The year of 2011 has been marked for the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR, or Artsakh as Armenians were calling it for centuries) with the 20th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union. The people of Artsakh, despite various endemic challenges, made a choice for a free and democratic development – something previously unheard throughout the oppressive Communist era. The freedom-loving people in Karabakh followed the requirements of then effective (i.e. Soviet) legislation and norms of international law, and voted for independence at a nation-wide referendum on December 10, 1991 – right two weeks before the Soviet Union legally disappeared, leaving its heritage of arbitrary decisions.

A double rainbow over the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, in Shushi, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), taken from Hotel Shushi. (Serouj/Wikipedia)

A double rainbow over the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, in Shushi, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). (Serouj/Wikipedia)

One of the toughest challenges for the NKR since restoring its sovereignty remains convincing those against Artsakh’s freedom, and first of all – neighboring Azerbaijan, that the world has changed since 1991, and that decolonization processes take place much smoother with the adequate reaction by former members of a single political-administrative entity. Unfortunately, few capitals of former Soviet republics refuse to accept the new realities, and cherish a partial and selective retention of infamous Stalin’s deeds.

Relations between NKR and Azerbaijan remain complicated and hostile, which impedes the whole region’s comprehensive development and undermine stability and security of the South Caucasus. To promote a proper and unbiased understanding of the situation and, therefore, the search for a lasting peace and a predictable region, it is extremely important to set the facts straight.

Historically and legally, Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh (the word “Karabakh” has Persian roots and means “black garden”[1]) has been one of the ancient Armenian principalities. During the short period of independence of South Caucasus republics (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) in 1918-1920, the League of Nations refused to recognize newly-created Azerbaijan because of its state fragility, as well as territorial claims towards Georgia and Armenia, particularly, claims over Nagorno-Karabakh, stating that “frontier disputes with neighboring states did not permit of an exact definition of the boundaries of Azerbaijan”.[2] Thus, it is extremely important to underline and keep in mind that in 1918-1920, international community, particularly the League of Nations, did not recognize Azerbaijan’s authority over Nagorno-Karabakh.

After the region’s Sovietization, in 1921, the Bolshevik government, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, forcibly and illegally placed Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh inside the newly drawn borders of the Soviet Azerbaijan, creating autonomy for the oblast that remained in force for the consequent decades. After Gorbachov declared liberalization of political regime by proclaiming the era of perestroika and glasnost in 1985, the people of Karabakh sought to legally rejoin Armenia, and correct the errors of the past. However, Azerbaijan responded with anti-Armenian pogroms from 1988-1991, hundreds of miles away from Artsakh proper—in Sumgayit, Baku, Kirovabad, Mingechaur, and with a total blockade of Nagorno Karabakh, which was condemned by international community. It has alsoescalated the peaceful process into a full-scale confrontation between the nations.[3] Confrontation, which has claimed thousands of lives, and still continues to overwhelm each and every aspect of Baku’s attitude towards Stepanakert. And mass media, as always, is also a battlefield.

Going back to the historical and legal aspects of the problem, it is essential to emphasize that in 1991, Azerbaijan adopted a declaration on state independence, proclaiming itself the successor of the 1918-1920 Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, thus rejecting the Soviet Azerbaijan’s legal and political heritage, including Soviet-era authority over the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.[4] As noted earlier, the League of Nations didn’t recognize Azerbaijani authority over Nagorno Karabakh in the years of 1918-1920 Republic.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has never been a territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as Baku often tries to portray it by abusing the text and interpretation of four relevant UN Security Council resolutions of 1993. In reality, a legal essence of the confrontation lays in the internationally recognized fundamental principle of equality of peoples and the right to freedom and self-determination. The peaceful appeal of Nagorno-Karabakh to the Soviet Government on reunification with Armenia in February 1988, and declaration of Karabakh independence that followed in 1991 set the example of a people’s attempt to enjoy their right to self-determination, and to master their own destiny.[5]

Basing on the universal principles of human rights, and in compliance with the international and domestic (i.e. Soviet) legal norms, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and adjacent Shahumian region’s national assembly declared independence, and confirmed its choice through the December 10, 1991[6] nationwide referendum. Then acting Soviet legislation, particularly “Law of the USSR of April 3, 1990 concerning the procedure of secession of a Soviet Republic from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”[7] envisaged the right to secession for the Union republics and autonomous regions. Thereby, in 1991, sovereign Azerbaijani Republic and sovereign Nagorno-Karabakh Republic were proclaimed on the territory of the former Soviet Azerbaijani republic.

Azerbaijan responded with a large-scale military aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Thousands of regular Azeri troops, Afghan mujahideens and other forces linked to various international terrorist organizations, also fought against ethnic Armenians.[8] Ultimately, Baku and its certain supporters failed to conquer Artsakh, and had to ask for a cease-fire,[9] which was co-signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia and NKR in May, 1994.

The conflict was devastating indeed. Dozens of thousands casualties, territorial losses, mutual flows of refugees, and a deepening distrust – these are the direct consequences of the 1991-1994 war. In efforts to reject its responsibility and mislead the international community, Azerbaijan has been constantly complaining about “occupation of its territories” often referring to the UN Security Council’s resolutions. Nonetheless, in reality none of those resolutions has ever mentioned Armenia as aggressor,[10] since the conflict is between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The mentioned resolutions urged both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides to “refrain from any hostile acts and from any interference, which would lead to the widening of the conflict and undermine peace and security in the region”.[11] The history of those days clearly shows that this is not how Azerbaijan had been willing to behave. Aggressive stance and continued provocations by Baku were repeatedly evidenced by then co-chairs to the OSCE Minsk Group. For instance, Russia’s envoy to the Group from 1992 to 1996, Ambassador Vladimir Kazimirov has many times stated that revanchist Azerbaijan had always been responsible for violating the UN resolutions and undermining international peacemaking efforts. In one of his writings, Ambassador Kazimirov reiterated that

all four Resolutions were adopted at the peak of the military operations (April-November 1993). That’s why it’s natural that their most principal, key demand was to cease fire, military operations and hostile acts….During that period and later, till May 1994, i.e. more than a year Azerbaijan’s leadership persistently ignored the main demands of all 4 Resolutions and continued staking on the forcible solution of the conflict, several times violated the cease-fire, deviated from agreements about it and from other peace-making initiatives. … This has a most direct relation to the grave consequences of the war, as seizure of territories, growth of the number of displaced persons are also on the conscience of Azerbaijan’s leadership, and not only on Armenia’s and Nagorno Karabakh’s.”[12]

Another quote by a European official makes the picture far clearer.  Besotted by a temporary military success the Azeri army reached with a significant help of mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, Baku has been decisive in “solving” the problem once and forever the only way Azeri Government imagined – killing each and every Armenian in Karabakh.[13] Mario Rafaelli, the first Chairman of the Minsk Conference (Minsk Group’s antecedent), wrote in his September 23, 1992 letter to the OSCE Chairman-in-Office Jozef Moravčík: Azerbaijan’s continued “actions aimed at the restoration of its control over the given territory are incompatible with the country’s obligations to seek peaceful solution of the conflict through negotiations. … How can the Minsk Group quietly continue negotiations, when the very object of the negotiations eventually vanishes? In the case that Nagorno-Karabakh returns under the control of that country in the result of the military offensive, what would then remain for negotiations?”[14]

The bottom-line is that the Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s independence has nothing to do with the territorial integrity of  Azerbaijan – the legal predecessor of the only independent Azerbaijani Republic of 1918-1920, which, as it was mentioned above, never included Nagorno Karabakh. For those who reject to accept the regional realities and existence of the sovereign Artsakh, the international community has repeatedly reaffirmed its vision of the Karabakh settlement, which has to be based on the three main and equal principles of the international law: right for self-determination of peoples, territorial integrity of states, and non use and non threat of use of force.

However, Artsakh survived and since declaring independence in 1991, the NKR has established itself as a free and democratic state with effective democratic governance, active civil society and developing market economy. Local reforms have created a favorable environment for business activity and attracted multi-million foreign investments. More than $130 million have been invested in Artsakh’s relatively small economy January – June 2011 alone.[15] Mining, telecommunication, construction, energy, tourism, food processing and agriculture are among the most attractive spheres for a business-activity in the republic. The number of visitors passed 20000 in 2011.[16] Karabakh economy continues to demonstrate a stable growth with the average real GDP growth around 5 percent in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.[17]

Thus, during the last decade, Artsakh, being deprived of international financial assistance except for the annual humanitarian assistance by U.S. Congress, proved to be able to restore from ruins its economy and infrastructure. Deepening of the democratic values remains the essential task for the republic’s authorities, which were elected through a voting monitored and assessed by international observers as free, democratic and transparent.[18]