The Evolving Application of Self-Determination and Territorial Integrity

Rally for Artsakh, October 30, 2022 (Photo: Marut Vanyan)

For those in the global Armenian nation who have at least remotely followed the struggle for the liberation of Artsakh (sometimes referred to as the Karabakh conflict), we have been programmed to follow two phrases that represent the victims and the aggressors: self-determination and territorial integrity. The former is the primary justification through international law for the desire of the Armenians to live in freedom. The concept is simple; we are all granted the God-given right to determine our future. It’s the distorted interpretations by some that create complications. Given the historical context of Artsakh to greater Armenia, the legal arguments presented and the defense of their right to exist against constant Azeri aggression, it is reasonable to assume that the Armenian argument has a broad foundation. The other position references the argument that the Azeris have used that any change in the status of Artsakh is a violation of their territorial integrity. Both concepts are part of international law. In order for the Azeri argument to hold ground, one must assume that Artsakh has been a part of Azerbaijan. This is blatantly false. Nagorno-Karabakh existed for 70 years during the Soviet era as an autonomous oblast of the Soviet Union within the borders of Azerbaijan. It has been well-established that this travesty was originally devised in order to quell nationalistic fervor in the newly formed Soviet states. Border and population revision was a favorite tactic of Stalin as Commissar of the Nationalities and later as head of the Soviet Union for decades. When the borders of the Baltic states were altered, for example, many of those countries became home to substantial Russian populations. 

It is rather absurd that organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union declare both “self-determination” and “territorial integrity” on an equal footing in this conflict when the reality is that they are in conflict. Virtually every nation in the modern world was formed from their right to “self-determination” and has been at the expense of someone’s claim of “territorial integrity.” How would the United States have been founded in 1776 if the “self-determination” of the colonists was not considered legitimate versus British “territorial integrity”? Of course, there were no international laws then. World organizations today, despite billions in spending, are generally unable and unwilling to advocate for “self-determination” which is the perennial underdog. The status quo, despite being fraught with injustice, is generally advocated. That diplomatic vacuum leads to military conflict as the deciding factor. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan has little legal and no moral ground, they remain the aggressor because of their unabated military aggression with no consequences. The civilized world has the tools to dissuade criminal aggressors, such as economic sanctions, but geopolitical self-interests (code for our addiction to fossil fuels) limit deterrence. As a result, the bullies run wild, and the victim fights for its right to simply exist in a world governed by self-interest. The recent surge in pro-Armenian diplomatic activity by the United States and Europe has little to do with empathy for the Armenians. It merely reflects the opportunity of self-interest in the South Caucasus based on Russia’s distractions.

Certain factors have changed the context of these commonly-used phrases. For 30 years, self-determination has been a hallmark of the policies of diaspora advocacy, Armenia and Artsakh. It started with the peaceful and legal campaign of the Artsakh Armenians from 1988 to 1991 and has continued through the long-term struggle of the last 34 years. The government of Artsakh has backed up its vision of self-determination with the implementation of impressive democratic and free market institutions. In this regard, despite continuous Azeri aggression, economic blockading and lack of international recognition, the Republic of Artsakh has lapped Azerbaijan multiple times when it comes to building a democratic society. Since the 2020 war and the resulting territorial losses, Armenia has softened its position as it relates to Artsakh. Self-determination has been replaced with “security” as the cornerstone policy. What changed? Prior to the 2020 war, the security of Armenia was threatened only by the Azeri rhetoric but was not in a critical state. Azerbaijan has been successful, despite the criminal nature of their actions, to essentially create two conflict fronts. If you include the shallow discussions with Turkey on normalization, then there are three parallel paths. The resolution of the status of Artsakh is currently a non-starter since Aliyev has stated that the issue is resolved. Of course, he stands alone with this view as it is one of the few things that the United States, Russia and Europe agree on. The so-called peace treaty with Azerbaijan is plagued by arrogant Azerbaijani fantasies such as the “corridor” through Syunik and demarcation work for the border that is essentially another attempt at land grabbing by Azerbaijan. The peace treaty from Aliyev’s perspective is an unconditional surrender: absorb Artsakh, establish a sovereign corridor through Armenia and encroach on the eastern border. Faced with domestic discord and pressure for a peace treaty from an international community wary of this conflict, Pashinyan has embraced a “pragmatic” approach to these parallel challenges. To their credit, the foreign ministry and the prime minister have been shuttling overtime to foreign capitals in hopes of securing actionable support, but signs of support are essentially limited in scope. 

the matter of Artsakh is still very much open.

The strong statements from many countries demanding a withdrawal of Azeris from sovereign Armenian territory, release of the POWs and a cessation of military aggression are reserved only for Armenia. Artsakh continues to receive the “balanced” commentary urging both sides to avoid violence and embrace non-violence. The rhetoric for mutual respect only enables Aliyev to continue his reign of terror without ramifications. It is Armenia now that correctly speaks about territorial integrity as Azerbaijan brazenly violates their sovereignty. The government of Artsakh continues to advocate for self-determination but with limited support from Armenia. They seem to be advocating for a Russian protectorate as the only viable non-Azeri option. Armenia has recently endorsed an indefinite Russian presence, as has Artsakh, to counter Aliyev’s demand that the matter of Artsakh be resolved in 2020. Azerbaijan’s president continues to threaten all Armenians with his murderous campaigns. As the winds have shifted in the roller coaster of the last two years, both unfavorably for the Armenians and recently in a more favorable light, the matter of Artsakh is still very much open. Whether we refer to it as “self-determination” or the more vague “security,” any governmental relationship with Azerbaijan will enable further oppression and eventually the end of the Armenian presence in Artsakh. Given the current political climate, a long term presence of the Russian peacekeepers may be the best available option. From a practical perspective, the safety of the Armenian population and the absence of a governing relationship with Azerbaijan are essential. In that sense, the position of Armenia can be understood. Under no circumstances can the viability of Artsakh’s existence, however, become a chip in the general peace discussions.

One matter has become clear as a result of the diplomatic encounters with Turkey and Azerbaijan: Armenia is engaging in good faith negotiations with an adversary that lacks credibility. The Armenians should be cautious about what they agree to and under what circumstances given that Azerbaijan has never honored any agreement. Aliyev was barely back in Baku after the peace and non-violence agreement in Sochi when his troops fired on Armenian civilian positions. Russia in Artsakh and western support to deter Azeri aggression in Armenia are the only practical short-term solutions while Armenia’s military capability recovers. Turkey needs to be throttled by NATO and the United States to prevent a repeat of their disgraceful behavior in support of Azerbaijan in 2020 with jihadists and illegal weaponry. Pashinyan seems to maintain a “good guy” approach with Turkey and Azerbaijan despite Turkey’s duplicitous position on no pre-conditions to normalization. He has also recently taken a harder stand with Azerbaijan by suggesting a demilitarized zone around Artsakh and responding to the violent threats of Aliyev on civilian populations of Armenians on the eastern border.

As we have observed the evolving application of self-determination and territorial integrity in this struggle, Armenia should earnestly exploit some of the current dynamics to improve their position. With European observers from the EU and OSCE gathering information on the sources of the border incursions, it is unlikely that even rogue Azerbaijan would risk international isolation from a wholesale attack on Armenia. Pashinyan is attempting to keep visibility on this threat by suggesting the attacks will continue. This week, Russia publicly blamed Azerbaijan for attacks in Artsakh and seems to be in no mood for what they correctly perceive as a challenge to their authority. Armenia should utilize this current environment to assert their agenda with Azerbaijan. Advocating a peace treaty positions Armenia as a civilized nation, but the terms of any potential agreement are what counts. For example, instead of hoping for the full return of POWs and occupied territory as a condition of the treaty, it should become a precondition for any serious discussions on peace. Azerbaijan’s arrogant approach to negotiations with threats and a complete lack of integrity must be countered to level the playing field. This has been difficult in the absence of international attention. The timing now seems appropriate for a more offensive approach. Armenia should have the opportunity to regulate their diplomatic tactics commensurate with the engagement of the West and Russia until Aliyev realizes that he does not have a free rein to terrorize. The eventual short term objective must be to sanction Azerbaijan. This must be implemented because it makes sense politically and preserves the dignity of the nation. There are many parallels between the citizens of Armenia and the United States relative to their respective political environment. Most Americans and Armenians have opinions in this regard, but it should not be confused with whether they feel empowered to do anything about current realities. Many Armenians feel estranged from the political dynamics as do many Americans from the political conflicts in Washington. What seems to matter is that their daily lives are stable, and they feel a sense of dignity as citizens. Armenians are weary of feeling like victims and subordinated to the criminal acts of others. It is time to restore our sense of self-worth.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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