In the wake of its aggression against Artsakh and its victory against Armenians therein, Azerbaijan is more than ever engaged in attempts to justify its actual occupation of large territorial fractions of this country and an alleged sovereignty over it and its Armenian inhabitants. To say it otherwise, Ilham Aliyev duly endorses the famous apocryphal statement assigned to Bismarck according to which “Macht geht über Recht.”
This situation is facilitated by the great political weakness of Armenia, which so far is the main ally of the Republic of Artsakh. Such a weakness of course results from the military defeat, which weakens the current Armenian government, now strongly contested by a reinvigorated opposition supported by broad, if not dominant, segments of the population. Indeed, the defeat again made Artsakh the key contentious issue on Armenia’s political scene. This evolution is certainly logical, as the loss of Artsakh is rightfully perceived as an existential threat for Armenia itself. As a matter of confirmation, Azerbaijani troops started encroaching on strategic heights of Syunik, Armenia’s southern province, while the regime of Baku makes regular claims, not only over this region but also over Lake Sevan and Yerevan itself, i.e., over three quarters of the tiny Armenian territory. The current political conditions are so critical that Armenia is unable to guarantee the security of Artsakh, hardly its own security and that Russia, through its peacekeepers, is now the only guarantor of the security of the Republic of Artsakh.
In such a context, Kamal Makili-Aliyev, associate professor of human rights at the University of Gothenburg, recently advocated for reintegration of Artsakh (so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh”) in Azerbaijan following the model of the Åland islands. Prof. Makili-Aliyev’s article contains some disputable affirmations, but, more critically, it is putting forward a model which can certainly not apply to Artsakh.
For instance, it claims: “International law does not envision the right to self-determination for minorities per se.” This affirmation obliterates the fact that, likewise, international law does not forbid or prevent the right to self-determination for minorities per se. Indeed, international law is mostly silent on that point. However, what international law indirectly says in essence is that the territorial integrity of states must be based on the self-determination of people living in the territorial limits claimed by the considered state and that such a territorial integrity is certainly not equating a license to kill. In this regard, self-determination may be justified twice for Artsakh: on the one hand, because it has never been part of any independent Azerbaijan (and with good reason – such an entity never existed in history up to 1918), and on the other hand, because each colonization phase of Artsakh by Azerbaijan led to massive slaughters of its indigenous inhabitants, i.e., ethnic Armenians.
Actually, the territorial limit between Armenian and Tatar statehoods has never been set by any treaty. In the 19th century, the whole area was under Persian sovereignty when it was incorporated in the Russian Empire to further the Tsarist expansion southward, and then sovietized later on. In both the Russian Empire and USSR, administrative limits have never been deemed as international borders. Interestingly, during the brief period of independence (1918-1920) of these countries, Armenia was provisionally entitled to access the League of Nations on a territorial basis, which included Artsakh, whereas Azerbaijan was dismissed as it was not able to determine its Western border.
Therefore, at the fall of the USSR, the inhabitants of Artsakh voted to be attached again to Armenia and this was refused by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. Then, when Azerbaijan seceded from the USSR, Armenians from Artsakh lawfully declared their independence from Azerbaijan to which they were forcefully associated only since and through sovietization. Those who, for some reason, do not accept this regular declaration of independence should at least consider that remedial secession of Artsakh from Azerbaijan is legitimate with respect to the long record of mass murders, war crimes and destruction of cultural heritage performed by Azerbaijan against these people, prior to the last war and even more during and after it.
In this respect, illustrating the Artsakh case with the Åland islands is at best a bitter joke. As explained by Prof. Makili-Aliyev, these islands are populated by Swedes but are under Finland’s sovereignty. They enjoy a certain level of autonomy. They are demilitarized. They enjoy their own parliament. They have their own flag and police forces, and they are guaranteed a representation in the Finnish parliament.
But, Azerbaijan is certainly neither Finland, nor Sweden. These privileges granted by Finland to the Åland islands are inconceivable in Azerbaijan. Scandinavian countries are ranked among the most democratic states worldwide – with stringent respect for human rights and scrupulous respect of the rule of law – whereas Azerbaijan stagnates for years in the limbos of such rankings. In 2022 for instance, Reporters without Borders ranked Sweden and Finland at the third and fifth positions of its yearly ranking and Azerbaijan at the 154th position just between Belarus and Russia. This same organization considers Ilham Aliyev a “press freedom predator.”
Average citizens have basically no rights in Azerbaijan. Unless they flee, any dissident voice has been jailed and tortured. Arif and Leyla Yunus fled in 2016, and Emin Milli in 2015, for instance. Even in exile, they are not safe. In 2017, Afgan Mukhtarli was abducted in nearby Georgia to be imprisoned in Azerbaijan. Mahammad Mirzali – a blogger who recently took refuge in France – escaped twice from murder attempts by Baku’s probable henchmen operating on the French territory. Trials are ongoing.
If ethnic Tatars are not safe in Azerbaijan, how can it be possible for ethnic Armenians against whom the regime and Aliyev himself are proudly and openly engaged in a decade-long campaign of inciting hatred? During the last war, Aliyev repeated about Artsakh Armenians, “We are chasing them out like dogs.” Indeed, his army performed numerous war crimes. Even now, nearly two years after the war, captured Armenian soldiers and civilians are jailed and tortured in Azerbaijan.
If there is one point that everyone should clearly understand, it is that Artsakh Armenians are not claiming independence for pleasure or pride, but to stay alive on their ancestral lands. To come back to the Åland example, we may affirm that it has been already tested by some previously Armenian-populated territories: Nakhichevan which was predominantly Armenian before 1923, the Shahumyan district which declared its independence with the other regions of Artsakh in 1988 and also the territories occupied by Azerbaijan after the 2020 war. These examples were quite conclusive as the ethnic cleansing is completely achieved and the exact number of Armenians therein is now zero.
To conclude the joke on the Åland islands, I cannot miss mentioning the exchange between the third President of Artsakh Arkady Ghukasyan and European Parliament member Per Gahrton. This conversation occurred in the early 2000s when Gahrton was the EP rapporteur on South Caucasus. As a Swede, Gahrton precisely used this example of the Åland islands to try convincing Ghukasyan that being under foreign sovereignty was possible and acceptable. After some talks, Ghukasyan said in essence, “Okay, you convinced me! I accept.” A little bit destabilized, Gahrton replied by asking again, “You accept?” Ghukasyan confirmed, “Yes! I accept to place Artsakh under Finland’s sovereignty.”