of Azerbaijani ethnicity – 30 percent of the total list –
were not informed of its convocation – F.A.], the document spoke
precisely of “Nagorno-Karabakh’s unification with Armenia.” Two
years later, the Armenian parliament passed a constitutional act on
the region’s merger with the then Soviet republic of

Realizing that
this was an overt territorial claim, Armenia tries to pass it off
today as a nation’s right to “self-determination,” i.e. secession
from Azerbaijan. Armenians living in the North Caucasus, where
their population is almost as large as in Armenia proper, could
claim secession from Russia in much the same way, for

Imagine a
homeless person who seizes a house belonging to legitimate owners,
then throws them out along with their possessions. When the case
goes to court, a lawyer says that the right to housing falls into
the category of basic human rights, that each person must have
shelter over his or her head, that society should not sit back and
watch how people are reduced to a life on the streets, that it must
fight poverty and help the homeless to find a place to live. These
arguments do have grounds, and yet the right to housing and the
importance of fighting poverty do not justify the seizure of
someone else’s house. References to self-determination of nations
as a tool for legitimizing self-proclaimed quasi-states are nothing
more than juridical trimmings, or attempts to impart the consonance
with international law postulation to completely unlawful acts.
They represent an overt misuse of notions and terms.

Another thing is
obvious, too. The Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh are not a
nation in the legislative sense of the word. The commonly accepted
understanding of a nation as a stable, historic community of people
living within certain boundaries and who perceive themselves as an
entity cannot be applied to the community of ethnic Armenians
living in one of the regions of Azerbaijan. What is more, this
formulation shows that the notion is losing the former ethnic
underpinning today. The existence of the Republic of Armenia per se
furnishes the Armenian people with enough opportunities for
self-determination and development of its own statehood. It is amid
this background that one can and should raise the issue of local
self-government and development of the humanitarian sphere, but not
in any way the issue of secession and creation of a fourth
independent state in the South Caucasus, which would be the second
Armenian state in the region.


While discussions
on an alleged contradiction between the right to self-determination
and territorial integrity go on continuously in the pages of
research periodicals, attempts to provide a systemic analysis of
the conflict are much scarcer. Vladimir Kazimirov has tried to do
something along these lines in Russia in Global Affairs (No. 1,
2008, pp. 188-199). Alas, his article will mislead readers rather
than fill in existing blanks.

The prehistory of
the conflict is so recondite and tragic that even the conflicting
sides themselves stay away from sorting out (at least in public)
who of them was the first to throw a stone at their neighbor’s
house. Such sorting outs have fallen out of fashion in both Baku
and Yerevan. Yet Kazimirov, who has not taken part in the real
settlement of the conflict for quite some time and thus has
overlooked the progress of the situation, finds it necessary to
delve into the past. The historical references he makes abound in
inaccuracies and look overtly biased and apologetic.
Even a cursory analysis of events in the zone of the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, actions and statements by the sides
leaves no doubts that the case in hand has evolved from territorial
claims of one state to another state. This is a conflict of
philosophies, if you like it – tolerance versus monoethnicity,
harmonious co-existence with neighbors versus the tactics of
endless territorial claims to neighboring countries.

There are very
few countries where a single nation makes up more than 99 percent
of the population. The best known examples are Japan and Iceland —
insular state entities that formed amid conditions of a natural
geographic isolation. Armenia is the only monoethnic state in the
Caucasus, a multiethnic and multi-religious part of the globe where
even neighboring villages sometimes speak different languages. Most
remarkably, Armenia is not surrounded by water but, rather, by
multi-ethnic countries, namely Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey and

However, Armenia
was not always ethnically homogeneous. At the time when the
Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was established within the
boundaries of the modern Republic of Armenia, i.e. with the
inclusion of Geicha and Zangezur, Azerbaijanis were equal in number
with Armenians, according to some data, or even surpassed them,
according to other data. “Armenianization” was carried out quite
artificially and to no small a degree with the aid of multiple
resettlements and ethnic cleansings. The resettlements and ethnic
cleansings were not only a Soviet practice: they began in the early
19th century when Russia invaded the Caucasus. It was the time when
hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians began to move to Russia
from Persia and Turkey. In 1828, the Russian Empire’s ambassador to
Teheran, Alexander Griboyedov, who was named in charge of the
Armenians’ resettlement, drew the Tsar’s attention to what he
described as “inept Armenian propaganda against local Moslems” (who
had to make room for Armenian resettlers).

Take for instance
the mass deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia on the basis a
decree from Stalin in 1948-1953. While the Crimean Tatars, Chechens
and other nationalities were deported under the formal pretext of
punishment for their collaboration with the Nazis during World War
II, the Azerbaijanis were forced to move out simply because of
their ethnic origin. Other repressed peoples were deported from all
major places of residence, but Azerbaijanis were only deported from
Armenia, obviously because it was to be “cleaned up.” The
authorities also decided to “clean up” all place-names in Armenia.
The Soviet Council of Ministers, in numerous resolutions, changed
more than 2,000 names. Yet, the Soviet period was not enough for
such an “epoch-making” Armenianization of place-names. According to
Manuk Vardanian, the head of Armenia’s State Real Property Cadastre
Committee, “the process of renaming populated localities in the
country, whose names have Turkic origin, must be completed in

The reader needs
only to look up familiar place-names in Armenia or in Azerbaijan’s
Nagorno-Karabakh in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia or its abridged
version. After a place-name, one will see in parentheses the date
when it was renamed and its historical name. For example, Yerevan
(Erivan, named after Revangulukhan), Sevan (Gekcha, “wonderful” in
Azerbaijani), Stepanakert (Khankendi, “khan’s village” in
Azerbaijani), etc. The next wave of resettlements and ethnic
cleansings occurred in 1985 and in 1988-1989 (the last wave also
affected Russians belonging to the Molokans religious group, Kurds
and other nationalities).

In fact, the
conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh did not begin in 1988, as Vladimir
Kazimirov claims. It began much earlier – at the instigation of
Armenian nationalistic quarters. On December 11, 1985, the
newspaper GAMK, which is published in Armenian in France, published
a political manifesto from the nationalistic party Dashnaktsutiun.
It said, in part, that the organization had plans to fight for a
“free and united Armenia” with the inclusion of “Armenian
territories listed in the August 1920 Treaty of Sevres, such as
Nakhichevan, Akhalkalaki and Karabakh.” Not only Azerbaijani
politicians, but Armenian ones too, including the leader of the
National Democratic Union of Armenia Vazgen Manukian, admitted that
the tone of the standoff in the Karabakh issue was set by “parties
of the Spiurk,” or the Armenian diaspora.

Kazimirov, who
tries to be evenhanded, resorts to outright stretching along the
way. For example, he puts an equation mark between the ethnic
cleansing in Armenia from 1985-1989, in which no less than 200
people were killed by the roughest count, including several dozens
killed very brutally, while another 240,000 people were forced to
flee their homes, and the amorphous allegations that “Armenians
were squeezed out of Nakhichevan.” Armenian nationalists have been
fanning the latter story in recent years, but they have failed to
present any proof to the world community and will not likely
present any. Attempts to counterbalance the genocide in Hocali with
Armenian myths about a “tragedy” in the village of Maraga look
equally awkward.

Kazimirov turns a
blind eye to the main element of the conflict – the terrorist
methods that the Armenians resorted to from the very start of the
confrontation with Azerbaijan. Influential people in
Nagorno-Karabakh, some of them law-abiding Armenians, were the
victims of terrorist acts.

The April 14,
1992 murder of the regional legislature speaker Artur Mkrtchian,
the director of Stepanakert airport A. Shukhanian, and Valery
Grigorian, a senior official at the Stepanakert Communist Party
City Committee, was just the tip of the iceberg.

terrorists have repeatedly bombed buses and subway trains in
Azerbaijan. They even used the services of North Caucasian
militants who had received training in camps run by Armenia’s
secret services. A number of terrorist acts were committed in
Russia too. It is enough to recall the assassination of Colonel
Vladimir Blakhotin, the commander of the Soviet Union’s Interior
Troops in the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia, in April 1991. He
was killed by a group of Armenian militants who had arrived from
Nagorno-Karabakh. The investigation of explosions in the Baku metro
and at a Baku railway station also exposed a criminal grouping
headed by Armenian secret services officer Jaan Oganessian. Its
members also committed a number of terrorist acts in Russia,
including in Chechnya.

On November 20,
1991, a Mi-8 helicopter was brought down near the village of
Karakend. It was carrying a group of important Azerbaijani
government officials, Russian military observers Major General I.D.
Lukashov and Lieutenant-Colonel M.V. Kocharov, and Kazakhstan’s
First Deputy Interior Minister S.D. Serikov, who were traveling to
the region on a peacekeeping mission.

terrorists Monte Melkonian, Vazgen Sisliyan and others took an
active part in the military fighting against Azerbaijan. The New
York Times reported that Armenia’s President Levon Ter-Petrossian
attended the funeral of terrorist Monte Melkonian (who had been on
Interpol’s most wanted list and who was killed in Nagorno-Karabakh)
in the summer of 1993. In 2001, the French authorities released
from jail Varoujan Karapetian, who had been sentenced to life in
prison for planting a bomb at Orly airport in Paris. Armenia gave
him – and other terrorists who had finished their terms in prison –
a state welcome.

Kazimirov throws
out all pretences of impartiality when he gets down to the seed of
the problem. He states bluntly that “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.” He says this at a time
when international observers, including co-chairmen of the OSCE’s
Minsk Group, admit that the settlement process is being obstructed
by Armenia and not by Azerbaijan. A one-sided analysis of this sort
is nonsensical in mediatory diplomacy.

exclaims pathetically that high-ranking officials at the OSCE “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.” He purports that mediators are
not referees, “yet they are obliged to defend the peace mission
that the parties to the conflict signed a long time ago. The OSCE
is first of all an organization for security, and cooperation in
Europe comes second.”

The answer to why
the OSCE does not react to statements by Azerbaijani officials is
all too obvious – whatever the intensity of the willingness to
bring the conflict to a peaceful settlement, no one has taken away
the right of a country to self-defense yet. Like the principle of
territorial integrity, this is a cornerstone element of world
order. This gives a still clumsier look to Kazimirov’s desire to
pedal on the allegation that combat operations and the occupation
continued due to official Baku’s aggressiveness and commitment to
“forceful solutions” and not due to aggression on the part of
Armenia. As a mediator, he must know perfectly well that it was
Armenia that repeatedly broke the ceasefire.

Finally, when
Kazimirov tries to compare the Azerbaijani and Armenian defense
potentials at the time when hostilities broke out, he somehow
hushes up the massive “lending” of combat units by the Russian army
to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh during Pavel Grachev’s reign at the
Russian Defense Ministry. Illegal supplies of weaponry skyrocketed
too. Members of the State Duma, the late General Lev Rokhlin and
incumbent Siberian governor Aman Tuleyev estimated those supplies
at $1 billion in 1997. Russian servicemen who took part in
operations on the Armenian side were taken prisoner more than once
by Azerbaijani forces. They were handed over to Russia at the
personal requests of Boris Yeltsin and Pavel Grachev, and Kazimirov
is fully aware of this.

The retired
diplomat’s efforts to apportion all responsibility for military
action and its aftermath exclusively to Azerbaijan look
unconvincing, to put it mildly, as does his desire to accuse Baku
of encroaching on four UN Security Council resolutions. Remember
that those resolutions demand a pullout of troops from the occupied
territories and are addressed to Armenia.

claims that Armenia has ostensibly repeatedly accepted even
unfavorable proposals from the mediators and that Azerbaijan
rejected them are bewildering.

In reality,
Yerevan also rejected the ‘package’ and ‘stage-by-stage’ peace
plans. It only accepted a plan promulgating a ‘common state’

fumbling to find a criminal element in the fact that the
Azerbaijani Constitution does not envision a referendum on a part
of the country’s territory is ludicrous, as legislation in many
countries also does not envision this.

The plan he
proposes boils down to an “exemplary flogging” of Azerbaijan for
calling for a military resolution to the conflict, but this plan
hinges on the thesis that “the Azerbaijanis are to blame for
everything” and it a priori will not lead to a durable peace, the
same way that the craving to appease Hitler at the expense of
Austria and Czechoslovakia did not.

Amid the
background of Kazimirov’s openly pro-Armenian stance, his calls for
guarantees for the non-resumption of military actions are viewed in
Baku as Moscow’s intention to officially extend protection to
Armenia. Thus it is not at all surprising that Yuri Merzlyakov, as
the Russian co-chairman of the Minsk Group, has to regularly
disavow the statements of his predecessor as ones that do not
reflect Russia’s policies in the region. Otherwise they could deal
a blow to Russia’s image in the region and to its mediatory