BY HRANT APOVIAN
“Crimea has returned home.”
“It is a sovereign and independent state.”
—Russian President Vladimir Putin
Nagorno-Karabakh will return home as well. It is already a sovereign and independent state. Its people – after decades of pogroms and servitude under Azeri rule – have exercised their right for self determination and have voted to be masters of their own fate. Historically, Crimea has been part of Russia, while Nagorno-Karabakh has been part of Armenia. While Nikita Khrushchev donated Crimea to the Ukraine, it was Joseph Stalin that arbitrarily made the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to be part of Azerbaijan.
The inalienable right of a people for self-determination is reinforced by the United Nations Charter. It has become the weapon of choice for all disenfranchised people around the world in the twenty first century. Simmering conflicts are surfacing and one after the other like dominoes, necessary and inevitable changes are taking place. Oppressive regimes are unleashing movements that will engender secessions.
Unfortunately, these unresolved conflicts face the specter of territorial integrity. The use of territorial integrity as an obstacle is often arbitrary and may or may not be brought up for geopolitical reasons. However, it can no longer be used to stifle the oppressed as the will for self-determination has superseded territorial boundaries. A joint statement by the Motherland, Democracy and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, along with the Artsakhatun deputy group, said that last week’s referendum in Crimea “has become another precedent of realization of the right of peoples to self-determination, once again proving that territorial integrity of states does not prevail over people’s free expression of will in international law.” The Nagorno-Karabakh Parliament urged that post-referendum matters be resolved peacefully and based on mutual respect.
Interestingly, James Warlick, the American mediator for the Karabakh conflict, stated that “despite the fact that the United States cannot accept Russian operations in Ukraine, there are other areas where we can work together. Like for instance establishing peace in Nagorno-Karabakh. We should try to understand, what we can learn from the Ukraine crisis, for the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” This approach from the US mediator towards resolving conflicts peacefully is reassuring and no doubt welcome.
However, conflicts regarding self-determination are not always resolved peacefully. Some are recognized by the West, some by Russia, but rarely by the state that loses what it considers to be part of its territory. Each unresolved conflict is unique and is brought about by different circumstances such as history, geography, level of violence and legitimacy.
The case of Scotland: it will have a referendum this year to secede from the United Kingdom, and is unique in that it seems to be on track to be peaceful, unlike the violence that was unleashed on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenians in Baku by Azerbaijan. There are conflicting predictions as to the outcome.
The case of Kosovo: its secession from Yugoslavia happened swiftly after massive turmoil and was recognized overnight by the United States and Europe, but not by Russia.
The case of South Sudan: officially the Republic of South Sudan, a landlocked country in Northeastern Africa, gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 as an outcome of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest running civil war. An overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted in a January 2011 referendum to secede.
The case of Eritrea: in 1952, the United Nations resolved to establish it as an autonomous entity federated with Ethiopia as a compromise between Ethiopian claims for sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. However, ten years later, the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, decided to annex it. A subsequent 32 year armed struggle culminated in a referendum that created an independent Eritrea in 1993.
The case of Transnistria: it declared independence after a military conflict with Moldova and is currently an independent presidential republic, under the effective authority of Russia. However, it is not recognized by any United Nations member state. A cease fire agreement was signed on July 21, 1992. Since then, Moldova has exercised no effective control or influence on Transnistrian authorities.
The case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is uncertain. A short lived Russian military intervention created a safe zone. Georgia was unable to regain control of the two breakaway regions. They are yet to be recognized.
The case of Nagorno-Karabakh is unique. It is a viable democratic state, with democratic institutions, with a free press and a strong army. Its inhabitants are a resilient people that have vowed to survive as a free independent state, never to go back in time and to live peacefully as a nation state.
Unlike Crimea, Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, there is no Russian military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are post-Soviet “frozen conflict” zones. These four unrecognized states maintain friendly relations with each other and form the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations.
In an Op–Ed article in the Los Angeles Times Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of International Law, examines land grabs by countries that are ignored and some that are not accepted. As examples, Kontorovich gives the cases of Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus, Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara, North Vietnam’s wiping out of South Vietnam, Indonesia’s seizure of East Timor, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. We can now add to the list, Turkey’s attack by fundamentalist proxies and seizure of Kasab in Syria.
Unfortunately, Kontorovich presents the case of Nagorno-Karabakh as a conquest of parts of Azerbaijan by Armenia. He considers the conquests of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea a form of territorial control by Russia and not as attempts for self-determination.
Mr. Kontorovich describes failed attempts to conquer territories because of “resistance from the target state”, such as Argentina’s bid for the Falklands, Libya’s attempt to conquer parts of Chad, and Iraq’s attack on Iran and Kuwait.
Mr. Kontorovich is correct in his analysis that the world conveniently chooses to ignore conquests that are committed by friendly nations, yet challenges others. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, he concedes correctly that the move seems unlikely to be reversed.
The Nagorno-Karabakh foreign ministry statement regarding Crimea was to the point, praising “yet another manifestation of realization of the right of people to self–determination.” The foreign ministry’s announcement was followed one day later by recognition of Crimea’s secession by the Parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
In a telephone conversation with President Putin, Armenian President Sarkisian said that the Crimean referendum was “yet another realization of people’s right to self-determination.” John Heffern, the United States ambassador to Armenia, voiced Washington’s disappointment with the Armenian government’s decision to effectively recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
According to Richard Giragosian, Director of Yerevan Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity based Regional Studies Center, President Putin’s blatant disregard and disdain for the costs of his actions foretell a shift in Russian policy to one with little or no restraint. Within that context, such a more assertive Russian posture directed toward its neighbors may also result in a sudden shift in Moscow’s policy toward Nagorno-Karabakh. More specifically, he cites three factors that suggest a new “Putin Paradigm” for Nagorno-Karabakh and by extension, for the broader South Caucasus region.
Giragosian predicts that “[f]irst, in the wake of the erosion of restraint and the eradication of limits, [President] Putin may now seek to only garner greater leverage in the South Caucasus, with Nagorno-Karabakh offering an attractive avenue toward a deeper consolidation of Russian power and influence.” Second, Giragosian notes that in the context of the peace process with its partners the United States and France, Russia might choose to collude and not cooperate. Third, Giragosian believes Russia “may seek greater but riskier dividends from transforming the “frozen” Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a hot war, thereby attaining even greater leverage and latitude.”
An ominous partnership was revealed at a meeting between Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who agreed to support each other on issues of “territorial integrity.” Their agreement was in reference to Nagorno-Karabakh and the breakaway regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
So far, Azerbaijan is very cautious. Its continued silence is understandable: if it opposes the referendum in Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh may decide to join Armenia; if it goes against the referendum, it will alienate Russia. If it stays neutral, President Putin will make it clear that neutrality is not an option.
The case of Nagorno-Karabakh is unique, unlike other cases. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its people decided to declare their freedom from an illegal occupation. A brutal attack with indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets in Nagorno-Karabakh and pogroms in Baku followed. The war ended with the people of Nagorno-Karabakh overcoming the Azeri military incursions and winning the war. A ceasefire was established.
The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is a full fledged democratic entity. It will survive and will be recognized as such in time. The cases of Kosovo and Crimea will reinforce and not hinder its march toward independence.