Artsakh: Assessing the Peace Process

Karvachar, Artsakh (Photo: Sedrak Mkrtchyan/Flickr)

The de facto state of Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) was created by the 1994 ceasefire that ended a war initiated by Azerbaijan against the Karabakh Armenians who had lawfully declared their independence from the political and cultural servitude they had endured for some 70 years. 

Since then, much has been accomplished in Artsakh. Infrastructure has been repaired and expanded, a viable economy has developed, democratic institutions implemented, and an effective defensive force created that has protected its borders from continued Azeri aggression in violation of the ceasefire agreement. By all accounts, Artsakh has become a viable political entity, yet after 25 years, it is no closer to gaining its independence.

The Pro-Azeri Agenda of the Peace Process

From its very beginning, the peace process mediated by the Minsk Group co-chairs (France, Russia and the United States) has ignored the core issue of the conflict: the right of the Karabakh Armenians to be granted independence. Instead, the agenda driving the negotiations is essentially pro-Azeri in its objectives. Let’s clarify that statement. Pro-Azeri in its objectives does not imply that the Minsk Group co-chairs are pro-Azeri or anti-Armenia. It is an agenda based on the Azerbaijani claim that it was invaded by Armenia and that its territory is being unlawfully occupied. Credence is given to this claim by principle 4, Article 2, Chapter 1 of the United Nations (UN) Charter that “All Members shall refrain…from the…use of force against the territorial integrity of any state.” This principle was included in the Helsinki Accords signed by 35 European countries including the United States and Canada in 1975. The Accord accepted Soviet hegemony in the east in exchange for agreements important to the West that included the inviolability of existing political boundaries, the non-use of force in settling disputes, self-determination as a right of people, and respect for human rights and non-discrimination of minorities. The Madrid Proposals, which have gone through several iterations, are based on the Helsinki Accords.

France, Russia and the United States have accepted the Madrid Proposals as the basis for negotiations. The fact that they call for the return of all occupied territory to Azerbaijan and the right of Azeris to return to their former homes isolates Karabakh from Armenia before the core issues of independence and boundaries are resolved. Connections from Armenia to Karabakh via the Lachin Corridor and the newer road from Vadnais to Martakert are guaranteed as a sop. Unfortunately, these transit routes are militarily untenable and their use subject to the whims of the Azeris, guarantees notwithstanding. At this juncture we would be akin to a flock of sheep that have just been shorn. Hopefully we will never reach this point.

Artsakh’s independence, evacuation by the Azeris from the border regions of Martakert and Martuni and the return of northern Shuhumyan to Karabakh should also be on the agenda. Why should territorial integrity take precedence over the established right of self-determination?

Once Armenian forces have withdrawn from Azerbaijani territory and Azeris are allowed to return to their former homes, Karabakh Armenians will be granted temporary autonomy (not autonomy for Karabakh) until a vote is taken to determine their final status. Their security during this interim period will be guaranteed by an international peace-keeping force. That guarantee is questionable because peace keeping forces have neither the capability nor the authority to physically protect. Under this scenario, it is obvious that the Artsakh Defense Force must be demobilized because Karabakh will be under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan and the peace-keeping force will supposedly guarantee Armenians’ security. At this point we have gained nothing and have conceded everything.  

It is a foregone conclusion that Armenians will vote for independence. That being so, we would be naive not to expect that Azeris would also be eligible to vote and that independence, if on the ballot, could not garner sufficient votes to prevail. The very best outcome, given the present pro-Azeri bias of the process, is a limited form of cultural autonomy for the Armenians who choose to remain in Karabakh, and even this result is not guaranteed.  

This seems to be where we are heading. Yet, Yerevan has failed to provide any counter-narrative to refute what Azerbaijan persistently presents as facts. This was not an invasion of Azerbaijan by Armenian military forces. On the contrary, it was a humanitarian intervention to protect the Armenian minority that sought independence from a government that discriminated against them; that denigrated their culture and routinely destroyed their cultural artifacts. When the government engaged in a genocide of its Armenian minority, a military incursion was necessary because Azerbaijan failed to fulfill its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the Armenian minority. This R2P doctrine, adopted by the UN in 2005, cites the responsibility of governments to protect their populations from harm (genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing). However, when that harm is being orchestrated by the government itself, who is there to protect that minority? For the Artsakh Armenians, it was neighboring Mother Armenia.

The Minsk Group Co-chairs have framed this Azeri-oriented solution to the Karabakh conflict as an objective process by declaring that a peaceful resolution must be based on the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. That seems to be a fairly objective stance. However, when each principle is defined, that initial reaction is quickly dispelled. 

Consider that there is no ambiguity when the principle of territorial integrity is invoked. It means that all land that is currently occupied by Armenian forces must be returned to the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan. The principle of self-determination, unfortunately, is not that definitive. If self-determination is defined as independence (the Armenian view), then there is a major conflict between the two. How can all or any part of Artsakh be independent if all the land presently occupied by Armenian forces is returned to Azeri control? During the interim before the final vote is taken to determine the status of Karabakh and the Karabakh Armenians, all of Karabakh will be under Azeri jurisdiction. If independence is foreclosed by the principle of territorial integrity, then the Minsk Group co-chairs would have to define self-determination as seeking some degree of autonomy (i.e. cultural). That definition would allow both principles to be met in reaching a negotiated settlement. Obviously, this is not what we expect. If, arguendo, Armenians were “required” or “coerced” to accept this zero sum solution paraded as a win for both sides (Azerbaijan regaining control of its territory and Armenians being granted cultural autonomy within Karabakh) how long do you imagine the Armenians would remain a viable minority within Karabakh?

As a sovereign country, agreements notwithstanding, Azerbaijan could and would implement policies and programs to marginalize the Armenians without fear of any serious foreign political repercussions (look at Tbilisi’s treatment of the Javakhk Armenians). The improvements that have been painstakingly made to improve the quality of life for our brothers and sisters in Artsakh would end up benefiting the Azeris. What a cruel turn of events that would be. It would not be long before Karabakh became another Naketchevan.

Real Politik and the Peace Process

It was Talleyrand who said that states do not have friends, they only have interests. Real politik is essentially practical politics. Each country’s view of the world is colored by what it perceives to be its national interests and geostrategic needs. This is what fashions their relations with other countries and the various regional groupings that exist. The solution of the Karabakh conflict, however arrived at, will be in accord with the national interests and geostrategic needs of the mediating countries. Achieving justice is not a consideration. Reaching an agreement favorable to Armenia becomes even more problematic when a non-party to the negotiations (i.e. Turkey) has the potential to influence the outcome.

As a member of the UN and a signatory to the Helsinki Accords, Russia has blatantly violated the borders of the Ukraine, annexed the Crimea and recognizes the “break-away” Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and North Ossetia.  One would presume, as an ally of Armenia, Moscow would not hesitate to recognize Artsakh. Not so! The foreign relations of a state are governed by its national interests and geostrategic needs. For Russia, Turkey (an ally of Azerbaijan) has greater assets in meeting these interests and needs than does Armenia. We are essentially a captive ally of Russia. Is there another country we can turn to? Washington has a similar problem. It must weigh recognizing Artsakh against its policy of maintaining favorable relations with Ankara which is viewed as a hedge against Moscow. Turkey looms large because it maintains the largest active military force in NATO; occupies a strategic geographic position; is a conduit for energy resources from the Caspian Sea Basin to Europe; and controls the essential Incirlik Air Base in Adana. It becomes obvious that Ankara, our implacable enemy, has an interest in what happens in Artsakh because it will have an impact for better or worse on Ankara’s national interests and geostrategic needs.

Will Turkey always be a sought after partner? Who can foretell. Fortunately, global politics is not static. This is why a continued stalemate with respect to Artsakh’s status should be considered a victory. 

Our Options in Artsakh

One can never reliably predict the future. However, given the pro-Azeri bent to the peace process, a stalemate continuing Artsakh’s de facto status gives us a valuable opportunity to strengthen our position in Artsakh through a robust resettlement program and to develop the political support necessary to achieve Artsakh’s independence. To do this we must implement, at a minimum, a three prong course of action.

1) As a global nation we must fully commit to the proposition that we will never voluntarily dishonor the sacrifices our people have made in their legitimate demand to be independent from a despotic government that, even now, maintains a policy denigrating Armenians and Armenia culture. This commitment is vital if we expect to finally implement a resettlement program that will significantly increase the population of Artsakh. 

2) We have to acknowledge that we have no political support from foreign governments for Artsakh’s independence. No one questions the importance, psychologically and emotionally, of having foreign governments recognize the Armenian Genocide. It assuages the hurt our people have borne these many years. However, this recognition simply acknowledges that the Ottoman Turks carried out a policy of genocide against its Armenian citizens. It ends there. These governments make no demands that Turkey, as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, recognize the genocide other than suggesting that Ankara should come to terms with its past. Fortunately, a huge reservoir of goodwill has been generated by the Diaspora and Armenia. Our task should be to transform this goodwill into political support for our objective in Artsakh. To achieve this end, Yerevan must develop an intensive informational campaign throughout the diasporan countries supporting self-determination; the antecedents that led to the exercise of that right; the achievements that have been made in Artsakh and Azerbaijan’s historic policy of denigrating Armenians, their culture and the destruction of their cultural artifacts. Until foreign governments are willing to support Armenia politically, we must rely solely on the presently flawed process mediated by the Minsk Group co-chairs.

3) A firm commitment to implement a robust resettlement program. This should involve building three or four strategically sited settlements annually in Kashatagh, Shahumyan and Hadrut. These would be small villages (20 families with upwards of 70 to 80 people) that would expand as the need or circumstances required. The estimated cost to construct a settlement of 20 homes, a school, playing field, administration building and a small clinic with the necessary infrastructure is about one million dollars. Potential settlers must be properly vetted, and there must be effective government oversight and assistance to ensure the programs’ success. Raising funds is difficult, and our needs are endless. However, strategically sited settlements, economic development and spatial integration go hand-in-hand and are critical to our control in Artsakh. 

Why Artsakh is Important

Armenia united with Artsakh would enjoy a significant increase in its resource base, especially with respect to surface and groundwater supplies and arable land. A greater Armenia would have the capability to support upwards of seven million people which would place it, population-wise, on a par with Georgia and Azerbaijan. While the Diaspora will always be a vital part of the global Armenian nation, Mother Armenia is its cultural hearth and its political center. 

Since independence was declared in 1991, Armenia’s population of about 3.4 million should have grown to about 4.3 million (based solely on births and deaths). Today, its population is about three million. This means about 1.1 million Armenians have out-migrated either permanently or in search of work. A shrinking population has serious ramifications. Usually it is the young and most energetic individuals and families who leave. This represents a loss of potential talent (a brain drain) and contributes to an aging of the population. The ratio of workers (even assuming high levels of employment) to non-workers decreases. This in turn requires a disproportionate allocation of government resources to properly care for the elderly. At the same time, a contracting labor force inhibits economic expansion as well as reducing the pool of young men and women eligible for military service.

What our relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan would be like if we succeed in Artsakh is problematic. However, if we should suffer a setback in Artsakh, we can be assured that our relations will deteriorate even further. Consider whether Turkey would be more or less inclined to recognize the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians or consider reparations or the restitution of property (institutional, community and individual)? Or if Azerbaijan would cease its anti-Armenian vitriol? Most likely, Baku would be emboldened to press its claim to, at the least, the southern part of Syunik. This would provide them the long desired corridor to its Naketchevan exclave and deny Armenia its vital border with Iran. Georgia is already a reluctant good neighbor. We could expect even less cooperation on vital issues. This would be an opportunity for the xenophobic leaders in Tbilisi to further marginalize the Javakhk Armenians whose days in their historic homeland would be numbered. If we question the importance of succeeding in Artsakh, we should have no doubts as to the adverse effects of defeat.


Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.


  1. It is a real pleasure and extremely gratifying to see Michael Mensoian back on the Armenian Weekly pages. He was tremendously missed.
    His analysis is thoughtful, insightful and objective. His articulate assessment is on the mark and a call to action.
    A key point is that the OSCE Minsk Group since its establishment in December 1994 has adhered and stubbornly stuck on the ” Madrid Principles” . The ” Madrid Principles” are flawed and reckless; they are not acceptable to Armenians. They should be rejected.
    After 25 years the status quo has not changed. No progress has been made.
    We, all Armenians, are basically on our own. We need to solidly unite and be proactive.
    We should never give up the right of self determination for our brothers and sisters in Artsakh. Every means of support should be given to Artsakh to strengthen it economically, militarily, politically and morally. Every bit counts.
    Too much has been sacrified. We cannot afford to lose what has been accomplished so far.
    Vart Adjemian

  2. Every sentence in this article is based on common-sense and logic. Therefore, those Minsk Group of leaders seem to have neither common-sense nor logic!
    They talk about human rights, yet they sign according to their ‘national interests and geostrategic needs’.
    There is no gain to Armenia in accepting any propositions from these nations.
    Armenia should refuse to sit for any kind of mediation meetings and should demand a new and improved accord (appropriately called The Yerevan Accord) that will include self-determination of nations as well as human rights, independent of national interests and financial gains for any nation.

    The Helsinky Accord is flawed and it’s time to replace it with the new-and-improved ‘The Yerevan Accord’ which will bring peace and justice to humanity.
    Where should we start?

    …wishful thinking….

  3. A well thought out article. What is worrying (the article touches on this) is that we solely depend on Russia to protect Karabagh and if their interests lie elsewhere they will not provide us with the arms to defend Karabagh. This is beginning to happen with their relation with Turkey improving. Things could escalate very quickly and we wouldn’t have a chance. Negotiation and a bit of give and take is in order now that we have some credibility.

  4. An important commentary — well-argued, timely and yet farsighted. I have little to add, except that Armenia’s posture is also a factor in this equation. Until recently, Yerevan’s official position was reactive and acquiescent — e.g. accept the Madrid Principles, accept the possible return of territories, accept that Artsakh has no seat at the negotiating table, etc. It seems that the new regime, led by Pashinyan and Mnatsakanyan, has taken a more bold and pro-active approach, seeking to dampen or even reverse prior positions. I find this encouraging.

  5. Armenia has nothing to bargain with. Right is it might. Might is right. Next time Azerbaijan does something, the Artsakhy forces need to capture a portion of the pipeline. Preferably just before winter. Than Armenia can negotiate between Artsakh and Azerbaijan. When Israel captured the Sinai peninsula, the Egyptians were quickly tamed. The other solution is to try Alyev in Absentia and issue an Interpol warrant. Then, we can have him captured, brought to Armenia, and I guarantee you that either Alyev will sign a very fa Oracle peace treaty or his domestic opposition will take advantage and take over. Perhaps, even a velvet revolution. A democratic Azerbaijan will be far easier to deal with.

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