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Karabakh: peace, war and democracy

Hayk Kotanjian
3 July 2009

The south Caucasus remains a potentially explosive region. A prime necessity is to learn sober lessons from the tragic outcome of the war in Georgia in August 2008 and any possible recurrence of the attempt to resolve the regional conflicts by means of war - this time in Karabakh, the territory disputed between the two south Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Hayk Kotanjian is a major-general and  director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the ministry of defence of the Republic of Armenia

The development of military and political techniques in the attempt to "unfreeze" regional conflicts has been on the agenda for several years. These techniques have so far failed in the Caucasus. But it seems likely - notwithstanding the joint visit to Karabakh on 4 July 2009 by Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian public figures - that Azerbaijan may intend to employ the same "unfreezing" model to resolve the Karabakh conflict, understood by Baku as a "just" war to "restore the territorial integrity" of Azerbaijan. This article questions such an approach to the issue, and points to a better way.

Since the conflict of the early 1990s, a process of discussion has taken place over the future of Karabakh under the auspices of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The co-chairs of the group take as their starting-point for conflict-settlement and resolution in Karabakh three fundamental principles of the United Nations charter: namely "non-use of force, territorial integrity and peoples' free self-determination".

These appear to be encouraging indications that war will not resume over the issue. In addition, the continuous dialogue between the Armenian and Azerbaijani heads of states, interspersed with counselling by the Minsk Group co-chairs, has undoubtedly had a positive influence on the peacekeeping process in the south Caucasus. Further, the Meindorf declaration on Karabakh - signed on 2 November 2008 on the initiative of the Russian president by the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia - can be considered an important impetus for maintaining a peaceful settlement process.

Also on Armenia, Armenians and the south Caucasus in openDemocracy:

Sabine Freizer, "Dynasty and democracy in Azerbaijan" (5 December 2003)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (13 December 2005)

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart, "Hrant Dink: forging an Armenian identity in Turkey" (7 February 2006)

Shaun Walker & Daria Vaisman, "Nagorno-Karabakh's referendum" (14 December 2006)

Sabine Freizer, "Nagorno-Karabakh: between vote and reality" (14 December 2006)

Hratch Tchilingirian, "Hrant Dink and Armenians in Turkey" (23 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Armenia's election: the waiting game" (19 February 2008)

Armine Ishkanian, "Democracy contested: Armenia's fifth presidential elections" (4 March 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Armenia's mixed messages" (15 October 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Also: reports and analysis in openDemocracy's Russia section

The relatively new political leaders in the key state actors in the region (presidents Dmitry Medvedev, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as chancellor Angela Merkel) as well as other heads of state or government have been pursuing a broader, homogeneous security environment in the region involving the Russian Federation, the United States, the European Union, Nato and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This too promotes dialogue in favour of non-resumption of war in the south Caucasus.

Likewise, the beginning of Armenian-Turkish dialogue without preconditions has significantly contributed to maintaining equilibrium in the political-security environment of the region. At this stage, establishing diplomatic relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey could become a pragmatic and constructive contribution to peace in the Caucasus.

Two outlooks

Against these positive processes, the potential for a return to war over the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic - which was born as a result of the Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s, has gained de facto as well as de jure self-determination, but is unrecognised by the international community - remains.

In particular, a number of trends within Azerbaijan suggest that the use of the war option is an active possibility. These trends include military preparations, publicity campaigns involving one-sided and inaccurate historical or political claims, and a movement away from democracy in ways that support a more combative stance over the Karabakh issue. Together, these trends create a threat that stability and security in the south Caucasus will be undermined; this demands the international community's special attention.

There is a fundamental difference of outlook here between the two sides. Azerbaijan frames the Karabakh question in the paradigm of "overcoming a territorial dispute" between Azerbaijan and Armenia, whereas Armenia focuses on the paradigm of the "free self-determination" of Nagorno-Karabakh. The logic of Baku's view is to prescribe the limited, internal self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh solely as a subject of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Against this, the experience of the contemporary world is increasingly full of examples of peaceful self-determination ratified by referendum of the people of the respective territories; among them Eritrea, East Timor, Montenegro and Kosovo. In the Karabakh context, any vote by the people on their future -something proposed as part of the Minsk Group process for several years - would in fact be the latest in a series of referendums, following the ones held in held in Nagorno-Karabakh on 10 December 1991 (on independence) and on 10 December 2006 (on the constitution).

The Azerbaijani side has introduced different elements into the proposed first stage of conflict- resolution, namely the return of refugees and temporary migrants to Karabakh and taking territories out of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's security-zone. These proposals carry intrinsic difficulties, and if followed through would create tensions that that would make the holding of another referendum very difficult.

A way forward

The proposal to hold a further referendum in the initial stage of a conflict-resolution process, and not after the return of refugees and territories (whose results could be very dangerous), seems more pragmatic in terms of regional security interests and current tendencies. It could, for example, be held in the areas where Armenian and Azerbaijani communities now live, under United Nations and OSCE auspices and backed by their forceful guarantees.

At the same time, and taking into account the specific character of the Karabakh conflict, it is expedient to consider the experience of the UN and OSCE missions in Kosovo. The main feature of the Karabakh conflict is the fact of the unbroken activity across eighteen years of the democratically elected government of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. This has entailed the meeting of commitments in national- and international-security interests, including observation of the ceasefire-regime even without international peacekeeping forces in the conflict-zone. Under these conditions, the return of the Karabakh side to the negotiation process in order to reach a complete resolution of the conflict is a political-security imperative.

The approach to armed conflict-resolution by peaceful means, corresponding to the international-legal principles of non-use of force, the right to free self-determination and territorial integrity, may also become a viable alternative to new wars over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I believe that further professional development of the suggested approach to armed conflict-resolution in the region will assist the relevant national and international centres in making good decisions that will eliminate the possibility of a resumption of war and create a productive regional-security architecture in the south Caucasus.

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