Is There A Way Out of the Karabakh Deadlock?

2 march 2008

Vladimir Kazimirov

Resume: 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.

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.

The 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 dimensions.

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 interests.

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.


The 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 Nagorno-Karabakh.

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 amendments.

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 trust.


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 places.

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 Yerevan.

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 obligations.


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 reach.

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 resume.

Political 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 strange.

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 conflicts.


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 territories.

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 negotiations.

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 second.

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 completed.

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.

Last updated 2 march 2008, 14:53

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