Artsakh: A Zero Sum Solution Weighted in Favor of Azerbaijan

One of Artsakh's iconic monuments, 'We Are Our Mountains,' outside of the capital Stepanakert

From the Armenian Weekly

We seem to overlook the fact that the ongoing negotiations concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict (as it is commonly referred to) has been set-up to yield a zero sum solution favoring Azerbaijan. From the very beginning, the Madrid Principles that set the parameters for the negotiations have been biased against Armenia’s interests and Artsakh’s declaration of independence. These principles, supported by the United States and the European Union through their representatives on the Minsk Group, which is monitoring the progress of the negotiations, give undue credence to Azerbaijan’s claim that its territorial integrity has been violated by Armenia.

In large measure this is our fault. We defeated Azerbaijan when it sought to prevent the Artsakh Armenians from carrying through with their declaration of independence. Since then (1994), we have allowed Azerbaijan not only to define the issue, but the solution as well. President Ilham Aliyev has been relentless in casting Armenia, in any and every venue available, as the aggressor neighbor seeking to reclaim its lands and unite its people with their compatriots in Armenia. This has allowed Baku to invoke the prohibition contained in Chapter 1, Article 2, Paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter, which states that “All members shall refrain…from the…use of force against the territorial integrity…of any other state…inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” If this is the issue (since this prohibition can only apply to Armenia and not Artsakh), it allows Azerbaijan and the Minsk Group to ignore Artsakh’s declaration of independence as well as deny its representatives to be a party to the negotiations. Note that in all of the published reports that relate to the negotiation process, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever that refers to the likelihood of Artsakh’s ultimate status as a free and independent entity.

Whenever foreign leaders or representatives of their governments weigh in with respect to the Nagorno-Karabagh issue, they all stress the importance of a negotiated settlement. Obviously that is preferable to a military solution. However, it is a pro-Azeri solution—that begins with a return to the pre-1991 borders—that meets Azerbaijan’s demand that its territorial integrity be restored. Once our military forces have withdrawn from Artsakh and the Artsakh defense force is demobilized, they will be replaced by some ineffective international peacekeeping force. At that point, Aliyev can rightfully declare victory for having restored the occupied lands to his control. From that point on, there would be no need for further negotiations because there would be nothing of substance left to negotiate. Unfortunately this is the zero sum solution that awaits us: Azerbaijan regains its territory and the Artsakh Armenians lose their independence. In a zero sum solution there is no middle ground or comprise available. Make no mistake, Artsakh’s freedom is absolutely essential to Armenia’s future economic and political development.

The vote that was to have taken place at some time in the future that is part of the Madrid Proposals is a hypocritical gesture that never was intended to allow Artsakh to retain its independence. By the time the mechanics for such a vote would have been worked out (assuming the negotiations went that far), the region would have been overrun by Azeri settlers under a government-sponsored program to marginalize those remaining Armenians before the referendum took place.

Unfortunately, Armenia’s political and economic power is limited. However, are we so devoid of a national spirit and the determination to protect our nation’s future potential that we must sit on our haunches like beggars waiting to be told what will be best for our country? Shame on us for not having learned from numerous past experiences when we have placed our cause in the hands of foreign governments the likes of England, France, the United States, and even Russia, only to be betrayed by their perfidiousness.

Having said that, is it fear of a Russian reprisal, timidity, or have we simply convinced ourselves that there is not much we can do to protect our nation’s interests? Why do we constantly fail to present to the world community at every opportune time the litany of legitimate reasons why there never can be acceptance of any agreement that denies Artsakh its independence? Whenever (which is all too often) the Azeri leadership flaunts its lack of political civility (without any evident repercussions) that should exist between any two nations, or ignores the norms of international protocol, then it is time for Yerevan, Stepanakert, the political parties, and the diasporan organizational leaders to question the purpose of continuing negotiations with a government that denies its own citizens their basic human rights. A government that has yet to achieve a democratic form of governance that Stepanakert has already achieved in its 20 years of de facto independence. A government that was responsible for the unprovoked Sumgait and Baku pogroms where innocent Armenians were wantonly murdered simply because of their ethnicity. A government that routinely threatens to renew military action by constantly referring to its ever-expanding military establishment. A government that had Ramil Safarov, the imprisoned Azeri murderer of Lt. Gurgen Margaryan, extradited from Hungary under false assurances only to be honored as a returning hero in Azerbaijan. This is a government that has waged a constant cultural war by destroying centuries-old Armenian artifacts, the most egregious act being the desecration and total destruction of the thousand-year-old Armenian cemetery at Julfa in Nakhitchevan with its irreplaceable khatchkars. How can a government led by leaders who foster hatred for Armenians and their culture ever believe that the Artsakh Armenians, whether through negotiations or the threat of war, would give up their freedom and independence? How can the United States, the European Union, and possibly Russia even harbor the thought that the Artsakh Armenians, after having sacrificed so much, would be deterred should Azerbaijan foolishly opt for a military solution if negotiations fail to meet its demands?

If President Serge Sarkissian and Foreign Minister Nalbandian are constrained by protocol from forcefully responding to Azerbaijan’s constant transgressions along the Line of Contact as well as President Aliyev’s continued attempts to obscure the issue and revise history directly, then pre-designated officials can speak. Political parties, jointly and separately, can respond appropriately, as can our diasporan leaders worldwide. An effective offensive strategy depends on the creation of a united front ready to respond to Azerbaijan’s constant dissemination of misinformation. The talking points should come from a single source to keep the message timely, accurate, and on point. The subtext of all responses should be that a peaceful resolution is preferable, but that the Artsakh Armenians will not be intimidated by any threat of force. This is a message that the United States and the European Union need to hear. Russia may be our ally in need, but Russia is not yet our master. Although it is necessary for the diasporan organizations to continue the vital task of improving the quality of life of our brothers and sisters in Artsakh and to expand its economy, who will ultimately benefit from these good works if Artsakh is torn from us a second time within a century?

Note that with all the pressure placed on the Ukraine by Russia, its newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, did sign a free trade agreement with the European Union. Although that signing will do nothing to equalize its military capabilities vis-à-vis the pro-Russian insurgents (likely active or former Russian army personnel) or the Russian forces on the other side of the frontier, the agreement was still consummated.

I accept that it is easy for me to say that we will not hesitate to defend Artsakh’s independence, but let’s contemplate the alternative: Are we willing to be witnesses to Artsakh becoming another Nakhitchevan, purged of our people and our cultural artifacts? The loss of Artsakh would be a political and psychological disaster of seismic proportions. Armenia would be thrust into political oblivion. Forget our preoccupation with genocide recognition; or the return of church property by Turkey; or any agreement on a meaningful program of indemnification; or expecting Georgian leaders to improve the quality of life of our Javakhahayer. If we cannot successfully complete the task in Artsakh, which component of Hai Tahd are we capable of achieving?

During the two decades that this continuous onslaught of misinformation from Baku has been going on, neither Yerevan nor Stepanakert has mounted any meaningful counteroffensive. It is time for Yerevan to forcefully refute Baku’s constant charge of aggression. Armenia should buttress its support of the Artsakh Armenians who were forced into a war for survival by the Azerbaijani government. The indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by the Azeris would have continued unabated without the intervention of Armenia. The Azeri military had no qualms about raining artillery shells from the mountain fortress of Shushi upon the defenseless civilians in the city of Stepanakert below. Even to this day, Azeri snipers target Armenian villagers working their lands along the eastern border region of Artsakh or tending their animals or working their fields in northeastern Armenia (Tavush region), which shares a common border with Azerbaijan. All of this is occurring without repercussions to Azerbaijan. Yerevan should develop a position paper that nullifies Azerbaijan’s constant misuse of the principle of territorial integrity in the context of the Artsakh issue. Although the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) refers to a government protecting an ethnic minority within its jurisdiction from harm, it shouldn’t deter Armenia from invoking R2P to protect its people in a neighboring country whose government is engaged in the indiscriminate killing of innocent Armenian civilians. Resourceful legal scholars can support Armenia’s right to have come to the aid of the Artsakh Armenians by reference to this evolving new principle; or the principle of Consensual (Military) Intervention; or the principle of Humanitarian Intervention. We should not hesitate to interpret any principle or concept that strengthens our position with respect to Azerbaijan. This is not the time to be stoic and expect miracles to happen.

In the same manner, Stepanakert must support its right to have declared its independence. Self-determination is an accepted principle in international law. The case must be made that either the Soviet constitution provided the Artsakh Armenians with this right; or the principle of self-determination; or the principle of remedial secession. If Artsakh had the right to declare its independence then it must be a party to the negotiations that should be considering its final boundaries, a program for indemnification, and the timing of its recognition as a free and independent entity. Success in Artsakh represents our first step in obtaining the justice that has eluded us for the past 100 years. We should be guided by Voltaire’s cautionary insight of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.


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  1. Վասգէն said:

    In the absence of a perfect strategy we were told the status quo is a good strategy. We Were Wrong. Is there an antidote?

  2. Armenian said:

    The cards are heavily in their favor, and the more the idiot Republican Party of Armenia continues to stay in power, the more they continue to alienate people in an exchange for their own goods, the easier it will be for the Azeris to win in the end. Aliyev himself acknowledged this when he called for regime change in Armenia.

    The Republican Party of Armenia, by serving itself, is the winning party for Russia and Azerbaijan– basically, the party for anyone but Armenia and Armenians.

    • GB said:

      Aliyev is well corrupted Sultan and he is deep in mess in his beloved Axerbaijan, where he will end up like baba Qaddafi!He survived due to Artsakhi card on his table, in order to fool his own people and continue bribe and support and promote anti Armenian phenomenon in Europe and US!