Nagorno-Karabakh: Azerbaijan’s Strategic Lodestar


2012-10-07 by Richard Weitz

A defining feature of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy since independence has been its territorial dispute with its western neighbor Armenia.

Both fought a brutal war in the early 1990s over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict continues to fester, as Nagorno-Karabakh’s status remains uncertain and both nations confront each other in a dangerous face-off. Each side has deep-seated grievances about the other’s behavior, as well as competing territorial and historical claims. The conflict has had a strong influence on Azerbaijan’s strategic posture.

At the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the issue of control between ethnic Armenians and Azeris over the landlocked region.

Fighting erupted in 1988 when separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, a semi-autonomous enclave located inside Azerbaijan but with a predominantly ethnic Armenian population, claimed independence from the Azerbaijan state and then sought to join Armenia. The Karabakh Armenians have been in full control of the territory and its surrounding regions since 1994, when the defeated Azerbaijanis, in political and economic disarray and with inadequate military capabilities, accepted a ceasefire despite their loss of the entire region as well as the occupation of addition Azerbaijani territory by the Armenian military.

The pro-Armenian separatists in Nagarno-Karabach insist that the region be recognized either as an independent entity or as part of Armenia.

The Azerbaijani authorities, who have used their country’s energy riches to finance a major military build-up, maintain that Nagorno-Karabakh remains a part of Azerbaijan and must be recognized as such. They also demand a return of the Armenian-occupied regions to Azerbaijan and the right of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris who fled Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding area during the fighting to finally return.

Various international mediators have failed to resolve the conflict.

Clockwise from top: remnants of Azeri APCs; internally displaced Azerbaijanis from the Armenian-controlled territory; Armenian tank memorial at the outskirts of Stepanakert; NKR soldiers. Credit:

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group arose more than a decade ago to encourage a negotiated resolution that would culminate in a peace conference. It is headed by a co-Chairmanship that consists of France, Russia and the United States. It also includes Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan and on a rotating basis the OSCE Troika.

The OSCE, like the rest of the international community, has found it hard to reconcile how conflicting principles of the Helsinki Final Act apply in this case—primarily a member’s territorial integrity versus the right of self-determination, but also freedom of movement versus non-use of military force.

The Basic Principles for a Peaceful Settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, known as the Madrid principles, were presented to Armenia and Azerbaijan by the foreign ministers of France and Russia and the U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Spanish capital in November 2007. They envisage a stage-by-stage resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that should start with the gradual liberation of parts of Azerbaijan bordering Karabakh that were occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the 1991-94 war. In return, Karabakh would retain a corridor to Armenia and be able to determine its final status in a future referendum.

Despite many efforts by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as international mediators in the form of the OSCE Minsk group, the problem still seems far from a solution.

At trilateral talks hosted by Russia in January 2010, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian accepted an updated version of the Madrid principles developed by the Minsk Group. On June 18 of that year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev convened a meeting in St. Petersburg on the Karabakh settlement between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, who agreed to continue talks in line with the revised Madrid principles. Medvedev’s press secretary Natalia Timakova said that the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia confirmed their readiness to continue dialogue aimed at finalizing the document with the mediation of Russia, the U.S. and France as co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group.

One reason for Medvedev’s initiative was to assess the damage caused by the legislative elections held in Nagorno-Karabakh in May 23, 2010. The Free Homeland Party headed by Prime Minister Ara Aratyunyan won 64% of the vote for the 33-seat parliament, with a voter turnout of almost 68%. Azerbaijani officials termed the elections illegal and a threat to peace efforts. Since the OSCE does not recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, it did not recognize the election results.

Four days later, however, the most serious cease-fire violation in the past two years, in which four Armenians and one Azerbaijani died in an exchange of fire near the village of Chaylu in the north-eastern Mardakert district of the Nagorno-Karabakh. Four Armenians were also injured in the June 18-19 nighttime incident along the Line of Contact.

According to the Karabakh Defence Ministry, the incident was triggered by a reconnaissance mission by some 20 Azerbaijani servicemen behind the Line of Contact separating Azerbaijani and Armenian forces.  Armenia launched a retaliation attack during the night of June 20 on Azerbaijani positions in Fizuli, southeast of the disputed enclave, killing one Azerbaijani serviceman. Of the seven Azerbaijani districts neighbouring the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area, Fizuli is one of the two that Baku is reportedly demanding should be the returned to Azerbaijani control.

Flag of Nagorno-Karabakh with flagpole waving in the wind. Credit: Bigstock

The Minsk Group condemned the incident, saying that it represented “an unacceptable violation of the 1994 Cease-Fire Agreement and was contrary to the stated commitment of the sides to refrain from the use of force or the threat of the use of force.” While visiting Yerevan in June 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the position that the conflict must be resolved on the basis of the Helsinki Principles – that is, the non-use of force, peoples’ right to self-determination and territorial integrity.

Unfortunately, the Minsk Group negotiations remain deadlocked.

Some observers have argued that this is perhaps indicative of deeper problems with the negotiations; namely that the traction required to resolve a conflict of this size is nearly impossible when the negotiation framework itself is so narrow.

Essentially, the critique is that the resolutions currently on the table are profoundly limited by the fact that there is almost no Track Two process involving the two societies.  This is only compounded by the fact that there are very few international resources being expended to support the U.S., French and Russian mediators.  Finally, the Karabakh problem is related to the issue of normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey seek to link this process to the Karabakh issue, insisting that progress regarding the latter is a precondition for the ratification of the Turkish-Armenian protocols in the Turkish Parliament. Meanwhile, representatives of the co-chairs stress that these two processes are formally independent, although they recognize that progress in one of them would also help progress in the other.

More recently, the Armenian government has been promoting a freedom referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh as a solution to the dispute. Having witnessed a mass exodus of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh during the war and ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis left behind, the government and citizenry of Azerbaijan are vehemently opposed to the referendum now that almost the entire Nagorno-Karabakh’s population is ethnically Armenian. They view the ballot as a nominal vote through which the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would obtain a de jure independence in defiance of the international law.

At present, the large number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) represents about seven percent of Azerbaijan’s population, amounting to one of the highest percentages of IDPs in any country. Initially, the plight of these people was very grave since the government simply did not have the capacity to deal with such a large influx of IDPs and did not want to take measures that implied the refugees would not return to their original. But in recent years conditions for the IDPs have markedly improved. The poverty rate among Azerbaijani IDPs has dropped from 75% ten years ago, to perhaps one quarter.

Although Azerbaijani officials have emphasized they would like to settle their territorial disputes with Armenia through peaceful means, they have indicated that they cannot accept Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring lands indefinitely.

The 2008 Georgia War demonstrated how these supposed “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union can abruptly thaw and explode.

The issue could easily become one of the urgent diplomatic challenges facing  the next U.S. Administration.

(For a background on the Nagorno-Karabakh from 1988-1994 war see