BY SETO BOYADJIAN, ESQ.
Last Wednesday, in the historic Cannon Building on Capitol Hill, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) joined an impressive number of Congressmen to mark the 25th Anniversary of liberty in Nagorno Karabakh. The event served as a celebration of the ongoing democracy and freedom in Artsakh. During the preceding days, Members of Congress also took the floor and went on record to mark the 25th Anniversary of Nagorno Karabakh’s freedom.
These initiatives constitute a deserved tribute to the 25 years of liberty and democracy achieved by the people of Artsakh, who embarked on a liberation struggle in 1988 and shook off the shackles of tyranny by declaring independence in 1991. They also attest to the now established reality that Artsakh has not only gained its right to self-determination; it has also earned its right to independence.
Whether an independent country or whether eventually an inseparable unit of the Republic of Armenia, the patrimonial identity of Artsakh is well established. Artsakh was one of the fifteen provinces of historic Armenia. When invading foreign forces caused the dismemberment of Armenia, Artsakh retained its attribute as a distinct territorial unit. Under the Persian Empire, it was a separate and quasi-independent principality (“Melikoutyun”).
During the Soviet dominance, Moscow recognized Artsakh as a distinct territorial identity and, as such, in 1923 it was designated as an “autonomous region” to be administered by the recently created Azerbaijan. (Note that historically and legally Azerbaijan did not exist; it came into existence as a separate country and state only in 1918,)
Both Armenia and the people of Artsakh protested against Moscow’s administrative decision of 1923. In fact, this decision was a direct outcome of Joseph Stalin’s “nationalities policy” that aimed at gerrymandering the ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union and pitting them against one another. In view of the ongoing Armenian protests and petitions, in January 1989 Moscow was compelled to redesignate the status of Artsakh as an “ethno-territorial administrative division” administered directly from Moscow, not from Baku.
Thereafter, on December 10, 1991, in full compliance with Soviet Constitution and Soviet laws on secession, the people of Artsakh held a referendum in the presence of international observers, whereby they overwhelmingly adopted the independence of Artsakh.
Today, after 25 years of labor and toil to maintain and expand the spirit and the deed of freedom, Artsakh is the most democratic, free, transparent and egalitarian country not only in the South Caucasus, but also among the former Soviet Republics. It was born out of struggle for freedom and it exists to consecrate freedom. Such a country and such a people own the birthright to self determination.
Artsakh and its freedom loving people exemplify the true definition of the principle of self determination. They have a coherent identity as Armenians. The have deeply rooted connection to the territory known as Artsakh. They have demonstrated their will to determine their destiny through democratic principles. They have proved their desire to live free and liberate themselves from systematic persecution of Azerbaijan.
Azeri arguments promoting the concept of territorial integrity taking precedence over the principle of self determination are sham and moot. In the first instance, Artsakh has never been – not even during the Soviet times – an integral part of Azerbaijani territory. Second, under the Charter on European Security adopted in Istanbul in 1999, conflicts with ethnic minorities can only be constructively resolved within democratic systems. Thus, when a state is undemocratic, the principle of self determination as applied to its ethnic minority takes priority over the principle of territorial integrity. In case of Artsakh and its people, Azerbaijan is the worst kind of undemocratic and despotic state.
Azerbaijani attempts conjuring the specters of territorial integrity and secession against Artsakh’s right to self determination are hollow and misplaced legally, politically and historically.
Such arguments were made back in 1991, when the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) was pushing for a sense of the Senate Resolution recognizing Nagorno Karabakh’s right to national self determination. The strongest opposition to the resolution came from the late Sen. Jesse Helms, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He stated his opposition, because he was told that the resolution supported secession. After meeting with and receiving explanations from ANCA representatives, the Senator changed his position. He announced his support for the resolution with the following explanation: He said he was opposed to the resolution under the belief that it was encouraging secession and that U.S. has had its share of civil war as a result of secession; however, he now realizes that the Nagorno Karabakh liberation and its right to self-determination stand for unification with Armenia.
When the resolution came to the floor of the full Senate, Sen. Helms supported Karabakh’s right to self determination.
The Senate Resolution recognizing Nagorno Karabakh’s right to self determination passed with unanimous consent.
Seto Boyadjian is an attorney and serves on the national board of ANCA.