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Nagorno-Karabakh: European dreams

The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has managed to pursue a dynamic European and global foreign policy. Not bad for a country that doesn't officially exist.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Wikimedia. Public domain.Even before the polls closed, reactions from the international community came in. A spokesperson of the European foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini stated that ‘the European Union does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework of the elections'. The United States State Department indicated that ‘it will not accept the results of the elections’. Romania’s foreign ministry labelled the elections ‘illegal’. For Spain they were illegitimate. Ukraine stated that the results of the elections cannot have ‘any legal consequences’.

These comments were not made after the recent elections in Turkmenistan, where the current president was elected with 97.14% of the votes. Nor were they made after the presidential elections in Kazakhstan, which saw its current president re-elected with 97.75% of the votes in April.  These statements concerned an election which was described by about 100 international observers as ‘in line with international standards’, ‘orderly, free, secret and equal’ with a turnout ‘many European countries would dream of’. The only problem was that these parliamentary elections took place in an internationally unrecognised state: the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, which formed the largest ethnic group in the former oblast, voted massively in favour of independence.  Newly independent Azerbaijan considered Nagorno-Karabakh an integral part of its territory and a bloody war followed.  The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, supported by neighbouring Armenia, was able to repel attacks from the Azeri army and a ceasefire was signed in 1994, which lasts to this day.

Over 20 years later Azerbaijan still claims Nagorno-Karabakh and its 140 000 inhabitants as part of its territory. In reality the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is a de facto independent state and operates as such.  Nevertheless, for the United Nations Security Council, Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe considers the Nagorno-Karabakh to be a territory under separatist control. There are no peacekeeping forces present in the area though it is believed Russia does play a refereeing role. Violent clashes still regularly occur along the line of contact.

Despite being unsuccessful in achieving any formal international recognition, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has actively sought to strengthen its ties with Europe, which is home to a large Armenian community. In doing so it has bypassed traditional diplomatic channels and used other means to attract wider support for its cause. How does the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic seek to strengthen its engagement with Europe and why does this issue matter to the Armenian community living in Europe?

‘If the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic wants to address any international organization, formally it should be done so via Azerbaijan,’ explains Märta-Lisa Magnusson , Senior Lecturer of Caucasus studies at Malmö University.  'Azerbaijan is a member of the OSCE, Nagorno-Karabakh is not. Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, Nagorno-Karabakh is not. If these international bodies were to recognize the elections in Nagorno-Karabakh, it would be perceived as an offence by Azerbaijan.'

'Nagorno-Karabakh strives for international recognition, which is important symbolically but also politically. When Nagorno-Karabakh seeks contact with Europe it can be interpreted as a way of manifesting an independent foreign policy towards Europe,’ she says.

David Melkumyan has recently been elected to the National Assembly of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. ‘The top priority is achieving international recognition’ he says. ‘We have not been recognized by any country, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. Europe is a natural choice for us because we identify ourselves as Europeans and share the European values.'

Eduardo Lorenzo Ochoa is the director of European Friends of Armenia. He believes that despite not being able to secure recognition from the European Union and its members states, Nagorno-Karabakh is successful in its foreign policy.

‘There is an EU Nagorno-Karabakh friendship group in the European Parliament which supports Nagorno-Karabakh,’ he argues. ‘It has within its ranks MEP’s from all important groups within the European Parliament. The European Parliament has also adopted three documents encouraging European institutions to engage with civil society in Nagorno-Karabakh.  Nagorno-Karabakh has been visited by the vice-president of the European Parliament. That is not bad at all for a country that ‘officially does not exist’.

In April Mr Melkumyan's party, the Democratic Party of Artsakh became an 'associated member' of the European Free Alliance, a European political party which has 12 MEP's in the European Parliament. Shortly after this was made public, the Azeri ministry of foreign affairs released an angry press release, followed by an even angrier phone call to the European Free Alliance headquarters in Brussels. 

Eduardo Lorenzo Ochoa is not surprised by the Azeri reaction.  'For Azerbaijan this is a defeat. For them this should not have happened because to them the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should not exist and they believe that people should respect this,' he says. 'Secondly it is also a defeat because the ruling party of Azerbaijan has not been able to enter any European political party itself.'

'Azerbaijan reacts very strongly when these kind of things happen' elaborates Märta-Lisa Magnusson. 'They do so because it happens outside the control of state authorities.  They are very sensitive when the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic makes contact with Russia or Europe because they perceive it as foreign policy for which there is no mandate'.

Being an unrecognised state limits the diplomatic options of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Though it cannot open embassies abroad, it has however opened 'permanent missions', or 'representations' in countries where there is a big Armenian community such as the United States, France, Germany and Lebanon. Even though they are not officially recognized as embassies, they facilitate Nagorno-Karabakh representatives meeting foreign politicians and diplomats.  These representations are also actively conducting an 'information campaign...aimed at politicians and media in order to gain recognition for Nagorno-Karabakh.’

‘The missions in Paris in Washington are working reasonably well. I do not think it is a coincidence that another Nagorno-Karabakh friendship group exists in the French national assembly,’ says Mr Lorenzo Ochoa. Märta-Lisa Magnusson agrees: ‘They give lectures, organize cultural activities and meet audiences in the countries were they are established. They are quite successful in keeping Nagorno-Karabakh on the international agenda’.

With an estimated eight million Armenians living outside of Armenia or the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the Diaspora is of paramount importance to the Nagorno-Karabakh republic’s international efforts.  Countries like France boast a large Armenian population, many of which are descendants of immigrants who arrived after the Armenian Genocide. In France they play a prominent role in the political, economical and cultural life of the country.

André Gumuchdjian is a third generation Armenian who lives in Antwerp. His grandfather arrived in Belgium in 1908. He maintains a very strong link with the country of his ancestors and was until recently the vice-president of the Armenian Committee in Belgium.

‘I think that for many Armenians Nagorno-Karabakh represents a revenge on history,’ he says. ‘Instead of always losing, for once it is us who won something. The Diaspora loves Karabakh for its pro-active and positive side. The trauma of what we lost 100 years ago is still there and we have not resolved the issue; not only have we lost territories but Turkey still has not recognized the Genocide. Karabakh is the story of Armenians who succeed, rather than Armenians which get massacred.’

As an entrepreneur Mr Gumuchdjian has actively invested in the local economy.  ‘I have started several economic projects in Karabakh; agriculture being one of them,’ he explains. ‘I only take part in projects which have economic perspective, this is done to develop the country, create employment but also not to lose money. I try to encourage others to do so as well. Despite remaining problems there are interesting options in Karabakh.  In my case, the economy is in the service of the affective’.

‘The Diaspora has helped a lot in terms of raising awareness.  15 years ago nobody knew about Nagorno-Karabakh besides the terrible images we saw on the television during the war,’ remembers Mr Lorenzo Ochoa. ‘The Diaspora is raising awareness and some of them also participate financially. In Nagorno-Karabakh you will frequently see signs point out that the road you are driving on has been financed by, for example, the Armenians in Argentina’.

Mr Melkumyan who is also a member of the Standing Committee on Foreign Relations in the Nagorno-Karabakh National Assembly also emphasizes the importance of the Diaspora:  ‘You know how strong the Armenian Diaspora is throughout the world,’ he says. ‘If you find one single Armenian citizen or person of Armenian origin, he will be willing to represent Nagorno-Karabakh. ‘

With the conflict frozen and the Minsk group making little progress, the future of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unsure.  For Mr Gumuchdjian it is inconceivable for Nagorno-Karabakh ever to return under Azeri dominion. ‘It will remain an independent entity. For the moment living in peace with its neighbour is sadly not on the cards. I am interested in seeing Karabakh developing economically and I want the population to live without worries because its first right should be to live in security. The future of Karabakh is independent.’

Undeterred by the obvious obstacles the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has managed to conduct an independent foreign policy securing itself a place on the European agenda and in public consciousness.  It looks unlikely that Azerbaijan, despite its frequent threats, will try to take Nagorno-Karabakh by force in the foreseeable future.  On the other hand it also remains unlikely that Nagorno-Karabakh will soon join the community of universally recognized nations. It seems that for the moment it will remain, in the words of Mr Melkumyan in a state of ‘ ни войны, ни мир’: neither war nor peace.

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About the author

Lucas Goetz is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He specializes in regional minorities and stateless nations. He is the producer of the documentary Alsace: The Last Chance? His personal website can be found here.


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