As Armenia and Azerbaijan seek ways in which they can normalise relations between them, the discussion on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, and particularly of the Armenian population living there is also gathering pace. On 8 June commonspace.eu published an op-ed by Kamal Makili-Aliyev suggesting autonomy may be one way of moving relations forward. In this counter opinion, Vahagn Avedian disagrees and says that governance problems in Azerbaijan make the prospect of an autonomy within that country unattractive for the Armenian population of Karabakh. He argues that "the only viable path forward is still what the Madrid Principles envisioned, namely granting the Karabakh population the right to determine their future."
In an opinion article, published on commonspace.eu on 8 June, Kamal Makili-Aliyev argues for the “Åland model” as a guiding example for a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the Caucasus.
Read it here
This idea is by no means new, and there is even a famous anecdote in this regard for those who are familiar with the conflict. The story goes that during an OSCE mediation conference on Åland in 1993, presenting the Åland model, the mediators asked the Karabakh Armenians whether this kind of autonomy would be an acceptable solution for them. “Yes, it could,” replied the Armenians to much of the mediators’ surprise. “But only if it is within the territory of Finland!”
The sarcastic reply referred of course to the elephant in the room which Makili-Aliyev conveniently avoids to mention: Azerbaijan is by far not a Finland when it comes to governance and democratic credentials, and according to a Freedom House report actually ranked as an authoritarian state second only to Belarus in Europe. Had Finland been one of the worst authoritarian states in Europe, implemented policies of ethnic cleansing, eradicating cultural monuments, it is very unlikely that the Åland Swedes would have opted for a future under Helsinki’s suzerainty.
If one even disregards the historicity of the conflict and how a region with over 90% Armenian population artificially became an enclave in Soviet Azerbaijan as part of Joseph Stalin's policy of divide and rule, there are the modern international laws and norms to take into consideration. But yet again, Makili-Aliyev withholds essential details which don’t align with his argumentation. He writes that “International law does not envision the right to self-determination for minorities per se.” One could say that the subtle play with words (minorities vs people), is in itself correct, but then again, the international law speaks of people in general terms without distinction between majorities and minorities. In addition he asserts that the Helsinki Final Act is “the international agreement that came the closest to establishing a concept of internal [emphasis added] self-determination.” The addition of “internal” is quite conspicuous in this context as it only serves the rhetoric of Baku (insisting that a referendum must be about the determination of status within the territory of Azerbaijan) when the Charter in fact explicitly mentions the “external status,” as we will shortly see.
People’s right for self-determination is actually enshrined in both the UN Charter (Article 1.2) and the OSCE Charter, the Helsinki Final Act (Item 8). The Helsinki Final Act (1975) consists of ten mutually equal guiding principles for relations between states and peaceful settlement of disputes. The fourth item of the Charter is about respecting the territorial integrity of states. Inter alia, it mentions, that states must “refrain from making each other’s territory the object of military occupation […] in contravention of international law.” The latter part is indeed quite relevant in regard to the Karabakh Conflict, acting as an amendment reserving the right for, e.g. humanitarian intervention. The eighth item in the Helsinki Final Act describes the peoples’ right to self-determination. It establishes, among others, that “all peoples always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status [emphasis added], without external interference.”
It is worth emphasizing yet again that these principles have no order of precedence and none supersedes the other. The same is true about the UN Charter in regard to the question of people’s right to self-determination (Article 1.2) and territorial integrity (Article 2.4). In theory, these are equal principles which can be implemented peacefully and without using power. In reality, however, it is the state’s political and military power which safeguards its territorial integrity, overriding peoples’ right for self-determination. Thus, it is often sheer political pragmatism and power, not international law, which decides conflict outcomes, especially in cases where the democracy and respect for its values and international law are ailing.
Thus, using existing norms and laws, the international community, through OSCE, could have resolved the Karabakh Conflict peacefully, but failed to do so due to realpolitik. Once the issue of mediation reached a standstill, the OSCE could, as the international community did in the case of Kosovo, resort to arbitration by implementing its own charters, articulated in the form of the Madrid Principles.
In accordance with the Madrid Principles, OSCE could have demilitarized the adjacent districts outside Karabakh, deployed a peacekeeping force, reinstating the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan while guarantying a referendum for the Karabakh population to determine their “external political status” as stated in the Helsinki Final Act while respecting the “norms of international law, including those relating to territorial integrity of States.” It should be pointed out that the latter is by no means contradictory to the former as we have seen in many other democratic cases such as Spain and United Kingdom, where both principles are respected so that the people in Basque Country and Scotland can hold referendums about their “external political status” without Madrid or London resorting to violence. The same was true about Sweden and Finland in regard to Åland back in 1921. The same can hardly be said about Azerbaijan.
Confidence-building is a key factor in conflict resolution, and transparency is one of the main stepping-stones in that process. Failing to mention such a significant factor in the equation such as Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit not only diminishes the very induction base the subsequent theory on hypothetical autonomy is based upon, but it also erodes whatever trust there is towards the asserted benevolence of the otherwise oppressive counterpart.
Based on past experience, many fear that the reintegration of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan will quickly result in total ethnic cleansing of its Armenian population. The notion of autonomy had been offered back in 1997 and rejected or obvious reasons. The current state of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan are lacking in many respects, and there is unfortunately little which points to any improvement in the foreseeable future. The only viable path forward is still what the Madrid Principles envisioned, namely granting the Karabakh population the right to determine their future. One thing is for sure though: borders are virtual, have always been and will continue to be subject for alternation. The people on the ground are very real and the 21st century legislation is supposed to safeguard their democratic and human rights.
Vahagn Avedian, Ph.D., is a peace and conflict researcher with focus on human rights and democracy. He is the author of Knowledge and Acknowledgement in the Politics of Memory of the Armenian Genocide (Routledge, 2018).
Photo: "We are our mountains" monument in Stepanakert
The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners