The Situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Part 1: History and Current Status

The background of Nagorno-Karabakh is as storied and disheartening as one can imagine a 20 year-old frozen conflict. As always, Wikipedia has a very good primer on the subject. I suggest you go read it.

Assuming you don’t want to devote an hour to the Wikipedia article, here’s the gist. During the soviet era, the Nagorno-Karabakh region was predominantly Armenian but the Azeri soviet government controlled the region. During the breakup of the Soviet Union, the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh started a freedom movement to declare their allegiance to Armenia. Soviet and Azeri troops tried to disarm and remove support for the Fayhadee(freedom fighters) throughout the region by displacing about 17,000 Armenians in Operation Ring. In response, the Fayhadee grew more militant and secured more weapons.  With each side having armed irregular troops fearful of the other side, initial individual village attacks developed into a full-scale war. Against heavy odds, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had seized the land around Nagorno-Karabakh and established a ~40km buffer zone through military victories by the time of the 1994 cease-fire agreement. The cease-fire line established the territory of the current day country of Artsakh.

Artsakh (Արցախ) is a breakaway state that isn’t recognized by any state government in the world. In a number of ways it seems like a state, albeit a miniscule one at 4,400 square miles. It has a President, a Parliament, laws, and requires a visa to enter from Armenia. Of more practical importance, it has been self-governing for roughly 20 years. However, all states in the world view Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan. A primary reason for this has nothing to do with the current players but how states don’t want to encourage violent separatist movements.* The Minsk Group has consistently held that the creation of a separate state of Artsakh can only occur through peace negotiations. A second reason for the lack of recognition is that arguably Artsakh doesn’t fit the requirements for recognition in international law. The four requirements established in the 1933 Montevideo Convention are a defined territory, a permanent population, a recognizable state structure, and “a capacity to enter into relations with other states.” The latter term is of course nebulous and the fact that Artsakh has “representative offices” (not embassies) in other states implies that they are capable of entering into inter-state relations. In reality, the real politik style of the constitutive theory is more applicable: a state becomes a state when other states recognize it as one. This “private club” approach better describes state practice, even if it makes for worse law as it’s logically a catch-22 and heavily dependent on international politics.

In reality, it’s unlikely any state will recognize Artsakh until the Minsk Group gives the OK, and the Minsk Group won’t give the OK without a recognized peace settlement. As much as Artsakh claims independence, so many of its state structures are tied directly to Armenia. While the people living there are citizens of Artsakh, they carry Armenian passports. Armenian men often serve their mandatory two-year tour of duty in the military in Artsakh; their citizenship changes to Artsakhian and then reverts to Armenian at the end of the tour of service.

The People of Artsakh

The people of Artsakh solidly identify as both Armenian and Artsakhian. At the beginning of the liberation movement, there was an overwhelming push for unification of Armenia. While unification is no longer pushed for political reasons, the president said in a recent press conference how the two countries are de facto one. Regardless of the Armenian heritage, the people of Artsakh have a sense of camaraderie with each other that is not felt with most Armenians. Just twenty years ago, they banded together in a life or death battle over a superior opponent. Even after the war, Artsakhians suffered through years of hardship trying to assemble a government as its parent country of Armenia was not in a position to provide much support. Many Armenians did go to Nagorno-Karabakh to support the freedom fighters or to populate the region after the war, sowing discontent with Armenians that didn’t sacrifice anything for the liberation of Artsakh.

Artsakh is currently one of the primary recipients of remittances from the Diaspora. The main cities of Shushi and Stepanakert have a number of brand new buildings made to the standards of developed states. Whether hotels, apartment buildings, hospitals or gas stations, these investments are not meant to be profitable to the investor but to establish some sort of local economy. Tourism is seen as a strong source of revenue even though any tourism must come through Armenia, which is not known as a tourism capitol of the world. What tourism does exist in Armenia has to fight against constant corruption as allegedly Ryanairdiscovered when it tried to fly directly to Yerevan. Instead, Ryanair is planning a new route to mostly corruption-free Tbilisi.

Even with the support of the Diaspora, the opportunities for the people of Artsakh are extremely limited. The economy is not self-sustaining and with such large military expenditures and corruption, it’s not likely to develop anytime soon without a final peace agreement as otherwise the regions sole trading partner is Armenia. Admittedly, the Wikipedia page paints a much rosier image, but it’s unclear how Artsakh could continue to grow without aid from Armenia or remittances from the Diaspora.

I watched an interview conducted by the Aravni Organization of a woman in a small village in Artsakh about her life and its challenges. The woman came to Artsakh after the war to help the repopulation movement. While she doesn’t regret her move, she is clearly disheartened by the difficulties she faces. She works tirelessly with no support from either government. “17 years and what do we have to show for it?” she says at one point. Seventeen years later and she is still sieving flour on the floor. At one point she even implies that she is not in Artsakh because of the lack of support from the government. I bet her view is extreme, but the fact that she was and is so committed to this cause yet is willing to vocalize her anguish speaks to the hardships all the people in Artsakh must face.

Part 2 is focused on the peace process and the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.

* This fear of state break up is not new. As it’s states that make international law, it’s understandable that they’d design a system to make themselves more stable and make it harder for breakaway regions to become full-fledged states.

This fear of state Balkanization is felt in what is ostensibly a pro-separatist UN declaration. In the 1970 UN Declaration of Friendly Relations (A/RES/2625(XXV)), the General Assembly declared the freedom of self-determination of peoples:

1. By virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, all peoples have the right freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and every State has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.

The same declaration declares that:

Every State has the duty to promote, through joint and separate action, realization of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples …, [and the] duty to refrain from any forcible action which deprives peoples referred to above in the elaboration of the present principle of their right to self-determination and freedom and independence.”

Regardless of the strong rights-promoting language, the declaration severely limits its own strength:

7. Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair … the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour. (Emphasis added)

8. Every State shall refrain from any action aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of any other State or country. (Emphasis added)

In essence, people have a right to self-determination, but only if the dominant state is not in facial compliance “with the principle of equal rights.” Other states have a duty “to promote” self-determination but can do nothing that has a natural consequence of dividing the populace or breaking up the territory.

This declaration may have done more to hurt self-determination movements than to help them. While it legitimizes their existence, it forbids other states from providing any meaningful support.

Read on to Part 1.5: Rejoining Armenia.



Filed under Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

4 responses to “The Situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Part 1: History and Current Status

  1. Pingback: The Situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Part 1.5: Rejoining Armenia | Human Rights Work in Yerevan

  2. Pingback: The Situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Part 2: Self-determination vs. Territorial Integrity | Human Rights Work in Yerevan

  3. Pingback: The Situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Part 3: The Peace Process | Human Rights Work in Yerevan

  4. Pingback: The Situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Part 4: The Current Day and the Near Future | Human Rights Work in Yerevan

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