This article takes a comprehensive perspective on the concept of “Western Azerbaijan,” portraying it as a continually evolving agenda that Azerbaijan might be integrating into a broader framework of bolstering Turkish influence in the Caucasus. With this strategic integration, Azerbaijan can draw on additional resources from Turkey to promote the “Western Azerbaijan” narrative.
On the other hand, while the notion of “Western Azerbaijan” evokes a palpable sense of threat in Armenia, this article delves into the matter through the lens of international law. Specifically, it examines Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which explicitly prohibits both the use of force and the threat of force. The primary objective is to scrutinize whether the concept of “Western Azerbaijan,” or certain facets thereof, embodies the essence of a threat of force contrary to the principles outlined in the Charter.
What Is “Western Azerbaijan”?
Laurence Broers describes “Western Azerbaijanism” as a geopolitical vision that absorbs modern Armenian territoriality in its entirety in which “Armenians are portrayed as usurping interlopers with neither an indigenous state nor a culture of their own.”
On its face value, “Western Azerbaijan” is an irredentist political concept circulating in Azerbaijan to claim the territory of the Republic of Armenia. Yet, using the term “irredentism” loosely to cover any territorial claim can be misleading. For example, the literature on irredentism features an article titled “The British Attitude Towards Germany’s Colonial Irredentism in Africa in the Inter-War Years.” This oversimplifies and partially legitimizes the complex problems surrounding colonialism. Similarly, branding “Western Azerbaijan” as an irredentist claim, gives it more legitimacy because irredentism inherently encompasses elements of plausible legitimacy. Thus, the strategically and artificially crafted concept would inadvertently be legitimized and rationalized.
The big rollout of the “Western Azerbaijan” campaign came in a December 24, 2022 speech by Ilham Aliyev. “I am confident that there will come a time when our compatriots from Western Azerbaijan, their relatives, children, and grandchildren will return to our historical land, to Western Azerbaijan,” he said, adding, “Present-day Armenia is our land.” While initially Azerbaijan focused on specific territories of Armenia, their claims have now expanded to encompass the entire territory.
Azerbaijan promotes the concept within a political landscape largely shaped by Turkey’s influential foreign policies, akin to modern-day reflections of “Pan-Turkism.” Azerbaijan’s endeavors to integrate “Western Azerbaijan” into this broader agenda appear quite logical. In doing so, Azerbaijan seeks to rationalize the concept and position members of the Organization of Turkic States (Turkic Council) as indirect stakeholders. Azerbaijan’s aspirations were presented in a March 16, 2023 speech by Aliyev at a summit of Turkic States in Ankara.
This alignment also seamlessly dovetails with Turkey’s substantial influence in the region, exemplified by initiatives such as its involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh and the post-war push for the “Zangezur corridor.” Consequently, “Western Azerbaijan” emerges as a proposal primarily for Turkey’s consideration, contributing to both nations’ regional policies. Hence, on pragmatic levels, it resonates with the contemporary Pan-Turkism agenda.
Pan-Turkism As We Speak
From the outset, it is important to highlight that this article does not use the term “Pan-Turkism” in reference to its historical context. Rather, it serves as a lens to capture a dimension of Turkey’s dynamic foreign policies. Here, Turkey is not simply a “mere” car on the “Turkic train” but assumes the role of the driving “locomotive.” This nuanced distinction underscores Turkey’s influential position, actively steering and shaping the collective agenda of Turkic-speaking nations.
In today’s context, “Pan-Turkism” has transformed into a dynamic component of Turkey’s foreign policy. Rather than strictly adhering to its traditional concept of uniting Turkic-speaking nations, this expansionary approach extends across diverse regions, ranging from the Balkans, and the Middle East to the Caucasus and Central Asia. In its pursuit of regional influence, Turkey intertwines other concepts as well, such as “Neo-Ottomanism,” which focuses on regions historically under the reign or influence of the Ottoman Empire. This shift gained momentum with the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party in 2002.
In 2008, the establishment of the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic Speaking Countries marked another significant development. The subsequent year saw the creation of the Organization of Turkic States, which currently is the leading platform for the Pan-Turkic agenda.
The eighth meeting of the Turkic Council in November 2021 began by extending congratulations to Azerbaijan for its victory in the “44-day Patriotic War” against Armenia. This occasion provided Turkey with an opportunity to outline a new “Vision for Turkic World—2040” as a roadmap for enhancing cooperation over the next two decades. The meeting agreed to establish Turkic Trade Houses for enhanced intra-trade and investments among Member and Observer States.
Turkey’s Shadow in Nagorno-Karabakh
The direct involvement of the Turkish military and mercenaries in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the side of Azerbaijan marked the apex of Erdogan’s assertive Pan-Turkism policy. This aimed at extending Ankara’s influence in the region. Erdogan, during a parade in Baku in December 2020, affirmed Turkey’s readiness to safeguard its geostrategic interests through various means, including military force.
Turkey and Azerbaijan have forged many pivotal agreements that underpin their military cooperation and delineate the trajectory of their relationship, including (1) the 1992 Military Training Cooperation Agreement; (2) a pact on military education, technical, and scientific cooperation signed on June 10, 1996; (3) the Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Assistance inked on August 16, 2010; and (4) the Shushi Declaration on allied relations formalized on June 15, 2021.
The Shushi Declaration explicitly references the endeavor to establish a land connection between Turkey and Azerbaijan through the so-called “Zangezur corridor”. The Declaration outlines plans for the harmonization of actions in the realms of military, security, and foreign policy between the two nations.
The conditional integration of “Western Azerbaijan” into the broader Pan-Turkic framework emphasizes the necessity of refraining from outright dismissal and categorization as a mere delusional fantasy devoid of real-world implications. This cautious stance invites a more meticulous examination and thoughtful consideration of “Western Azerbaijan” within the expansive context of “Pan-Turkism.”
By adopting such an approach, one acknowledges the potential gravity of the concept and underscores the need for a well-informed response that goes beyond surface-level analysis. This involves recognizing the ideological and geopolitical implications intertwined with “Western Azerbaijan” and engaging in a comprehensive evaluation that considers its historical roots, current political dynamics, and potential future developments. In doing so, Armenia (and perhaps other stakeholders) can better navigate the complexities surrounding this concept and formulate strategies that address its multifaceted impact on the regional stage.
What International Law Has to Do with “Western Azerbaijan”?
Given that “Western Azerbaijan” concerns the sovereign territory of Armenia, the pertinent body of international law is the UN Charter. This includes, but is not limited to, the relevant resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly, along with the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
As the ICJ recognized in the Armed Activities case, Article 2(4) serves as a cornerstone of the Charter, underscoring the commitment of member states to abstain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. This article reinforces the principles of non-interference and peaceful relations among nations.
Azerbaijan’s aspirations with the “Western Azerbaijan” concept could potentially run afoul of international law under Article 2(4) of the Charter if it involves the use of force or threats thereof. This becomes particularly pertinent when considering Article 51 of the Charter, which permits the use of force in self-defense only within the defined limits outlined in the Charter. It explicitly restricts the use of force by a state to protect perceived security interests beyond these specified parameters.
What Is a Threat?
Since “force” in Article 2(4) of the Charter refers to armed force, the threat that the Charter prohibits can only be an armed threat. A threat of force involves a “promise by a government of a resort to force.” Threats of force must be communicated to the victim State and manifest an intention to use force. This intention is readily established where the threat is blatant and direct. However, intention can be conveyed implicitly or explicitly. A threat should be coercive and accompanied by specific demands made by the actor issuing the threat. Nevertheless, Marco Roscini opines that demands are not a sine qua non requirement for the existence of a threat of force under Article 2(4), according. Declarations by a delirious dictator to annihilate a certain state can fall within the concept of threat and thus be prohibited.
The ICJ’s 1996 Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion establishes a connection between the legality of threats and the legality of the use of force in the same context. It would be illegal for a state to threaten force to acquire territory from another state or to influence its political or economic choices. The use of force anticipated in the threat must also be deemed unlawful.
In 2021, Ilham Aliyev, in an interview with a local media outlet, explicitly threatened to use force to establish a corridor through southern Armenia, connecting Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan. While the statement focused on the “Zangezur corridor,” concepts like “Western Azerbaijan” and the “Zangezur corridor” are intricately connected in this context, reflecting Azerbaijan’s aspirations in the region. The statement, made by the head of state, carried a clear demand, indicating an intention to compel Armenia to provide an extraterritorial passage, despite Armenia’s consistent refusals. The method through which threats are conveyed is immaterial, as long as they are perceptible. Armenia received and condemned the threat at the highest level.
Thus, prima facie, this statement falls under the prohibition of the threat of use of force outlined in Article 2(4). At this juncture, the actual preparedness for the use of force or the distance in time to such a point becomes irrelevant. The crucial factor is that the threat is envisioned as contravening the fundamental tenets of the Charter, namely, the respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence. Indeed, threats of force serve as an effort to use military power to achieve otherwise unattainable goals without engaging in actual combat.
What renders certain acts or policies an unlawful threat of force is the presence of special intent (animus minandi) to make such a threat. The determination of this intention relies heavily on the specific factual circumstances within the framework of relations between the involved states. The importance of the subjective element is implicitly acknowledged in Article 2 of the Definition of Aggression, which states that, in addition to the first use of armed force, the Security Council may consider “other relevant circumstances” when assessing the existence of an act of aggression.
The state subjected to a threat of force could bring the matter before the UN Security Council, which, under Article 39 of the Charter, may characterize it as a threat to peace and decide to take appropriate measures to uphold or restore international peace and security. Article 39 empowers the Security Council to take both anticipatory and preventive actions in response to a “threat to the peace,” irrespective of its imminent nature. The threatened state may also respond with retaliatory measures and non-coercive countermeasures against the threatening state, such as economic sanctions or the suspension of cooperation agreements.
However, in the context of our discussion, the pertinent question is whether the target of a threat of force responds with countermeasures involving the use of force against the threatening state. Such measures are generally deemed unlawful in modern international law unless it is determined that a threat of force invokes the right to self-defense. Article 51 of the Charter recognizes the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense against an armed attack, pending action by the Security Council to maintain international peace and security.
Article 51 does not explicitly mention “threats.” Therefore, responding coercively to a threat of force may require Security Council authorization. Also, the ILC has emphasized that a threat of aggression does not grant a state the right to use force in self-defense under Article 51.
However, interpreting Article 51 “suicidally,” where a state must wait until an actual armed attack occurs before defending itself, would be contrary to the principles of international law. According to Article 32 VCLT, the general rule of interpretation of international treaties (Article 31) should not lead to an interpretation that is “manifestly absurd or unreasonable.”
The previously theoretical question of whether it is lawful for a state to use force unilaterally before experiencing an armed attack gained practical significance in 2002 when the US National Security Strategy asserted that a state could use force to prevent certain hostile acts by its adversaries.
Considerable debate has revolved around terminology, specifically in defining whether the reaction is anticipatory, pre-emptive, or preventive (here, p. 9, here, pp. 194-196, 203-206, here, p. 7, here, pp. 665-669). However, the crux of the matter lies in assessing the imminence of the threatened attack. Anticipatory self-defense regulates the use of force to prevent an imminent armed attack, requiring a response that is “instant, overwhelming, and leaves no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”
A school of thought argues that employing force in self-defense under these circumstances aligns with both customary international law and Article 51 of the Charter (here, p. 33, here, p. 7, here, pp. 500-501, here, pp. 478-483, here, p. 366). This article concurs.
The essence of self-defense lies in preventing an impending armed attack, necessitating an immediate response to avoid irreparable harm. The evaluation of imminence extends beyond the temporal aspect, considering factors such as the nature of the threat, potential weapons, technological capabilities, the ability of the potential victim to respond, geographical context, the level of hostility, and the likelihood of the threat’s execution if no action is taken (here, p. 16, here, p. 220, here, p. 273). Needless to say, a state invoking anticipatory self-defense would need to furnish compelling evidence justifying its actions.
To summarize, international law does not address the concept of “Western Azerbaijan” per se. It is primarily a political matter. The concept itself does not constitute a use of force or a threat of force. Yet, international law can address certain consequences or actions arising from it. For instance, Aliyev’s rhetoric threatening the use of force could be classified as a prohibited threat of force under Article 2(4) of the Charter. Under the law of state responsibility, this would trigger Azerbaijan’s obligation to cease such threats, offer appropriate assurances, and guarantee non-repetition, with Armenia having the right to refer the case to the Security Council.
As of now, Azerbaijan’s actions fall short of reaching the threshold of ‘imminence,’ thereby precluding Armenia from invoking the right of self-defense and lawfully using force against Azerbaijan.
Finally, unlike the planning, preparation, and execution of aggression, it would be a stretch to categorize Aliyev’s threats to use force as international crimes entailing individual responsibility. These threats become relevant only if followed by action or at least an attempt, serving as evidence or elements of planning, preparation, participation, or conspiracy in carrying out acts of aggression (here, p. 213, and here, pp. 266-269).
Both the essence of the concept and the actions it engenders are open to transformation. For Armenia, staying abreast of potential repercussions and devising responsive strategies is paramount. This article has taken a quick dive into the concept within the framework of Turkey’s expansive regional foreign policy. With the strong collaboration between Azerbaijan and Turkey today, it becomes vital to navigate the concept of “Western Azerbaijan” in sync with the overarching vision Turkey aims to paint.
Importantly, taking a cue from the Pan-Turkism experience, the concept of “Western Azerbaijan” can similarly be set aside, marginalized, and reactivated on an ad hoc basis. The strategies for countering such actions form an integral part of Armenia’s primary short and long-term approaches. This notably encompasses an international law strategy, emphasizing the relevance and potential efficacy of international law tools in this particular context.
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