By Aliyar Azimov
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan Republic. The major disagreements and clashes started at the end of the 1980s when Armenian SSR declared to annex the Nagorno Karabakh region into its territory. February 20, 1988, at the session of the NKAO (Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast) Soviet of People’s Deputies, members of the region’s Armenian community adopted a scandal resolution to appeal to the Supreme Soviets of Azerbaijan SSR and Armenian SSR to annex NKAO to Armenian SSR. At that time, it was against the Constitution of the USSR, therefore in 1990 the USSR government rejected this resolution as an illegal act and gave back its autonomous status within Azerbaijan SSR.
Following the collapse of the USSR, August 30, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan declared the restoration of state independence and adopted a Law “On the abolition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
Starting from 1992, Armenians began military activities against Azerbaijanis, especially in Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding seven districts. The collapse of the Soviet Union and political instability in Azerbaijan in early 90s caused by the internal standoff; as a result, Armenia began military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh with external military support. During 1992-1994, the active war continued in the region and Armenia occupied the whole Nagorno-Karabakh region and its surrounding territories. In 1994, the ceasefire was announced, and OSCE Minsk Group invited parties to the negotiations table.
Negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have not yielded any results for 25 years. The Minsk Group initially proposed three packages to resolve the conflict. However, these proposals were not accepted by the parties in terms of securing their interests. Finally, the Madrid Principles on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were adopted, and this document is the latest set of proposals on the current conflict.
In 2018, Nikol Pashinyan was elected as Prime Minister of Armenia by defeating Serzh Sargsyan in the elections. Pashinyan was active during his campaigns by proposing optimistic promises to both his country and region. His promises have seemed the sign of new formation of the political system in Armenia. Pashinyan also was accepted by official Baku with a mixture of optimism and skepticism due to flattering speeches towards the current issues. During Pashinyan’s campaigns, one of the promises towards region was to solve Nagorno-Karabakh conflict only peacefully and accelerate the process of peace talks with Azerbaijani government in frame of international laws in order to achieve significant steps in terms of regional integrity.
In his initial period, he showed great intention to change everything from zero. However, Pashinyan could not maintain the absolute power in his hands; he literally failed to democratize Armenia. Defeated by his rivals in internal strife, Pashinyan could not withstand the pressure and made a U-turn in his promises on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He started to provoke both sides and raise tension first by making a speech during his visit to Iran, stating “Karabakh is Armenia and that is it.”Right after this speech, he visited Shusha city to participate in the events in occupied territories; laterhe sent his son to the military service, who served in the occupied territories.
Pashinyan’s another failure in this conflict was the desire to change the format of the negotiation process. Starting from 2018, Pashinyan demanded to bring the separatist regime of Nagorno-Karabakh to the negotiations process. First, this issue contradicted the principles of the Minsk Group after the ceasefire signed in 1994, the format of negotiations and the peaceful settlement of the conflict. Secondly, since the Minsk Group last put forward the Madrid Principles for resolving the conflict, the negotiations continued around these principles. The Madrid Principles, last updated in 2009, are proposed peace settlements of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As of 2020 OSCE Minsk Groupis the only internationally agreed body to mediate the negotiations for the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Senior Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have agreed on some of the proposed principles. However, they have made little or no progress towards the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied territories or towards the modalities of the decision on the future Nagorno-Karabakh status. Third, pressure on Pashinyan and his failed foreign policy attempts further heightened tensions in the aftermath, leading to serious clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh.
As a result, the attack of the Armenian army with heavy weapons on the Tovuz Rayon of Azerbaijan changed the stability in the region and caused the regional war scenarios to be brought to the agenda once again. During the clashes in July, both sides suffered serious losses, especially in the mutual attacks that resulted in casualties between 12 and 15 July. For the first time in the conflict history, Azerbaijan lost a general in the hot conflict. The outposts belonging to Armenia, where attacks were carried out on the Azerbaijani side, were destroyed by the counter-fire of Azerbaijan. Tovuz was far from the centre of the conflict and Pashinyan’s foreign policy strategy again contradicted with what he delivered to the world community in 56th annual Munich Security Conference. Because during the debate with Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, he noted: “I am first Armenian leader to say that any solution should be acceptable to Azerbaijani people as well.”For his part, Pashinyan also said that there cannot be a military solution to the conflict in the region. Indeed, he was right; he was the only Armenian leader that supported peace talks and peaceful settlement of the conflict in recent years. However, the attack on Tovuz Rayon of Azerbaijan from Armenian territories showed that Armenian government does not have any intention to solve conflict according to the international law norms and proposals by the OSCE Minsk Group.
The clashes since September 27, 2020 in the Nagorno-Karabakh region have resulted in the largest number of reported casualties between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the last four years. According to media reports, the death toll is already well into the hundreds, with relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan now in freefall. Despite the agreed humanitarian ceasefire, the Armenian army shelled Ganja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan, three times and Mingachevir twice. Even Armenian army continued violate second agreed ceasefire by launching missile attacks to Barda, Terter, Aghjabadi, Ganja, Khizi, Mingachevir region and Absheron peninsula, which are far away from frontline. A new nightly SCUD ballistic missile attack by Armenian forces on residential area of Ganja, destroyed more than 20 houses, left more than 10 civilians killed and 40 wounded including children. This step by the Armenian leadership is aimed at expanding the geography of the war and the entry of third parties into the region. However, despite being a close ally, Russia also has called for an immediate ceasefire. Turkey, a long-standing ally of Azerbaijan, has demanded the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the line of contact, with President Erdogan underlining Turkey’s total solidarity with Azerbaijan, urging Armenia to end its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, Armenia shifted the context of the conflict and accused Turkey of arming Azerbaijan. The Pashinyan government then sought to attract the attention and support of the West by turning the conflict into a religious context. Nevertheless, neither international organizations nor states responded to the issue that Armenia wanted to deliver.
Pashinyan also failed to understand and comply with the legal aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As it is stated above, he wanted to bring the separatist regime of so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” to the negotiations process. However, no member state of the United Nations, including even Armenia, recognizes the “NKR” as an independent entity. “NKR” also does not meet any of the four principles for the formation of an independent state enshrined in the 1933 Montevideo Convention. The recent rejection of the NKR’s appeal to the European Court of Human Rights is proof that the so-called body is illegitimate. Also, Armenia did not comply with four resolutions adopted on “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” by UNSC, which recognize occupied territories as an integral part of Azerbaijan and emphasize the continuation of peace talks in this context. Commenting on the resolutions, Nikol Pashinyan tries to draw attention to the fact that the conflict is between local Armenians and Azerbaijan; however, all four resolutions start with the deterioration of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and then the escalation of armed conflict. Besides, the Security Council provides a good understanding of who is involved in the conflict by stressing the sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of international borders of all states in the region. Four resolutions passed by the UN Security Council (No. 822 – April 30, 1993; No. 853 – July 23, 1993; No. 874 – October 14, 1993; No. 884 – November 12, 1993) demand the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from therein.
It can be questioned why the UN Security Council did not mention that the conflict happened between Armenia and Azerbaijan? What is the reason for not calling Armenia as an occupier? If Armenia would have been recognized as an occupier, then new obligations would arise for the UNSC. In the meantime, Armenia had to be called as an aggressor and the resolutions adopted should have been demanded unconditionally. Due to several reasons, the UNSC did not do this but instead stressed who is responsible in this conflict. However, in a speech to the Armenian Parliament May 18, 2001, the then-Minister of Defence, former President Serzh Sargsyan, confessed: “There are lands we occupied. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We occupied those lands to ensure our security. We were saying this before 1992, and we are saying it again. My style might not be diplomatic, but that’s the reality”.
Despite all the accepted and approved international documents, the Armenian leadership wants Nagorno-Karabakh to be recognized as an independent entity because, in this way, it will be easier to control the territory in favour of Armenia. Moreover, the self-determination subject was often raised at the meetings of the OSCE Minsk Group. The deportation of Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh during the Soviet era had a serious impact on the ethnic composition of the population. Today, the Armenian diplomatic corps demands the status quo, taking into account only the ratio of 1988.However, this issue contradicts both international law and the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Therefore, the right to self-determination cannot be extended to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. According to the principle of “Utipossidetis Juris” (the principle of respect for the existing borders of the state at the time of independence) even if the status of the state changes, the existing borders are preserved. Therefore, UNSC Resolutions 853 and 884 explicitly state Nagorno-Karabakh as the territory of Azerbaijan, which shows that Armenia has grossly violated and continues to violate “jus cogens” norm by demanding recognition of NKR as an independent entity. On the other hand, in 1991, Azerbaijan declared itself as a legal successor of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and kept the Constitution of 1978 and Soviet laws till 1995 in the post-independence period. Therefore, the restoration of independence did not contradict the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and not aimed at changing national borders and state structure.
The occupation and use of military force by the Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict significantly weakens the arguments of Pashinyan about “self-determination.” Statuses acquired by a violation of the rules of “Jus ad Bellum” are not unequivocally accepted in the international arena in modern times. When evaluating the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, one shall regard principles due to their importance in that sequence: 1) “Utipossidetis Juris”; 2) territorial integrity; 3) the self-determination of peoples. Under customary international law, the self-determination right cannot be invoked if the territorial integrity and “Utipossidetis Juris” principles are breached. Thus, the two aspects of “self-determination” clearly examines the rights which nations and states can apply; internal self-determination – is the right of the people of a state to govern themselves without outside interference; external self-determination – is the right of peoples to determine their own political status and to be free of alien domination, including the formation of their own independent state. In international law, the right of self-determination that became recognized in the 1960s was interpreted as the right of all colonial territories to become independent or to adopt any other status they freely chose. Ethnic or other distinct groups within colonies did not have a right to separate themselves from the “people” of the territory as a whole. Armenian people have already exercised the self-determination right and established their state. Therefore, Armenians living in the territories of different countries, do not have a reason or right to create another Armenian state.
To put briefly, Armenians authorities’ non-compliance with international law also creates conditions for the proliferation of terrorist groups in the region. The settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under international law will ensure the security of the region and the effectiveness of economic and humanitarian assistance. Considering the slowdown in peace talks in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the failure of the OSCE Minsk Group, the unfair treatment of the Western media on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, repeatedly nurturing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity with an unreasonable attitude by Armenia, makes the region more unstable and increases border clashes. As in the past, the region will not lead to multi-directional change.