Quotas on Liberty: The Karabakh Case

by Andranik Israyelyan

Karabakh people opted for liberty. The International community shall respect their choice.

When you are an International Relations expert, you have to adhere to some accepted formulas, beliefs and sometimes dogmas, to find your place in the expert community. Thinking out of the box is rarely welcome even in Western civilization, that boasts traditions of critical thinking. You can hardly meet someone in Western academia, challenging the conventional approach towards Abkhazia, because its independence is sustained with Russian help. Conversely, Kosovo is considered a rightfully independent state as it is recognized by the US and a majority of Western states. Nobody in fact even dwells on the historical foundations of Abkhazia, even if its statehood predates a majority of European nations.

Western academia and diplomatic circles developed certain labels for self-determination movements. Typically you can find a “breakaway region”, a “separatist government” or worse—a “disputed territory”. In the latter case, self -determined people and their statehood is diminished to a level of an empty terrain, disputed between two other peoples, who luckily enjoy a recognized statehood. For the post-soviet space, where military solutions are always on the table, these kind of unrecognized states are also labeled “frozen conflicts” to keep the West under caution of the possibility of resumption of hostilities. And of course, all these unrecognized entities are in a package considered to be a Russian-led occupation, and the popular image of Russia is for different reasons tarnished enough not to let experts, let alone the public think otherwise.

Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, or Artsakh, is among those political entities, that are not lucky to be easily recognized, as it lies at the intersection of geopolitical centers and their clashing interests. Being within Armenia since ancient times as evidenced by Strabo and other authors, the Armenian populated Nagorno-Karabakh region was transferred by Joseph Stalin to Azerbaijan in 1921.

For a majority of progressive intellectuals and artists, who have no vested interest in geopolitics, Artsakh is not a disputed or conflict zone with unclear status. As Montserrat Caballe put it, inspired by millenia-old Armenian churches in Artsakh, it’s “a cradle of Christianity.” Yet, when it comes to power politics, things get complicated. In 1991 in the final days of the Soviet Empire the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomuous Region held a referendum, where an absolute majority of its people voted for independence. Azerbaijan declined to recognize the result of this self-determination act of Karabakh people and soon these two political entities found themselves at a bloody war. Initially being half-occupied and on the verge of extinction, Artsakh organized an unimaginable self-defence and secured its right to life and freedom. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov put it, “For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh it is a matter of life and death.”In 1994, Azebaijan, Karabakh, and Armenia, as a state, backing Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, concluded a ceasfire agreement with Russian mediation.  Minks Group of OSCE was tasked to mediate the conflicting sides.

In the post war period Azerbaijan was able to use petrodollars to recover from losses in war, rebuild its army, get international alliances and skillfully use them. Karabakh’s independence has been constantly manipulated by Azerbaijan in different platforms. Baku uses Islamic solidarity to get anti-Armenian resolutions in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, whereas in the West Karabakh’s independence is presented as a Russian-led Armenian occupation. Generally, the problem is presented in the light of territorial integrity—as a territorial dispute.

Early April 2016 marked another watershed in the conflict between unrecognized the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Azerbaijan as Azerbaijani military forces launched an unprecedented offensive on different fronts of Karabakh, using tanks, artillery, drones and even helicopters. During a short-lived occupation of small portions of Karabakh, Azerbaijan forces commited war crimes, by killing 3 elderly and a 12 -year -old boy. Reactions by the international community were cautious, not to say hypocritical. Eying Azerbaijani hydrocarbons, many capitals tried to strike balance, calling “both sides” to end hostilities. Most of the authoritative think tanks and experts like International Crisis Group, Chatam House, Thomas de Waal point to Azerbaijan as the initiator of hostilities.

After four days of intense fighting, the hostilities were ceased by Russian mediation, leaving dozens of dead and wounded on both sides. Karabakh Defense Army had rebuffed attacks of Azerbaijani troops and recovered territory it lost. Thus, Karabakh Defense Army and its people successfully repulsed another Azerbaijani attempt to exterminate them.

As the international community tries to assess what happened and make some adjustments in its political approach, international politics enter a new stage of perception manipulations, —with Azerbaijan, claiming to “end occupation of its territories.” According to such demands, the Karabakh people shall cease their political existence on Karabakh, — in order to not violate the Soviet-sketched borders of Azerbaijan. If not, Baku shall make sure it bought enough armament from Russia, Israel, and Turkey to crush Karabakh’s statehood and people.

In its policies Azerbaijan has secured two close allies: —Israel and Turkey. Official Israel, excelling in its suppression of the Palestine people, is aiding and abetting Azerbaijan. Having converging interests with Azerbaijan in denying self-determination rights of peoples, Israel sells large quantities of weapons to the Baku regime. In recent clashes Azerbaijan largely used Israeli “suicide drones” —according to the Telegraph, for the first time in the world. Moreover, most racist elements in the State of Israel, including former FM Avigdor Liberman, encourage Azerbaijani actions. Liberman, famous for his proposals to drown prisoners in the Dead Sea, in an interview considered Azerbaijani actions “within the generally accepted norms.”

Turkey is another state, explicitly supporting Azerbaijan. President Erdogan congratulated his Azerbaijani colleague Ilham Aliyev on successful operations that resulted in the death of children and elderly. Make sure this is the same Erdogan, who expressed his firm belief that Muslims cannot commit genocide in 2008 and minced no words to call Armenian people “ugly” in an online interview in 2014, raising questions on his insanity.

Turkey once had a chance to solve its own Armenian problems, and it resulted in Armenians’ disappearance from part of their historical homeland. Turkey is a state, — responsible for the genocide of the Armenian people 100 years ago, as recognized by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, bulk of EU states and the European Parliament. Ankara’s calls on Azerbaijan to undertake military actions, sounds an ominous warning what to expect from Turkey. Thus Armenians a century after the Genocide are on the brink of another extermination and Turkey is instigating  and supporting this “to the end” –to use Erdogan’s wording.

Karabakh people, enjoy the highest levels of ethnic pride among the dozens of ethnicities that we have surveyed in post-Soviet states and the Balkans. Throughout their history they have resisted foreign forces-Roman armies, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, the Soviet Red Army, and finally Azerbaijan. All foreign rules have been overthrown eventually, but for each empire they were “breakaways” not much different from the United States, that broke from the British Empire.

As for international law, the International Court of Justice ruled in Kosovo case that the unilateral declaration of independence does not violate international law. Moreover in 1992-1994 the Azerbaijani army, killing and deporting half of Karabakh people, carried out ethnic cleansing. There is no single Armenian left in Azerbaijan. By this, Azerbaijan lost any moral right to claim sovereignty over people it attempted to annihilate.

Karabakh people need no additional justification why they opted for liberty and restored statehood in their homeland. For them the Stalin-sketched borders and prison is over. No empire can put a quota on their liberty.


Andranik Israyelyan is an International Relations scholar. He holds a PhD degree in World History and defended his thesis on Turkish foreign policy under the AK Party (2002-12) at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Armenia.

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One thought on “Quotas on Liberty: The Karabakh Case

  1. Andranik: Thank you, you’ve put a spotlight on terminology such as “breakaway region”, “separatist government”, “disputed territory”, “frozen conflict”, “territories”, “occupation”, “liberty”, “statehood”, and of course “self-determination” and “territorial integrity”.

    It would be useful if you write a piece specific to the Artsakh context on the historical, legal, political and diplomatic construction of meaning in the use of such terminology.

    In doing so you might also discuss the relative meaning of “democracy”, “elections” and “government” as applied and contrasted between Artsakh and Azerbaijan since 1993.

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