Special for the Armenian Weekly
How frustrating it must be for President Ilham Aliyev to command the largest military force in the south Caucasus and not be able to retake Artsakh. His oft-repeated threat to use his military if necessary has begun to ring hollow in the ears of his people. True, he remains firmly in control for now, but the fact that challenges to his power exist is evidenced by his crackdown on journalists and civil activists who call attention to the corruption and the social and human rights abuses associated with his administration. To divert public attention from these exposés, he has resorted to increasing the number and intensity of violations along the border with Armenia’s Tavush Province and Artsakh to reinforce his portrayal of Armenians as arch enemies of Azerbaijan who are illegally occupying its land.
Aiding and abetting this aggressive stance by Azerbaijan has been the generic response from the Minsk Group tri-chairs representing the European Union (EU), the United States (U.S.), and Russia that both sides should refrain from escalating tensions along the Line of Contact (LoC) when violations occur. Although the Minsk Group tri-chairs recognize the danger to their respective geostrategic interests inherent in Aliyev’s belligerent posturing, the EU and the U.S. continue to support Baku’s position that its territorial integrity must be restored. It is unfortunate that our Russian ally remains the wild card in this high-stakes game with respect to Artsakh’s independence.
Recently Ambassador James Warlick, the U.S. member of the Minsk Group, confirmed his country’s support to deploy more Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers along the LoC together with the placement of gunfire locator systems to provide effective real-time location of artillery, rocket, and sniper firing by either side. Ostensibly this is to reduce, if not eliminate, the increasing number of military and civilian casualties along the LoC. I say ostensibly because the feckless policy of both the EU and the U.S. has contributed to the horrific situation in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where military and civilian deaths continue to mount.
These wars without an end in sight have uprooted tens of thousands of civilians and created the greatest international flow of refugees since World War II. Against this harsh reality it is difficult to imagine that the Minsk Group countries decided to implement these initiatives because they were genuinely concerned that Armenian soldiers and innocent civilians were being killed. Theirs is a self-serving concern. Given the explosive situation that already exists in the Middle East and Eastern Europe (especially Ukraine), Aliyev’s reckless violations that disregard the meaning and spirit of the 1994 ceasefire agreement could easily jeopardize the tenuous accommodations that presently exist between Russia and the EU on the one hand and the U.S. on the other. Any deterioration in that complex relationship could have unimaginable consequences. When Ambassador Warlick announced the U.S. position supporting the deployment of more observers and monitoring equipment, he added that we “…will continue to pursue all steps that can lead to a negotiated settlement.”
‘For the countries of the Minsk Group to ignore the legitimate concerns of the Artsakh Armenians that brought about their declaration of independence and to essentially recast the conflict simply in terms of a spurious irredentist claim by Azerbaijan against Armenia is more than deceitful. Solely to meet their respective geostrategic interests, the Minsk Group countries have elevated the politically conceived concept of territorial inviolability to negate the inalienable right of self-determination.’
The negotiated settlement that he refers to and is supported by the EU and Russia (the wild card in this triumvirate) has never included the de jure recognition of Artsakh. Period! Every principle put forward by the Minsk Group that sets parameters for the negotiations begins by requiring the withdrawal of all Armenian military forces from the occupied territories (our liberated territories). This requirement that is set as a first step in achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict should be read to mean that it is the first step in restoring the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Territorial integrity is a concept formed out of whole cloth that has been enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations (Article II, Paragraph 4). Political boundaries have constantly changed. They have never been absolute, but represent reality at a given moment in time. The present conflict is not about rectifying a boundary decision made nearly a century ago. It is about the ramifications of that boundary decision that placed the Artsakh Armenians under the jurisdiction of what has been an oppressive regime that has discriminated against them economically, politically, and culturally for close to seven decades. For the countries of the Minsk Group to ignore the legitimate concerns of the Artsakh Armenians that brought about their declaration of independence and to essentially recast the conflict simply in terms of a spurious irredentist claim by Azerbaijan against Armenia is more than deceitful. Solely to meet their respective geostrategic interests, the Minsk Group countries have elevated the politically conceived concept of territorial inviolability to negate the inalienable right of self-determination. Remedial secession, the hand-maiden to self-determination, reinforces that inalienable right of a people to set their own course when no other remedy exists.
If we say that the territorial integrity of a state is sacrosanct, it automatically denies the right of self-determination. That is unless the EU and the U.S. interpret self-determination to mean granting a modicum of local autonomy as a sop to the oppressed ethnic minority. That is not what the Armenians of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh and Shahumian) had in mind in 1991 when they voted for freedom and independence from Azerbaijan. In a war forced on them by Azerbaijan, the Artsakh Armenians successfully defended their lands and families against a government that spared no effort in using its military to attack innocent civilians and to destroy the region’s infrastructure. The fact that Armenian forces intervened to prevent a genocide in the making does not meet the meaning of Paragraph 4, Article II, of the Charter of the United Nations, which denies the use of force by a state to invade and occupy the territory of a neighboring country. This is a specious claim against Armenia posited by Azerbaijan that the EU and the U.S. have evidently accepted.
Aliyev has yet to come to terms with his defeat (at least publicly). The leaders of the EU and the U.S have refused to accept what is a fait accompli. During the period of some 20 years Artsakh has had democratically elected governments, each of which has effectively exercised control over its lands; developed an effective social infrastructure to address the needs of its citizens; and maintained a viable economy. Unfortunately, recognition is a subjective as well as a highly political decision by the recognizing state. Therefore there is no required check-list that, if met, automatically bestows recognition upon a de facto state. However, Artsakh as it presently exists meets any legitimate test for recognition.
Until the nations represented by the Minsk Group have the moral leadership to recognize Artsakh’s legitimate right to have declared its independence, it will remain in limbo as a de facto state. The importance of Artsakh to Armenia’s future is beyond calculating. It is above all else the key to Hai Tahd. The recognition of Artsakh and its incorporation with Armenia would be an absolute game-changer of major proportions in the greater region centered on the south Caucasus. Knowing this, one can understand the ramifications of granting de jure recognition to Artsakh and the pressure from Turkey (and Azerbaijan) to prevent this from happening. Armenia’s relations with Georgia would dramatically improve. Presently Tbilisi’s relations with Turkey (and Azerbaijan) strengthens its already strong bargaining position with a presently weaker Armenia. Artsakh’s resource base could jumpstart Armenia’s moribund economy as well as provide a very attractive settlement frontier for our people. Russia’s increased influence in the south Caucasus might well put added pressure on Georgia to accommodate Armenia. Any diminution of Turkish and Azerbajani influence in the region would be welcomed by Iran.
As for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his dream of a Turkish expansion of economic and political influence in the Middle East and into Central Asia depends on controlling a secure corridor through the south Caucasus. Any expansion of Turkish influence vis-a-vis Russia and Iran would be acceptable to the U.S. Presently Armenia and Artsakh represent the link that connects Russia and Iran in a strategic north-south corridor. Neither of these countries want to see an ascendant Turkey (and Azerbaijan). Russia’s influence in the south Caucasus protects her southern flank that extends across the Caspian Sea into Central Asia. Iran views Turkey as its major political and ideological competitor in the Middle East as well as Central Asia. Geographically, Iran represents a logical alternate conduit for the movement of energy resources from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf (by-passing Turkey) as well as to Pakistan and India (by-passing Afghanistan).
When Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian responded to a question in the Armenian Parliament concerning Artsakh, his answer added nothing to clarify Armenia’s difficult position. The phrase “Armenia would recognize Artsakh’s independence and ensure its safety” is qualified by “if negotiations fail,” followed by a second qualification, “if Azerbaijan resorts to military action.” We can easily come to the conclusion that because the EU and the U.S. (unless there is a cataclysmic change in policy) do not support Artsakh’s de jure recognition, the negotiations are on track if not to fail, then not to succeed. If Azerbaijan does not use military force, whenever and however it is determined that the negotiations have failed, then Armenia will not recognize Artsakh’s independence. Based on the answer provided to parliament, Armenia will only recognize Artsakh’s independence if the negotiations fail and Azerbaijan attacks Artsakh. But, wasn’t that a foregone conclusion anyway? What will Armenia’s response be if Artsakh is denied independence? That is the difficult question that remains to be answered.
Artsakh ‘s importance to Armenia and to Hai Tahd should be obvious. Our leaders both in and out of government must work together to achieve de jure status for Artsakh. We cannot again place our trust in the major powers to protect our interests only to be fooled at the final moment by their chicanery. In the precious meantime we must all commit to help Stepanakert (1) expand its settlements in the liberated territories, (2) continue to develop its economy, and (3) increase and strengthen the emotional bond between its people and the diaspora. It is absolutely vital that the diaspora believe that it has a stake in Artsakh’s future.