Chorbajian: The Meaning of the Protocols for the Future of Karabagh

By Levon Chorbajian

While neither protocol mentions Nagorno-Karabagh by name, there are provisions in the protocols with dangerous and permanent implications for Karabagh and Armenia. Three highly problematic provisions appear in the Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey.

The first reads: “Reconfirming their commitment, in their bilateral and international relations, to respect and ensure respect for the principles of equality, sovereignty, non-intervention in [the] internal affairs of other states, territorial integrity, and inviolability of frontiers…” It should be noted that self-determination is missing. The right to self-determination is a strong black letter law principle in international law. It is the basis on which the people of Karabagh challenged their standing as an autonomous region of Azerbaijan and fought for their independence, leading to the creation of their de facto state, the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh. The principle of self-determination is not present anywhere in these protocols. What is present is the principle of territorial integrity, which is also a longstanding principle of international law. The two—self-determination and territorial integrity—have absolutely equal weight in the law. One does not trump the other, which is part of what makes disputes such as the one over Karabagh difficult and often intractable. In an effort to alter that consequence and to shift the debate and the solution in a direction to their liking, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and their powerful allies have sometimes falsely argued that territorial integrity has greater power than self-determination. Here in the protocols, they go one step further and remove self-determination from the equation altogether. This provision and its exclusion can be used—and we can predict will be used—to argue that the present Turkish-Armenian frontier is legitimate and inviolable. Furthermore, the case will be made that Karabagh should be re-integrated into Azerbaijan because its independence is in violation of territorial integrity, which even the Armenian government has agreed through these protocols is the sole principle on which issues of territorial dispute should be resolved. As it applies to Karabagh, this provision contains implications of such toxicity that it should be cause by itself for the rejection of the protocols.

The second reads: “Confirming the mutual recognition of the existing border between the two countries as defined [by] relevant treaties of international law…” The relevant treaties are the Treaties of Alexandropol (December 1920) and Kars (October 1921). The first granted to Turkey three-fifths of the territory of the first Republic of Armenia, while Kars ratified that allocation and set the borders between Armenia and Georgia, and Armenia and Azerbaijan, in addition to Armenia and Turkey. There are several factors that call the legitimacy of these treaties into question, not the least of which is that Alexandropol was signed by Armenian delegates under extreme duress who were not in power at the time, having shortly before been expelled by the Bolsheviks. As pertains to Karabagh, the Caucasian Bureau of the Bolshevik Party had allocated Karabagh to Azerbaijan in July 1921. The protocol provision above would have the effect of legitimizing Azerbaijan’s claim to Karabagh by drawing on the Treaty of Kars despite its weak legal foundation.

The third reads: “Supporting the promotion of the cooperation between the two countries, in the international and regional organizations, especially within the framework of the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and the BSCE…” Enter the Madrid Principles, which clearly fall “…within the framework of…” When Obama, Medvedev, and Sarkozy issued their joint declaration on Karabagh in July 2009, they relied on the Madrid Principles as the basis for peace, but in fact enforcement of the Madrid Principles would lead to great instability and the possibility of war. These Principles call for the withdrawal of Armenian and Karabagh forces from occupied territories adjacent to Karabagh, the return of displaced persons, and the status of Karabagh to be determined at a later date. It may appear to be a reasonable program to the uninitiated but when it is examined, this plan reveals itself to be highly detrimental to Armenian interests. The only leverage the Armenians have in the negotiations over the future of Karabagh is the occupied territories (a term, by the way, universally rejected in Karabagh in favor of “liberated” territories). Armenia and Karabagh are asked to surrender their most powerful trump card for nothing in return. By returning the territories, Armenia and Karabagh will create an impossible security problem for themselves. With currently Armenian-held territories in Azerbaijani hands, Armenians will have to patrol and secure many times the length of the border they currently have to secure. An impossible task. There is simply not the manpower for it. With the territories between Armenia and Karabagh in Azerbaijani hands, Karabagh will be surrounded on four sides by an armed and hostile Azerbaijan. Armenia itself will have a border with Azerbaijan that is much closer to Armenia than is currently the case, and render its entire eastern front, and possibly Yerevan itself, subject to artillery bombardment and missile attack.

There are other problems with the Madrid Principles. Security concerns are to be assuaged through the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Yet peacekeeping forces can offer little comfort because their history throughout the world has largely been one of failure attributable to poor funding, inadequate numbers, inadequate periods of deployment, unclear mandates, poor leadership, and various forms of corruption. Second, the return of displaced persons is generally taken to mean the return of Azerbaijanis to Karabagh and surrounding territories. It does not refer to Armenians forced out of Baku and the rest of Azerbaijan. There is no provision for them to return to their homes, or one that guarantees their safety or monetary compensation for their losses. Lastly, Karabagh’s final status is to be determined by a vote. But who is to vote? Karabagh Armenians, all residents of Karabagh, residents of the returned territories, all of Azerbaijan? The answer is yet to be determined, and in light of past history, it would not be wise to make reasonable assumptions.

In conclusion, the resolution of territorial disputes based on the principle of self-determination have historically been made on the basis of three criteria: The first is who has lived there in the past, the second is who lives there now, and the third is what do the people who live there now want? It is actually unusual for all three of these questions to be answered in favor of one side. For example, a well-known, anti-colonial struggle is that of Catholics in Northern Ireland. Yet, while their case is strong, Catholics in Northern Ireland have not been in the majority since 1920. All three of the above questions when applied to Karabagh are answered in favor of the people of Karabagh. Karabagh presents perhaps the strongest case for self-determination anywhere in the world. That should never be forgotten, and it should be the foundation for any resolution of the Karabagh Question—not the protocols or the Madrid Principles.

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles written and submitted by members of the community, which make up our community bulletin board.


  1. Firstly, and let’s be honest and clear about it, one can not talk about a peaceful co-existence without the fundemental principles of recognition and respect for international borders of your neighbors.  Armenia’s actions and statements are proof why this principle is a fundemental one.  The alternative is a state of war.  Armenia needs to make a choice.

    “The right to self-determination is a strong black letter law principle in international law…The two—self-determination and territorial integrity—have absolutely equal weight in the law.”

    Hardly.  It is a dubious and inapplicable concept and hardly a well-defined law and hardly recognized or formalized as in a state’s borders, flag etc..  Pretending that Wilsonian pronciples are well and alive?  No lessons learned from WWI?  Where do you draw the line, and who defines the line?  Why not apply it to other ethnic groups in Armenia and any other place, Russia, Bulgaria, Crimea, Chechneya, Israel, Kashmir, Cyprus, etc.. 

    “The first granted to Turkey three-fifths of the territory of the first Republic of Armenia, while Kars ratified that allocation and set the borders between Armenia and Georgia, and Armenia and Azerbaijan, in addition to Armenia and Turkey. There are several factors that call the legitimacy of these treaties into question”

    Questioning the national borders defined and recognized  by well established protocols is not the way to have good or any relations with your neighbors.  Maybe we can agree on this.  All treaties are signed under duress, all parties apply all the leverages they have and come to an understanding.  If the terms are not really acceptable, and one party thinks they can do better, then you go back to the battlefield as Turks did after Sevres.    Those lands never belonged to a Republic of Armenia, they never were a majority in the whole region (Eastern Anatolia) or part of it, which could not even sustain its own existence more than a few years.  The alternative to recognition and respect of national boundries is war.  

    It is childish and dangerous to still maintain a dream of Greater Armenia at the expense of all others, while blaming Turks for not accomodating it.

    One simply can not have it both ways.  Even children know this, what is Mr. Corbaciyan’s excuse?

  2. Murat, you are very much mistaken. To name a few Van, Erzerum, Sivas, Mush, Bitlis, Diyarbakir and Istanbul had large populations of Armenians.  Check out some info:
    You cannot say Armenians did not live in those areas.  What was the population density percentages compared to Kurds, Greeks, Jews or Turks? And don’t try to bundle Kurds with Turks to increase the numbers as Muslims. And by the way, a contract agreed to under duress is not legitimate. If someone holds a gun to your head, regardless of your true intentions, you’ll sign anyway.
    And by the way, It’s Dr. Chorbajian. He’s a Professor at UML.  Check it out,
    What are your credentials?

  3. Antranig, I am not mistaken at all.  I have a habit of making sure I have the facts straight before making statements in public.  You should do the same. 

    Firstly, I never contradicted the fact that there were significant Armenian populations in the whole of Anatolia, and especially in the Eeast.  Armenians are an essential part of Turkey’s history and culture.  The comment was about having a majority in any particular vilyet or region.  Majority concept was important since it was tied (by Armenians mostly) to the right of self-determination and Wilson principles etc. .  The most concentrated Armenian population was in Van, and claims have been made by some that Armenians were a mjority there.  They were not.  Not even in the city itself.  Not even close.

    “Population estimates for the Van city itself are more difficult. There were extensive population movements in and around the city as the economic and political situation deteriorated rapidly before at the dawn of the World War I. Ottoman population count at the time recorded 79,000 Muslims and 34,000 Armenians in the Van district, which included the immediate surrounding areas too.  The city of Van’s Armenian population was about 30,000 people in the fall of 1914.” (from Wikipedia)

    I can provide more detailed breakdown for all minorities and references, but this is not the place. 

    If we take your definition of legitimacy, then humankind would have to fight all the wars in history over and over and again.   If the gun was put to the head of the Turks at the time (it was actually) I wonder if you would have had the same opinions about this issue of legitimacy.  Let us at least pretend to be fair.

    You could call me Dr. too  if that makes feel better about my credentials.

  4. incidentally,
    does anyone know how much armenia sold for?
    and who was the highest bidder?
    the united states?
    perhaps israel?

  5. Does Dr Murat take into account the Hamidian massacres of 1893-96 in purveying his skewed statistics? Does he not want to pretend to be fair and admit that a) they were designed to produce the sort of demographic results that he now quotes as given?; and b) they helped to produce those results and Armenians (at least according to official Hamidian-Ottoman statistics) were no longer a majority in what had been Armenia (the 6 Vilayets) for 3 millennia? Let me remind Dr Murat that 300,000 Armenians were massacred during this period and a huge number also fled to Russian Armenia to save their skins. In any case from 1870s an active Hamidian policy of double and treble taxation of the Armenian peasantry and lawlessness (Kurds were licensed to do with Armenian honour and property as they pleased) was deliberately designed to “encourage” Armenians to leave the 6 Armenian Vilayets and many did. So your statistics were produced by deliberate and designed massacres compunded by further Ottoman manipulations of the figures since even after the massacres Armenians were still in majority in most of those Vilayets. Hence for example Muslims v Armenians rather than Kurds and Turks v “Christians” which would in some cases have included Greeks and Assyrians, etc.

  6. Mr. Nazaryan, firstly I have no statistics.  I merely quoted well documented numbers which are consistent with Armenian Church counts, Ottoman census records and numbers from Red Cross and other missions.  These are well investigated and studied figures.  What gave you the impression that I made these numbers up?  You make statements that I doubt you can back up. 

    Secondly, 1893-96 rebellions, as it is known in history, were the reason for  the armed conflict, not the other way around.  There have been numerous such uprisings after the Berlin Treaty, well armed and directly and overtly supported by Russia, with the express purpose of seperating a large chunk of Anatolia from Ottomans.  These are the facts, not mine, but can be found in Armenian records. 

    Obviously you claim Armenians had legitimate reasons for rebelling and fighting, then you can certainly extend the same logic to those who felt that was a mortal threat to their very existence.  I am not in a position to moralize anyone here even as someone whose family tree was cut from the roots in Bitlis during 1916.  The fact is people who were trying to establish Greater Armenia were trying to do it where they were a minority. 

    There were population movements due to wars and conflicts all around the Ottoman borders.  They were under attack for over a century.  You only mention what happened to Christians, but conveniently ignore for example that after the Russo-Turkish war of 1878, when Russia invaded the Kars region, many of the Muslims there were driven out and replaced by Armenians of Russian Armenia.  Russians have changed the demographics of the Caucasus consdierably and deliberately over a century.   Tolstoy even wrote about it.  A process that continues to this day.  Ever heard of Great Circussian Migration?  What happened to Crimeans?  Chechens, Lezgis?  Not to mention the general ethnic cleansing of the Muslims that began in the Balkans that continue to this day.  I will not even bring up ethnic cleansing of Karabag.

    Maybe something good will come out of this historical commison, there is much people do not know about history which they think they know well.  Propaganda is not real or history, however elaborate it may be.

  7. Dear  all,
    great Turkey, so amplified  by “allies” has to realize  and admit  facts.
    History shows-proves  that   “conquistadores”  conquerers also loose  by and by…
    Ottomans,i.e., turkic  tribes, moguls etc., did conquer Western Armenia to further west-Asia  Minor  entirely,rooting  out  from millenia old people  living  there.Prof  Richard G. Hovhanissian  -mutely- but adamantly showed  it at  a couple  of Symposium  in FL  ,last  year  relics  of Armenian pieces  picked  upo in Siva, erzeroum Erzincan etc.,which goes  to show-and did show  on large sacreen b ehind  him, at FAU(many turks  participating)  that ARMENIANS HAD  LIVED  THERE:..
    This  is  not the question.Then pop  up some  of  turks present and utter such phrases as usual” but Armenians stab bed  us  on the b ack, uniting  with Russians  etc.,, egtc.,”
    Right?  no  not  at  al..INCORECT  and I proved  it  there  and then saying  the following standing  up, while  many many turned  b ack to see  who this  was.. I went  on..
    “I am from Europe, few  here  present  know  thatg  another  nation  in furthermost  Europe  had been conquered  and was ruled  for over 600  years  b y North African khaliphates,Spain(España)…
    but  then a spanish pricess, united  the spanish princes   in secret  meetings, got well armed and eventually  drove  the occupiers  OUT!!!!
    This  ,unfotunately would  not happen  in Western Armenia-the few  arms smuggled  in from  the Caucaes  were  not enough and Ottoman Turkey kept vigilance  on population-according  to my father-not  allowing  them to even carry “zmeli”s  ,paper  cutting  knives…
    Ab ove  goes  to prove  that  any people  have  the GOD  GIVEN  RIGHT TO Independence!!!!!
    So why beat around  the bush?  yes we did  all we could  but  did  not succeed TOTALLY.

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