Nagorno-Karabakh: Between Vote and Reality
Nagorno-Karabakh: Between Vote and Reality
Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh
Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Nagorno-Karabakh: Between Vote and Reality

On 10 December 2006, Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum in which close to 75,000 people, or 83% of voters, approved the entity's first constitution. The document calls Nagorno-Karabakh a "sovereign democratic" state. The date of its approval is significant: the poll took place fifteen years to the day after the mountainous Caucasian enclave's Armenian population voted overwhelmingly for independence.

But neither the 1991 referendum nor that of 2006 is recognised as legitimate abroad. Nagorno-Karabakh may have been establishing state-like institutions since 1991, but it continues to be internationally considered as part of Azerbaijan, and no state - not even Armenia - has ever recognised its statehood.

The long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the most significant obstacle to peace and regional cooperation in the south Caucasus. Fighting from 1992 to 1994, when a ceasefire came into effect, caused at least 30,000 deaths and over a million Azeris and Armenians were displaced. Ceasefire violations and casualties continue to occur monthly along the line of contact. Exiles from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other occupied territories around the enclave have been unable to return to their homes and continue to live in miserable conditions elsewhere in Azerbaijan.

Today, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto authorities demand independence and international recognition, citing their right to national self-determination. Azerbaijan pledges that Nagorno-Karabakh's population will be provided with the highest form of self-government but within the country's frontiers. It claims the sanctity of international borders and its right to preserve its territorial integrity. It also blames Armenia for supporting Nagorno-Karabakh militarily and economically, in effect participating in the annexation of Azerbaijani land.

A year of stasis

Since 1992, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been negotiating to find a solution. Talks have been facilitated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group, chaired by France, Russia and the United States. In 1997, 1998 and 2001 it seemed as though the sides were close to agreeing on a comprehensive settlement. However, each time, hopes were dashed.

The same occurred in 2006. Two summit meetings between Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Armenian president Robert Kocharian were held in the first half of the year. The two were supposed to sign a short agreement on principles to launch more substantial talks on the details of a full accord. They failed to do so. In the summer, the Minsk group co-chairs expressed their deep frustration, issuing a hard-hitting statement announcing they saw no point in continuing their intensive shuttle diplomacy or initiating further meetings between the presidents. They called on both leaders to summon the political will necessary to clinch a deal and sell it to their deeply sceptical publics.

Despite the difficulties, the building blocks of the potential settlement are well-known. The International Crisis Group spelled them out in two reports in 2005, and the mediators' summer statement confirmed the details: all sides would renounce the use of force; Armenian troops would withdraw from parts of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh; displaced persons would be allowed to return; and both sides would commit to holding a referendum - whose results would be recognised by all - in Nagorno-Karabakh on final status, with the participation of Karabakh Armenians and Azeris. In the meantime, the entity would have an interim status, and the international community would provide substantial assistance, including peacekeepers - for this, the only "frozen conflict" in Europe without international monitors.

The Montenegro example

In a surprise turnaround after a brief meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents on the sidelines of the CIS summit in Minsk on 28 November, President Aliyev optimistically declared, "we are approaching the final stage" of the negotiations process. Azerbaijani foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov added that only one matter remains a source of disagreement.

What could this be? In the past, negotiations have stalled over several issues, including the future of two land corridors linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia (Lachin and Kelbajar), and the modalities of the future referendum and its conditioning on refugee return. After the Minsk meeting, Aliyev also stated "Azerbaijan's negotiating position remains unchanged." As Baku has refused to consider granting Nagorno-Karabakh any status outside Azerbaijan, the remaining sticking-point in the negotiations is likely to be the modalities of the referendum; and more specifically whether it would allow Nagorno-Karabakh to gain independence and international recognition or not.

(On 5 December 2006 the OSCE ministerial council issued a statement on Nagorno-Karabakh saying: "we are encouraged that negotiations in 2006... have brought the sides closer to agreement on the basic principles for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict...We urge the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to redouble their efforts in the coming year to finalise these basic principles as soon as possible.")

Allowing Nagorno-Karabakh to hold an internationally accepted referendum on its future status, with the participation of Karabakh Azeris and Armenians, is a key element in any resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Such a deal would be comparable to what Serbia agreed to in signing the Belgrade agreement in 2002, which created the "State Union of Serbia and Montenegro". A clause was inserted into the Belgrade agreement stating that Montenegro could begin independence procedures in 2006, culminating in a referendum.

During those four years, Montenegro did not waste time: it set up a multi-ethnic government, established good relations with its neighbours, founded a self-sufficient economy, engaged in a serious fight against organised crime, strengthened the rule of law, and began "stabilisation and association" talks with the European Union. Most importantly, it obtained Belgrade's consent that if 55% of Montenegro residents voted in favour of independence, Serbia would accept the result. When the referendum was held on 21 May 2006, all sides had agreed on its modalities and pro- and anti-independence groups were given equal rights to campaign.

Montenegro's successful referendum has helped launch a series of copycat efforts in non-recognised entities in the post-Soviet space, including the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestria, South Ossetia (a splinter of Georgia), and now Nagorno-Karabakh. On 17 September, Transdniestria voted on independence. It was followed by presidential elections the same weekend as Nagorno-Karabakh's vote. On 12 November, two parallel referendums were organised in South Ossetia, one backed by the de facto authorities in the breakaway capital of Tskhinvali, the other by Tbilisi. In the first, South Ossetians voted overwhelmingly for independence; in the second, voters called for a resumption of dialogue with Georgia on the creation of a federal state. Two parallel presidential elections were also held.

Amongst the region's non-recognised entities, only Abkhazia has abstained from the holding a referendum on independence in 2006. According to Abkhazia's de facto minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Shamba, it has no need to repeat an exercise it already held in 1999. At that time, a referendum adopting the constitution of Abkhazia as a "sovereign, democratic and legally based state" passed with a large majority of current Abkhazia residents, though it failed to include those forced to flee the province during the 1992-93 war, and the vote was never recognised internationally.

These post-Soviet referenda, like Nagorno-Karabakh on 10 December, are in no way comparable to Montenegro's. They did not meet the same conditions: most importantly, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova never gave their consent for them to occur. The Azerbaijani ministry of foreign affairs said that the Nagorno-Karabakh referendum "interferes with an ongoing peace process", and the vote could not be considered legitimate until the area's ethnic Azeris were able to return.

An agreement for all

But there is another aspect to the Nagorno-Karabakh vote. It was after all a referendum on a constitution, a basic law which will govern the state, help assure democracy and human-rights protection. In an interview with the Associated Press, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto deputy foreign minister Masis Mayilian suggested that the constitutional referendum was "necessary to formalise the already existing foundations of state system and relations between the state and its citizens." As a vote on how self-government will be temporarily exercised in Nagorno-Karabakh until there is a comprehensive settlement to the conflict, the referendum has at least internal legitimacy and utility.

Since the early 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria have been left in limbo, isolated from the outside word, unsure of their future, with few contacts to their former metropolitan states. De facto authorities have been elected, have set up governmental institutions, have started providing social services, have organised defence forces, have tried to restart local economies, and in the Abkhaz case, have even allowed some 40,000 Georgian returnees and adopted the language of international minority rights protection. They should not be blamed for refusing to allow the lack of progress in international negotiations, especially on status, to stall democratisation and reform in their entities.

Ultimately, the people still living in Nagorno-Karabakh and the other non-recognised entities are better served by accountable government protecting the rule of law (according to the Freedom House Index, for example, Nagorno-Karabakh ranks as "partly free"). Only if they can demonstrate commitment to democratic values will the de facto authorities in Stepanakert, Sukhumi, Tskhinvali and Tiraspol be treated as legitimate partners in negotiations. It is also in the best interest of the international community and the metropolitan states to have responsible leaders in the entities to defuse instability and join in dialogue. Participatory and pluralist politics in the non-recognised entities will help build the peace constituency essential to the eventual implementation of any peace settlement.

But what of the Karabakh Azeris, who were unable to participate on 10 December in deciding the future of Nagorno-Karabakh's internal arrangements? According to international norms, these former inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh should not be deprived of their right to participate in the entity's political life.

If Stepanakert wants to be gain legitimacy, it needs to show the international community not only that it can organise orderly and fair referendums, but also that it allows all those who should be eligible to vote to actually cast their ballots. In other words, they must begin to accept the return of the 40,000 Karabakh Azeris who were forced to flee in 1991-92.

An Azerbaijani soldier stands on the road to Shusha, controlled by Azerbaijani forces. On the other side of the fence, a Russian checkpoint set on the parallel road used by Armenians. July 2022 CRISIS GROUP
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia

Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh

Several soldiers have been killed in clashes between Azerbaijani troops and ethnic Armenian forces answering to the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, raising fears of escalation. Crisis Group experts Olesya Vartanyan, Zaur Shiriyev and Anita Mihaeljana explain what can be done to safeguard the ceasefire.

What do we know about the latest fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The incidents have to do with disagreements over provisions of the Russian-backed ceasefire that ended the 2020 war over this mountainous enclave, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting for since the Soviet Union’s demise. At the end of their first war, in 1994, Armenian forces were in full or partial control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts. In the 2020 fighting, Baku took back the seven districts as well as part of the territory. Under the ceasefire, Russian peacekeepers deployed to the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh still held by ethnic Armenians after Armenian troops withdrew. The truce did not settle the territory’s final status or the disposition of the de facto authorities who administer the entity’s Armenian-held areas from the city of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan says the only deal it wants is one that begins with unequivocal acceptance by Armenia of Baku’s sovereignty over all territory within its internationally recognised borders, including the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and the de facto authorities want special security provisions and rights for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians.

In March, Azerbaijani forces had seized territory around Farukh, an ethnic Armenian-populated village patrolled by Russian peacekeepers as part of the 2020 ceasefire, and established new positions in the nearby mountains. Because Farukh lies in a strategic spot, the surrounding heights giving direct views deep into Armenian-populated areas, the move seeded concerns in Stepanakert and Yerevan that Baku would mount a new offensive, taking advantage of Moscow’s divided attention as it pursues the campaign in Ukraine and Azerbaijan’s much stronger military position since the 2020 war. Diplomacy briefly prevailed when EU mediation brought together the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders, who agreed to start peace talks in April.

But tensions have been on the rise again in recent weeks. Since mid-July, residents of Azerbaijani villages have told Crisis Group of additional activity by Azerbaijani forces in Lachin, near the border with Armenia, and Shusha, which lies on high ground close to Stepanakert and is thus a strategic outpost. State-controlled media in Baku have also run reports of a potential new Azerbaijani military operation. On 1 August, the de facto authorities in Stepanakert said a soldier under their command had been wounded in clashes with Azerbaijani forces at the north-eastern front – an incident confirmed by Russian peacekeepers watching over the area.

On 3 August, Baku launched a military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying an Azerbaijani soldier had been killed in the Lachin region in an exchange of fire with the Armenian de facto Nagorno-Karabakh forces. De facto authorities in Stepanakert reported that Azerbaijani forces were advancing in a number of locations on the western and north-western fronts and near the main road that connects the entity with Armenia. The Azerbaijani defence ministry released footage of drone attacks on a de facto Nagorno-Karabakh base, as well as another outpost. Stepanakert said two of its soldiers were killed and nineteen wounded in these strikes.

The fighting in areas that have been largely calm since the 2020 war, as shown in this Crisis Group visual explainer, has renewed fears of a broader Azerbaijani offensive in the coming days. In a conversation with Crisis Group on 4 August, the de facto authorities accused Azerbaijan of breaching the truce by retaking positions that both sides had agreed to vacate in 2021 due to their proximity to civilian settlements. On 5 August, Azerbaijan said its military had taken control of another strategic location, Mount Buzdukh and the adjacent heights.

The de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have called on residents of the entity’s Armenian-populated parts to evacuate areas north of where the 3 August drone strikes took place. One target of a wider offensive, they fear, could be the Armenian-populated village of Yeghtsahogh, which is home to more than 200 people, lying as it does near a strategic road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, known as the Lachin corridor. In another village, Vaghuhas, whose 800 inhabitants were also told to leave, a resident said few are complying because they do not know where to go. “The situation is really bad”, 23-year-old Svetlana told Crisis Group by telephone. “The thing is that there are no roads for us to leave or in emergency situations to escape. We are surrounded on four sides … People are in a panic”.

What is Azerbaijan hoping to achieve?

Baku has called the military operation a “revenge” for the death of its soldier in what it said was an Armenian assault, but its actions appear to owe as well to dissatisfaction with the situation on the ground. Baku has three goals it wants to achieve either by force or the threat thereof, which it hopes will pressure Armenia to capitulate in negotiations.

The first concerns the overland route that goes from Stepanakert to Armenia. The only road now is the Lachin corridor, which runs past the outposts where Baku staged its drone strikes and proceeds through Azerbaijan’s mountainous Lachin region to Shusha, which Azerbaijani forces retook in the 2020 war. The ceasefire agreement provides that the parties build an alternative road within three years, after which the Russian peacekeepers deployed along the current route will relocate to the new one. Completion of the new road will allow Azerbaijan to take back control of Lachin city and surrounding areas. Baku believes Yerevan is stalling on laying its several-kilometre section of the new road, although Armenia issued a tender for beginning construction in August. A senior de facto official insisted after the 3 August clashes that Stepanakert is willing, including via a temporary arrangement, to stop using the Lachin corridor as soon as possible. The de facto authorities have told the remaining residents of Lachin who moved there after Armenian forces took the town from Azerbaijan in 1992 to leave by the end of August. Baku, meanwhile, has almost completed its 32km section of the new road. “The Armenian side is trying to delay the commissioning of the new road this year, thereby purposely delaying the handover of the city of Lachin and a number of villages to Azerbaijan”, an Azerbaijani official said.

Azerbaijan says the only deal it wants is one that begins with unequivocal acceptance by Armenia of Baku’s sovereignty ... including the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s second grievance relates to what it says is Armenia’s failure to withdraw forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, as the ceasefire says it must do. Yerevan says it has done so. The issue, it says, is Azerbaijan’s concern that Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities retain an armed force. Baku argues that this force is illegal, demanding that Russian peacekeepers disarm it, while Armenia and the de facto authorities say its disarmament was never part of the ceasefire deal. Baku seized upon comments Armen Grigoryan, Armenia’s Security Council secretary, made in an interview in mid-July that Armenia would withdraw forces by September as evidence of its claims. Yerevan has since furiously tried to walk back words it says were taken out of context. On 4 August, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reiterated that all Armenian armed forces have left Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on 15 July the “Russian side had promised to our defence ministry that Armenian armed forces would withdraw from Karabakh by June, but this issue hasn’t been resolved yet”. An Azerbaijani military official told Crisis Group that it will press ahead with operations until the area is fully demilitarised.

Thirdly, Baku appears keen to proceed to talks over a treaty that it hopes will end the conflict to its advantage. At the 6 April meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in Brussels, the two declared their readiness to start talks on such an agreement. Azerbaijan has voiced frustration that subsequent diplomacy has moved too slowly. An Azerbaijani official alleged that Armenian officials are purposely delaying talks. “They think that, by prolonging the negotiations, they can wait for the geopolitical situation to change in their favour”, the official said.

What is the view from Armenia?

For their part, officials in Yerevan blame Baku, saying its representatives, not theirs, are dragging their feet in EU-mediated talks and hoping to take advantage of the world’s focus on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Amid mutual accusations, Baku cancelled a third round of talks between high-level officials that was to take place in Brussels after meetings in March and May. In response, Prime Minister Pashinyan said, “It is clear that Azerbaijan is trying to legitimise a large-scale attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia”.

From a military standpoint, Armenia and de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh view Baku’s seizure of Farukh in March, as well as positions held by the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh forces near the Lachin corridor and along the front lines in the entity’s north and north west, as an attempt to gain high ground and, thus, strategic advantage.

Armenia and the de facto authorities want special security provisions and rights for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians.

Yerevan views the escalation as an attempt to pressure it to drop any calls to sustain discussions on Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status. Baku has not been interested in exploring creative solutions for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh of the sort floated before the 2020 war that entailed a high degree of autonomy from Baku and self-governance. In April, Pashinyan said he would be ready to soften Yerevan’s long-time insistence that talks address the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence claim if that could prevent a renewed war. The residents’ security and rights, he said, were more important. “What we are saying is that the people of Karabakh must not leave it, the people of Karabakh must live in Karabakh, the people of Karabakh must have rights, freedoms and a status”, Pashinyan said on 14 April, responding to domestic criticism that he was preparing to compromise on the entity’s status.

Can Russian peacekeepers deter Azerbaijan and enforce the ceasefire?

Amid the rising tensions, on 1 August Russian President Vladimir Putin along with his foreign and defence ministers held calls with counterparts in Baku and Yerevan to try lowering the temperature. For now, the Russian diplomatic effort appears not to have deterred Azerbaijan.

In Yerevan and Stepanakert, some have grown frustrated with what they see as the Russian peacekeepers’ inaction in stopping ceasefire violations, though it is unclear how much the Russians can actually do. The de facto entity’s president, Arayik Harutyunyan, spoke out against calls for protest by local activists and residents on social media in front of the peacekeepers’ headquarters on 3 August. Meanwhile, Pashinyan on 4 August blamed the peacekeepers' apparent inability to intervene more forcefully on Azerbaijan’s refusal to agree on a clear mandate for the Russian mission. In effect, he said, these limitations tie the peacekeepers’ hands. The mission does publish regular updates, warning on 3 August of an “aggravated situation”, in its strongest wording to date.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its peacekeeping mission has faced even greater challenges than before, with criticism mounting from both sides. In a bid to improve the peacekeepers’ image, the Russian mission’s head invited a number of local activists and politicians for a rare meeting on 4 August to discuss recent incidents. All signs point to Russian peacekeepers actively monitoring the situation in the area where the most intense clashes have taken place. Since early May, they have been conducting daily patrols on Sarybaba heights close to the Lachin corridor. The patrols stopped a couple of days before the Azerbaijani advances, however, for reasons that are unclear. A senior de facto official in Stepanakert said the peacekeepers often feel powerless. “Everyone understands that Russia is weaker than ever before in the international arena”, the de facto representative said.

A Russian checkpoint (right) stands on the Armenian road passing by Shusha and leading to Lachin. On the left side of the fence, a parallel Azerbaijani checkpoint guards the road to Shusha. July 2022. CRISIS GROUP

How can diplomacy help?

The escalation has prompted a rash of renewed diplomacy to curb the fighting and calls from Brussels, Washington, Moscow and Paris to respect the ceasefire. The UN and NATO have chimed in with the same message. Efforts by Moscow and Brussels to tamp down tensions in the spring had brought important milestones – including the first-ever talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, which took place in Tbilisi in July, and a 15 July agreement between Baku and Yerevan to hold talks on delimiting the state borders. Even as Baku was signalling frustration with the status quo in July, a number of Western officials told Crisis Group that Armenia and Azerbaijan were on verge of finalising agreements on new, much anticipated trade routes in the region.

The parties should not allow the August clashes to slow the positive diplomatic momentum. The Armenian government, in particular, has shown itself willing to make difficult concessions in recent weeks despite fierce criticism at home and security worries among residents in Nagorno-Karabakh. Its officials dropped reservations on the format of talks, agreeing to meet anywhere with or without third-party mediation. Yerevan agreed to look into ways of signing a peace treaty with Baku that would leave the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh open. That is a big step for Yerevan although officials in Baku have dismissed it. Senior Armenian officials admit in private that they feel they have little choice but to cede some of Azerbaijan’s demands, given their weaker military position and doubts that their main ally, Russia, will come to their aid given its entanglement in Ukraine.

Western capitals and Moscow should try to ensure that their standoff over Ukraine does not bleed into mediation efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan should not waste what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dubbed a “historic opportunity” to broker a peace treaty. It should take steps immediately to de-escalate tensions and return to negotiations. Among people in Azerbaijan, unlike in the lead-up to the 2020 war, support for the latest military operations is muted. A number of civil society representatives told Crisis Group that continued tensions will undermine the EU-mediated peace talks. Continued tensions have the potential to damage Baku’s reputation, putting at risk other aspects of bilateral cooperation with the European Union, from development funding to energy. They could also jeopardise other diplomatic initiatives, such as the rapprochement between Türkiye and Armenia, which could boost overall trade in the South Caucasus. Behind closed doors, some Azerbaijani officials appear to support opening those two countries’ long-sealed border.

President Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan missed an opportunity to publicly urge the two sides to de-escalate at their meeting in Russia’s southern city of Sochi on 5 August. Both have a stake in avoiding a broader escalation and, in particular, encouraging the sides to move ahead with the talks on new transport routes.

The clashes have once again highlighted the challenges faced by the Russian peacekeeping mission without a clear mandate for how it can engage beyond its monitoring role – a problem made worse by Russia’s loss of standing following its invasion of Ukraine. In a 2021 report, Crisis Group called on the sides to hold talks on clarifying the peacekeepers’ role. They appear increasingly unlikely to do so, particularly amid increasing criticism of the mission by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such frustration risks undermining the peacekeepers’ ability to carry out their existing mandate of observing the ceasefire in the conflict zone. If and when the time becomes ripe, international mediators must urge the sides to revisit this issue, which will likely come to a head in any case in 2025 when Baku and Yerevan must give their assent to the mission’s continuation.

The EU, which is the only party besides Moscow to bring Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders together since the November 2020 ceasefire, has played a useful role in keeping contacts going. It should redouble its efforts, including with high-level visits, such as European Council President Charles Michel’s trip in the summer of 2021, which helped advance talks. Postponement – or worse, cancellation – of a planned meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders later in August could exacerbate the situation. Washington should also throw its weight behind attempts at diplomacy; it should remain engaged in supporting the EU’s mediation and in its own closed-door facilitation of contacts between the two countries’ officials.

Most importantly, Western capitals and Moscow should try to ensure that their standoff over Ukraine does not bleed into mediation efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, long the leading outside power in this conflict, fears being sidelined in negotiations if it loses influence with Baku and Yerevan. Even distracted, Moscow pays more attention to Armenia and Azerbaijan than does Brussels or Washington. It remains the only country that has been willing to dispatch forces to the region and it remains a key trade partner of both countries. Working with Moscow, distasteful as it may be in European capitals, improves the odds of bringing peace to the South Caucasus. Concerted diplomacy by all outside actors might yet avert a return to war and keep nascent talks about an eventual peace settlement and new trade routes on track.

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