Nagorno-Karabakh: An Unacceptable Status Quo

In addition to pop songs and glitzy costumes, the Eurovision song contest is notorious for how neighboring countries usually vote for each other rather than the best performer. But when this year’s contest takes place in Baku on May 26, don’t expect Azerbaijan to give any votes to its neighbor Armenia. Indeed, there will be no points for Armenia; they have pulled out of the event, citing animosity from Azeri authorities including President Ilham Aliyev, who said in February, “Our main enemies are Armenians of the world, and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians under their control.”

What could have been a feel-good confidence-building measure has turned into another example of how the unresolved status of Nagorno-Karabakh continues to poison relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan more than twenty years after the two countries went to war over this mountainous region.

Key Conclusions

Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain tense over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite twenty years of diplomacy under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group (co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States), there has been little progress towards a solution. Even the personal engagement of the presidents of France, Russia, and the United States has done little to edge the parties towards peace. New actors, like Israel and Iran, are becoming involved, while Turkey’s relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been damaged.

A new approach is needed to reinvigorate the negotiation process. In the meantime, a mechanism is urgently needed to reduce tensions and conduct investigations of incidents along the line of contact between the parties. The deployment of a preventive force should also be considered. More people-to-people contacts are essential in order to create better relations among neighbors who, for a generation, have lived in a perpetual state of no war yet no peace.


Nagorno-Karabakh was created as a result of a messy compromise following the break-up of the Russian empire. After a series of short wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh (and other regions) from 1918 to 1920, the enclave–which has a predominantly ethnic Armenian population–became an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. This is symptomatic of Stalin’s divide and rule policy–evident in Georgia, the Fergana Valley and elsewhere–where ethnic and administrative boundaries purposely do not overlap.

With Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, the issue re-emerged. In 1988, there were calls for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. A wave of protests and armed clashes led to several deaths and increased tensions. Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself an independent republic in September 1991. Proposals by Soviet negotiators for enhanced autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh were rejected by both sides, and the situation deteriorated into war.

By the time the fighting stopped in late 1993, Armenia occupied twenty percent of Azerbaijan including Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts. A cease-fire was brokered through the Bishkek Protocol of May 1994. But a settlement has proved elusive. The stalemate is a clash between two basic principles of the Helsinki Final Act: Azerbaijan insists on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia insists on self-determination for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Since 1992, a diplomatic solution has been sought within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) through the so-called Minsk Group (consisting of Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Turkey as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan and the OSCE Troika) which is co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States. There is also a permanent representative of the OSCE chairmanship covering the issue, Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk of Poland.

Basic principles for a settlement of the conflict were set out in Madrid in November 2007. They include:

– return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control;

– an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance;

– a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh;

– future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will;

– the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and

– international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.

Despite strong urging by the presidents of France, Russia, and the United States on several occasions (including joint statements at L’Aquila in 2009, Muskoka in 2010, and Deauville in May 2011) as well as ten tripartite meetings between the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, (most recently in Sochi on January 23, 2012), the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have yet to agree to these principles.

Meanwhile, tensions are running high. The governments exchange insults while snipers exchange gun fire: in 2011, more than three dozen people were killed along the line of contact. The front lines are becoming more entrenched, and the region is heavily mined.

As the American co-chair of the Minsk Group, Robert Bradtke, put it, the situation is “an unacceptable status quo.” Or is it?

Perhaps the conflict has dragged on for so long because it suits some interests. For example, political elites in both Baku and Yerevan have come to power as a result of this issue and play the Nagorno-Karabakh card when trying to fuel populist sentiment (especially around election time).

Russia, while not interested in war in the region, profits by maintaining instability in the South Caucasus, playing off the interests of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey, and making itself look like a more reliable source and transit country for natural gas than Azerbaijan (which exports its gas to Europe via Georgia and Turkey). Russia appears to be more of an arms broker than an honest broker. Despite being one of the chief negotiators in the peace process, Russia, according to a recent SIPRI report, supplied 55% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports and 96% of Armenia’s between 2007 and 2011. Russia also has military installations in both countries.

Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth is starting to tip the balance of power, and enabling it to buy more sophisticated weapons. It is losing patience with a lack of progress in the settlement process. Yet war would disrupt the flow of oil and gas on which its wealth depends.

The situation is taking on a regional significance. In February, Israel sold $1.6 billion worth of weapons to Azerbaijan (including drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems). This is not only worrying to Armenia; it has caught the attention of Iran, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, which is home to an estimated 15 to 30 million Azeris (more than twice the number of Azeris that live in Azerbaijan.) The Nagorno-Karabakh issue has also undermined Turkey’s attempts to normalize relations with Armenia, and has even strained its traditionally good relations with Azerbaijan.

The big losers are the people of Nagorno-Karabakh (mostly ethnic Armenians) who suffer from lack of development, as well as the more than half a million internally displaced persons (mostly ethnic Azeris) who have been living in limbo for a generation. More broadly, progress in the South Caucasus is being held back by a lack of resolution to this long conflict.

What can be done? Leadership is essential, but with elections in Armenia (this May) and Azerbaijan (in October 2013) the presidents of the two countries will no doubt inflame rather than tone down their bellicose rhetoric. Presidential elections in all three countries co-chairing the Minsk Group have also distracted high-level attention from the issue. However, the co-chairs can at least continue to insist on the non-use of force.

The Minsk Group requires fresh thinking and a more open approach. The co-chairs, along with the personal representative of the OSCE Chairmanship (who has been in the post for 15 years), tend to work confidentially. Greater transparency, more involvement by Minsk Group members (like Turkey), and greater engagement with a wide range of relevant actors could open up the process. Otherwise, to paraphrase Bradtke’s expression, the Minsk Group will be criticized for being part of the unacceptable status quo.

Since a more constructive top-down approach looks unlikely in the short term, immediate efforts should focus on reducing tensions along the line of contact. For example, there is an urgent need to establish a mechanism to conduct investigations of incidents along the line of contact, such as the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism used in Georgia. This could be an opportunity for the OSCE to strengthen its presence on the ground, short of a full-scale peacekeeping operation. Indeed, the OSCE should re-open a debate about developing a peacekeeping capacity. If that is not possible, the UN should consider a preventive deployment (on the model of UNPREDEP).

A more sophisticated debate is needed on the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Various options of self-government should be explored, involving representatives of the affected populations, including displaced persons. The Lund Recommendations on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life as well as the Bolzano Recommendations on National Minorities in Inter-State Relations, both drafted under the auspices of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, could provide inspiration on how to deal with autonomy and kin-state issues.

Since contacts at the level of presidents are making little progress, it would be useful to promote dialogue among groups within the affected societies. Over the past twenty years, a whole generation in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh has grown up hearing a narrative that demonizes the other side and promotes an all-or-nothing solution. More people to people contacts as well as confidence-building measures are needed in order to increase understanding among neighbors. More should be done to prepare people for peace, not for war.

Walter Kemp is Director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Peace Institute, based in Vienna