In order to understand what may happen to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh if no appropriate international guarantees for security and human rights are put in place for them, it is helpful to review the evolution of several comparable conflicts (Nakhichevan, South Ossetia, Northern Cyprus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor and Kosovo). Of course, it is necessary to bear in mind that no two conflicts are identical; each has its unique characteristics. The purpose of drawing parallels is to understand underlying factors in each scenario, imagine possible outcomes, and draw lessons learned and best practices. Also, despite the undermining of the international order and the flux of geopolitics, especially in light of the 2020 Artsakh War and the ongoing war in Ukraine, there is still a floor for the actors involved—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, the West and international organizations—to choose between various scenarios or their elements. Subsequent developments will also depend on the will, resilience, agility and wisdom of the Armenians in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh).
Some Armenian analysts believe the scenario of Nakhichevan, an exclave of Azerbaijan, will be repeated in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the beginning of the 20th century, Nakhichevan came under the control of the Tsarists, Ottomans, British and Bolsheviks at different times. It was a mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani (the latter were called Caucasian Tatars until the period when the Soviet Union was formed) region and was contested between Armenians and Azerbaijanis during their period of independence from 1918-1920. In 1919, Azerbaijanis committed a massacre of Armenians in the town of Agulis in Nakhichevan. Both the British and Bolsheviks had promised Nakhichevan, which had been part of the Tsarist-era Erivan Governorate, to Armenia, but Lenin declared it to be part of the Azerbaijani SSR as part of the Bolshevik-Kemalist peace treaty in 1921. During the Soviet period, Armenians were gradually depopulated from the region, with the last of them being expelled during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. In the beginning of the 21st century, it was revealed that Azerbaijani authorities had destroyed tens of thousands of UNESCO-protected cross-stones (khachkars) at the Armenian cemetery in Julfa, an act of cultural genocide.
In Part 1 of a three-part series, Sossi Tatikyan analyzes the uncertainties and possible scenarios for Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia’s leadership goes ahead with the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.Read more
While Armenians have constituted less than half of the population in Nakhichevan since the end of the nineteenth century, they have always been the predominant majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, even after 70 years of inclusion in the Azerbaijani SSR during the Soviet period. In contrast, Armenians left Nakhichevan throughout the Soviet period under various forms of pressure. The Soviet Union was a closed country that hadn’t joined the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, if after 30 years of conflict negotiations, Armenians are similarly strong-armed into leaving Nagorno-Karabakh in the 2020s, it will become an embarrassing manifestation of the inability of the international community to uphold human rights in the modern era and another example of the abrogation of the UN principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
The South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, with its mixed population, was established by the Soviet authorities in the Georgian SSR in 1922, while North Ossetia was part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Since it was created after the Russian invasion of 1921, Georgians have regarded South Ossetia as an artificial creation. Throughout the Soviet period, the Georgian and Ossetian communities of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast mostly lived in peace, following an earlier conflict in 1918–1920. Tensions in the region began with the start of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989. South Ossetia declared independence from the Georgian SSR in 1991. The Georgian government responded by abolishing South Ossetia’s autonomy and trying to re-establish its control over the region by force. The escalating crisis led to the 1991–1992 South Ossetia War, followed by crisis in 2004 and the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, during which Ossetian and Russian forces gained full de facto control of the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast. Georgia and most of the international community regard South Ossetia as occupied by the Russian military. South Ossetia’s population is estimated at around 50,000, and it relies heavily on military, political and financial aid from Russia. Since 2008, the South Ossetian government has expressed its intention to join the Russian Federation. In 2016, a referendum on taking such a step was proposed, but put on hold. On March 30, 2022, South Ossetia announced its intention to begin legal proceedings in the near future.
Azerbaijan and its lobbyists have consistently aimed to draw parallels between the conflict in South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, at times echoed by Georgians and Artsakh Armenians. Characterizing Nagorno-Karabakh as a Russian outpost was not appropriate since the movement for self-determination of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh was generated internally and supported by Armenia, unlike that in South Ossetia which was leveraged by Russia. The Soviet authorities in Moscow refused requests to grant independence to Nagorno-Karabakh or allow its unification with Armenia. Soviet Russian troops supported the Azerbaijanis in carrying out several military operations and massacres against Armenians, such as Operation Ring (Koltso) in 1991 and the Maragha massacre in 1992. There were Russian military and volunteers fighting on both sides, as well as Chechens fighting for the Azerbaijanis. Between the two large-scale wars in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and 2020, there was no Russian influence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Besides, the Armenian side never recognized the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a problem of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
If any actor intends to convince the Armenian authorities to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in order to push the Russian peacekeeping force out, without even ensuring the establishment of an international peacekeeping mission in its place, this will backfire. Recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan will only make Artsakh’s Armenians rely on Russian peacekeepers more than before, strengthening their military presence in the region. With Russia becoming the only security guarantor in Nagorno-Karabakh after the 2020 war, it has now started to resemble the South Ossetian case. If Azerbaijan demands that Artsakh’s Armenians not have Armenian passports and demands that they accept Azerbaijani citizenship, they will most likely get Russian passports instead. Since Pashinyan’s statement implying a possible recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, there have been calls in Artsakh to request integration with Russia, which may intensify with the deterioration of the situation. Though it will deepen the stigmatization of the Armenians of Artsakh, the alternative has already been demonstrated to be ethnic cleansing and systematic oppression aimed at forcing them to leave. At the same time, it will make the Republic of Armenia face the impossible dilemma of reducing its dependence on Russia or abandoning Armenians in Artsakh, as manifested in the declaration and other documents signed during the visit of Armenian PM Pashinyan to Moscow on April 19-20, 2022. At least in the near future, it will also keep Azerbaijan dependent on Russia, as manifested by the declaration on an alliance between Azerbaijan and Russia signed on February 22, 2022.
Cyprus was placed under the UK’s administration based on the Cyprus Convention in 1878 and was formally annexed by the United Kingdom in 1914. The future of the island became a matter of disagreement between the two prominent ethnic communities, Greek and Turkish Cypriots who made up 77% and 18% of the population in 1960, respectively. From the 19th century onwards, the Greek Cypriot population pursued enosis, i.e. union with Greece, which became a Greek national policy in the 1950s. The Turkish Cypriot population initially advocated the continuation of British rule, then demanded the annexation of the island to Turkey. In the 1950s, with the support by Turkey, they pursued a policy of taksim, i.e. the partition of Cyprus and the creation of a Turkish entity in the north. Following violence in the 1950s, Cyprus was granted independence in 1960. The crisis of 1963–1964 brought further intercommunal violence between the two communities, displaced more than 25,000 Turkish Cypriots into enclaves and brought the end of Turkish Cypriot representation in the republic. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) was established under United Nations Security Council Resolution 186 in 1964 to prevent a recurrence of fighting following intercommunal violence between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, to contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order and to facilitate a return to normal conditions.
In 1974, a coup d’etat was staged by Greek Cypriot nationalists and elements of the Greek military junta in an attempt at enosis. This action precipitated the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which led to the capture of the present-day territory of Northern Cyprus and the displacement of both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. A separate Turkish Cypriot state in the north was established by unilateral declaration in 1983, recognized only by Turkey and widely condemned by the international community. The Republic of Cyprus still has de jure sovereignty over the entire island, including its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ), with the exception of the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, which remain under the UK’s control according to the London and Zürich Agreements. However, the Republic of Cyprus is de facto partitioned into two main parts: the area under the effective control of the Republic, located in the south and west and comprising about 59% of the island’s area, and the north, administered by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and considered to be illegally occupied by Turkish forces by the international community, covering about 36% of the island’s area. Another nearly 4% of the island’s area is covered by the UN buffer zone. UNFICYP was originally set up by the Security Council in 1964 to prevent further fighting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. After the hostilities of 1974, the Council has mandated the UNFICYP to perform certain additional functions. In the absence of a political settlement to the Cyprus problem, it has remained on the island to supervise ceasefire lines, maintain a buffer zone, undertake humanitarian activities and support the Good Offices mission of the Secretary-General.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was granted full republic status in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after World War II. On February 29, 1992, the republic inhabited by Muslim Bosniaks (44%), Orthodox Serbs (32.5%) and mainly Catholic Croats (17%) passed a referendum for independence. Political representatives of the Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum and rejected its outcome, which was followed by the adoption of the Constitution of the Serbian Republic of BiH by the Assembly of the Serb People in BiH. Following BiH’s declaration of independence, which was recognized internationally, the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic and supported by the Yugoslav government led by Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav People’s Army, mobilized their forces in BiH in order to secure ethnic Serb territory, with war soon spreading across the country. Tensions between Croats and Bosniaks increased throughout late 1992, resulting in the escalation of the Croat-Bosniak war in 1993. The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was deployed in BiH in 1992 and replaced by NATO and EU missions in 1995. The Bosnian War was characterized by war crimes, including the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre, perpetrated mainly by Serb and to a lesser extent, Croat and Bosniak forces. Although the Serbs were initially militarily superior, the Bosniaks and Croats allied against the Republika Srpska in 1994 with the creation of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina following the Washington Agreement. NATO intervened in the conflict in 1995, targeting the positions of the Army of the Republika Srpska, which had a decisive impact on its result. The war ended after negotiations held in Dayton and resulted in the signing of the General Framework Agreement for Peace, also known as Dayton Agreement, in Paris in 1995.
The population of BiH is composed of three main ethnic groups, designated as “constituent peoples” in the country’s constitution. The Bosniaks are the largest group, followed by the Serbs, and the Croats are the smallest. The country has a bicameral legislature and a three-member presidency made up of one member from each of the three major ethnic groups. However, the central government’s power is highly limited, as the country is largely decentralized. It comprises two autonomous entities—the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in its turn consists of ten cantons, and Republika Srpska. The Brcko District, which has succeeded as a model for co-existence of the three main ethnic groups of the country, is governed by its own local government. Although Bosnians, Serbians and Croats claim to speak different languages as an identity marker, they are extremely similar and mutually intelligible. The Armed Forces of BiH were officially unified in 2005, but they are composed of the Bosniak-Croat Army of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serbs’ Army of Republika Srpska, both reporting to the Ministry of Defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Each of the two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, has its own police force, both of them reporting to the Ministry of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina. BiH is an applicant for membership in the EU and a candidate for NATO membership since 2018.
The Dayton Agreement is considered controversial but has constituted the legal basis of the current arrangements in the country. BiH is politically unstable, even if it hasn’t experienced a major military escalation since the first few years after the war. Bosnian Muslims now constitute less than half of the population. Ethnic Serbs have links with Serbia and threaten to secede and become independent from time to time. Croats are not satisfied with the post-war arrangement, and they mostly hold dual citizenship with Croatia. The BiH model resembles the 1998 Common State proposal for Nagorno-Karabakh, which would mean horizontal relations between Baku and Stepanakert, and not a hierarchical one. Azerbaijan rejected this plan before Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh had a chance to form a position on it. It is difficult to imagine this kind of model for Artsakh, given the unitary, centralized and autocratic nature of Azerbaijan, and the lack of linguistic commonalities between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. However, some elements of it, such as the model of Brcko district may be used.
East Timor (Timor-Leste)
East Timor, a Southeast Asian nation occupying half the island of Timor in the Pacific between Indonesia and Australia, was a Portuguese colony. Following the 1974 Portuguese Revolution, Portugal effectively decolonized it. Civil war between East Timorese political parties broke out the following year, and the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) unilaterally declared the territory’s independence in 1975. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor, and declared it as Indonesia’s 27th province in 1976. The UN Security Council opposed the invasion and the territory’s nominal status in the UN remained as “non-self-governing territory under Portuguese administration.” At the same time, the occupation continued until 1999, without interference by the international community until the 1990s.
The Indonesian occupation of East Timor was characterized by a violent armed conflict between national liberation or separatist groups (especially Fretilin) and the Indonesian military. The East Timorese guerrilla force (Falintil), which was Fretilin’s military wing, fought a campaign against the Indonesian forces from 1975-1998. The period between 1974 and 1999 involved many conflict-related deaths, including summary killings, as well as deaths from hunger and illness.
The 1991 Dili Massacre was a turning point for the cause of independence and an East Timor solidarity movement grew in Portugal, the Philippines, Australia, and Western countries. Following the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto, a UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia and Portugal allowed for a UN-supervised popular referendum in August 1999. A clear vote for independence was met with a punitive campaign of violence by East Timorese pro-integration militias supported by elements of the Indonesian military. In response, the Indonesian Government allowed a multinational peacekeeping force, INTERFET, organized and led by Australia in accordance with the UN resolutions to address the humanitarian and security crisis in East Timor. On October 25, 1999, the administration of East Timor was taken over by the UN through the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). In 2000, the INTERFET transferred the military command to the UN as well.
In 1999, following the United Nations-sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory. In 2001, the East Timorese voted in their first election organized by the UN. In 2002, they adopted its first constitution through a referendum and declared May 20 as the date of the Restoration of its Independence. It was admitted to the UN in the same year, becoming the first new sovereign country in the 21st century. It was also officially renamed as Timor-Leste (the Portuguese version of the name). The refugees started returning.
Even with gaining independence, the cycle of violence didn’t end in Timor-Leste. There were two crises, the first one in 2006, when there was civil unrest involving conflict between the population in the East and the West, the pro-independence and pro-Indonesian factions of society, the army that mainly consisted of pro-independence ex-combatants and the police that was mainly pro-Indonesian. In 2006, the UN sent security forces to restore order. The second crisis in 2008 involved failed attempts of the assassination of its leaders Ramos Horta and Gusmao. Australian reinforcements were immediately sent to help keep order.
Since 2008, Timor-Leste has held several democratic elections, its leaders have established the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor and advocated for reconciliation both within the country and with Indonesia. In March 2011, the UN handed over operational control of the police force to the East Timor authorities. The United Nations ended its peacekeeping mission in 2012.
Kosovar Albanians were a minority with special autonomy status in the former Yugoslavia, which neighbors Albania. Nevertheless, they were marginalized by Yugoslav authorities, which led to inter-ethnic tensions throughout the 1980s. In 1989, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic reduced Kosovo’s autonomous status within Serbia and started cultural oppression of the ethnic Albanian population. Kosovar Albanians responded with a non-violent separatist movement, created parallel governance structures, and proclaimed the Republic of Kosovo as an independent state in 1991, which was recognized only by Albania, leaving its status unresolved. By 1996, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which sought the creation of a Greater Albania, launched attacks against the Yugoslav Army and Serbian police in Kosovo, resulting in the Kosovo War. War crimes were committed by both sides, but predominantly by Yugoslav and Serbian forces against Kosovo Albanians, and resulting in the mass displacement of both ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs from Kosovo.
With the intensification of the conflict in Kosovo, the international community and NATO in particular, took action in Kosovo. By 1998, international pressure compelled Yugoslavia to sign a ceasefire and partially withdraw its security force. The U.S. negotiated a ceasefire agreement, which OSCE observers were tasked with monitoring. However, the fighting resumed in December 1998, culminating in the Racak massacre, which attracted further international attention to the conflict and resulted in the draft Rambouillet Accords, calling for the restoration of Kosovo’s autonomy and the deployment NATO peacekeeping forces. The Yugoslav delegation found the terms unacceptable and refused to sign the draft.
Without an appropriate UN Security Council resolution, which was impossible due to the opposition of Russia and China, NATO launched a humanitarian military intervention in Yugoslavia, forcing Milosevic to withdraw Serbian forces from Kosovo. It was followed by the establishment of the United Nations Transitional Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the authorization of a NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) in 1999, under UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which affirmed the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Kosovo’s autonomy within it.
Even with the presence of UN and NATO missions, there was a wave of violence in Kosovo in 2004, generated by the prolonged negotiations over Kosovo’s future status and calls by Kosovar Albanians for retaliation for previous violence by Serb forces during the war. This led to killings of both ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Many peacekeepers were injured, houses, public buildings and Serbian cultural and religious sites were damaged or destroyed. International negotiations began in 2006 to determine the final status of Kosovo, led by UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, resulting in a detailed Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement. It proposed “supervised independence” and was presented to the UN Security Council in 2006. It established that Kosovo shall be a multi-ethnic society, which shall govern itself democratically, and with full respect for the rule of law, through its legislative, executive and judicial institutions. It includes provisions on all the important issues—the functioning of democratic self-governance institutions, rule of law, freedom of movement, return and rights of communities, the economy, property rights, dialogue, cultural heritage, delimitation of borders, and security arrangements. It provided for an international presence, with a shift of the leading role from the UN to the EU. Belgrade and Pristina held opposing views on the question of status and could agree only on technical matters. The plan was supported by the U.S., UK and France; however, it was opposed by Russia. Therefore, after weeks of discussions, the Western members of the UNSC discarded the draft resolution supporting the proposal, and launched a new effort under the “Troika” consisting of negotiators from the EU, the United States and Russia, aimed at reaching a status outcome acceptable to both Belgrade and Pristina. At the same time, the U.S., UK and France were prepared to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. To date, 112 UN states have recognized its independence, including its immediate neighbors Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia, but not Serbia. Russia and China do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. It has become a member of international institutions, though not the United Nations. In October 2008, the UN General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to render an advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, on the initiative of Serbia. The advisory opinion was rendered in 2010, holding that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not in violation either of general principles of international law, which do not prohibit unilateral declarations of independence, nor of UNSCR 1244, which did not define the final status process nor reserve the outcome to a decision of the UNSC.
Kosovo has several minorities, including Serbs who are mostly concentrated in its North Mitrovica region where they constitute 76.4% of the population. Following the clashes between the Kosovo Police and Serbs in northern Kosovo in 2011, managed after the KFOR intervention and caused concern to the EU, a 15-point agreement was signed in Brussels in 2013 between representatives of Kosovo and Serbia, granting devolved powers to North Kosovo regarding economic development, education, healthcare and urban planning, and several mechanisms that allowed a certain level of autonomy in justice, policing and electoral matters.
Some rapprochement between the two governments took place on April 19, 2013, as both parties reached the EU-brokered Brussels Agreement. However, even to bolster its membership application to the EU, Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and has not agreed to the delimitation of borders between Serbia and Kosovo. Since the 2020 Artsakh War and the ongoing Ukrainian war, Serbia seems to be encouraged by the examples of Azerbaijan and Russia, and it has been intensively arming and accumulating a military presence on its borders with Kosovo. Along with a continued KFOR presence to ensure the defense of Kosovo, NATO has helped Kosovo establish a small army, the Kosovo Security Force. Until recently, it was only lightly armed, but now NATO Allies are assisting it in strengthening its military capabilities due to the increased threat by Serbia. The Ukraine war has also revived Kosovo’s aspirations for NATO membership.
In a previous article, I have referred to the notion of remedial rights that was applied in Kosovo as the most applicable for Nagorno-Karabakh. There were apparent similarities between the Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. Their initial dynamics were similar and the main differences in their treatment by international and regional actors were generated by the combination of value systems and geopolitical interests. Milosevic was demonized by the West, partially due to the war crimes committed under his leadership, constituting the value-based justification for the West to support the Kosovar Albanians; however, his alignment with Russia also played a certain role in shaping the attitude of the West. The West intervened in Kosovo not only for humanitarian purposes but also because of its geopolitical interests.
The 1997 Step-by-Step Proposal and the 2007 Madrid Proposal for Nagorno-Karabakh contained similar elements to the various stages of the settlement of the Kosovo conflict between 1999 and 2007. They envisaged the deployment of an international peacekeeping presence and the provision of guarantees for self-governance, similar to UNSC Resolution 1244 adopted in 1999 and still legally valid, referring to Kosovo as part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but simultaneously authorizing an international civil and military presence in Kosovo. While the 1997 proposal left the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh to further negotiations, the Madrid Plan envisaged an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh.
At first, it may seem that the Kosovo model is no longer valid for Nagorno-Karabakh; however, it may actually be even more valid in the current stage. If Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan and the international community does not establish an international peacekeeping mission there, it is likely to go through another heavy cycle of conflict, as Kosovo did in 1998-1999. It will have much heavier consequences not only for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, who will most likely be subjected to ethnic cleansing, but also for the international community, causing reputational and moral costs, as well as heavier consequences to deal with at a later stage.
Part III of this article series will explore elements drawn from these lessons learned and best practices, and will discuss as a possible model and way forward for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.