Following the comparison of different inter-ethnic armed conflicts aimed at secession and before exploring a possible model and way forward for the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh conflict, let’s examine the distinct approaches adopted by the international community since the 1990s toward different secessionist inter-ethnic conflicts. In particular:
a. One approach has focused on the violation of human rights and the threat of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Timor-Leste and South Sudan, deploying large international peacekeeping missions to protect the civilian population and to assist with institution-building, eventually granting them remedial rights. Remedial rights were asserted by stopping the annexation of Timor-Leste by Indonesia and recognition of its sovereignty that it declared upon decolonization from Portugal after three decades. NATO’s military humanitarian intervention in Kosovo was aimed at stopping the massacre of Kosovar Albanians by the armed forces of the former Yugoslavia, and the remedial secession of Kosovo from former Yugoslavia. In South Sudan, recognition of sovereignty and deployment of a large UN international peacekeeping mission were carried out to assist with state-building and stopping the civil war. Timor-Leste and South Sudan are fully—and Kosovo partially—recognized states. The UN peacekeeping mission withdrew from Timor-Leste in 2021 after it gained sovereignty, finalized its institution-building and was not facing an external threat. In Kosovo, the NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) still defends Kosovo’s borders and assists in strengthening the Kosovo Security Force as Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and increases its military capabilities. There are also European Union Rule of Law and UN political missions in Kosovo given unresolved internal and external issues. In South Sudan, the UN peacekeeping mission extended its mandate to prevent the country from relapsing into civil war inside the newly sovereign country.
b. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UN, NATO and the EU deployed consecutive international peacekeeping missions and negotiated an agreement leading to the creation of a federation of two political entities (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in its turn consists of ten cantons, and Republika Srpska, as well as Brčko District) for three ethnicities (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats). Despite criticism of such an arrangement and related political instability, the country hasn’t experienced a major military escalation since the first few years after the war.
c. Another approach has focused on the violation of the territorial integrity of Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Ukraine (Crimea and Donbass) by Russia. The degree to which the human rights of ethnic groups in those territories were violated by the state to which jurisdiction they legally belong differed. Allegedly, however, none reached the threshold of ethnic cleansing. In order to contribute to the peace process, cease-fire monitoring, and to address human rights issues, there has been a limited international presence through peacekeeping missions by the UN and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and monitoring missions by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or European Union Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) in or around those territories at different times. However, the unresolved nature of these conflicts led to the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, annexation of Crimea in 2014, the armed conflict in Donbass in 2014-2015, the ongoing disastrous Russian-Ukrainian war, and a fragile situation in Moldova prone to escalation. It has resulted in the Russian military presence in all of those areas, which in turn ruled out any multilateral international presence. Those territories have gradually turned into gray zones and stigmatized as “separatists,” and are supported exclusively by Russia, accused of having annexed or occupied them.
d. Yet another approach has unsuccessfully attempted to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution and the conflict in Cyprus through a “bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality.” Due to the opposition of Turkey to such an arrangement and its demand for a two-state solution, the UN has been operating a peacekeeping mission that patrols the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus, maintains its military status quo, and works toward a diplomatic solution of the conflict. In Palestine, the UN has been providing support for Palestinian refugees through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and provides a platform for Palestinian political claims through other UN bodies. Palestine has a status of non-member observer State in the United Nations.
e. With regards to Nagorno-Karabakh /Artsakh, major international actors have recognized Armenians’ right to self-determination and the threat of their ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan. However, they have tried to accommodate irreconcilable principles through a compromise between parties, referring to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, some of them including Nagorno-Karabakh as part of it. Others, in particular, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have considered the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh unresolved, and while they did not mean secession, they did not seem to exclude that option either. The OSCE Minsk Group, the official mediating body of the conflict, has offered several solutions to resolve the conflict, including deploying international peacekeepers to ensure the security of civilians, granting an interim status and anticipating a referendum for the final status. However, most of those proposals have been rejected by Azerbaijan that was instead investing oil and gas profits in the defense sector and preparing for a new war. Armenia has not been eager to accept these proposals either since after its victory in the First Nagorno Karabakh War, it seemingly benefitted from the status quo. The failure to reach a negotiated resolution eventually led to the 2020 Artsakh War, which resulted in a change in the status quo in favor of Azerbaijan, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers without an international mandate instead of international peacekeepers, the territory’s unresolved status, an increased threat for ethnic cleansing of Armenians and Azerbaijan’s military blackmail and illegitimate territorial claims to the Republic of Armenia.
The application of different approaches to inter-ethnic conflicts by the UN, regional international organizations (i.e. OSCE, EU, African Union) and major powers have created the impression that the international community applies a double standard and geopolitical considerations for different conflicts, something which is leading to the collapse of the international order.
It is difficult to assess which factors prevail in shaping the approaches of major global actors to each conflict – the severity of human rights violations or geopolitical interests. While the application of double standards is a common public perception, the approaches by key international organizations and major powers are multi-layered.
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have demonstrated aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration, and after the democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and the recent elections in Moldova, they have mostly leaned toward the West and antagonized Russia. Azerbaijan has remained non-aligned and maneuvered between the West, Russia, Islamic and Turkic countries, mostly maintaining the balance of power and adjusting its tactics in line with changing geopolitical circumstances. Armenia had for years declared a multi-vector foreign policy and complementarity between different axes, in particular between Russia and the West, trying to maintain an alliance with Russia, cooperation with Iran and at the same time develop relations with the U.S., EU and NATO. However, as the first President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan claimed, after the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War and the launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines, he felt a change in attitude by Western countries in favor of Azerbaijan. Whether due to objective factors or its own choices, Armenia’s security and energy dependency on Russia has increased throughout time, keeping it in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), making it choose membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) over the Association Agreement with the EU in 2013, allegedly out of security considerations. At times Armenia has hedged towards the West but it has never reached the stage of pivoting.
During the conflicts in the Western Balkans, all parties committed war crimes to various degrees. Serbian authorities were demonized not only due to the higher proportion and intensity of human rights violations that they committed, but also due to geopolitical factors, such as Kosovo’s quite central geographical position in Europe and the Former Yugoslavia’s pro-Russian foreign policy. Kosovo, long before its unilateral declaration of independence and its recognition by the West, embraced pro-Western policies and accepted a democratic governance system introduced by the U.S. and European institutions in line with their promoted values.
In spite of Cyprus’ EU membership and that of its key ally Greece, the Western reaction to the de facto division of the island enacted by Turkey was limited due to Turkey’s NATO membership. Western and especially American support for Israel, based on sympathy for Israel due to the history of the Holocaust of the Jewish people, as well as support for its democratic system of governance, combined with the tactics by Palestinian groups such as Hamas categorized as a terrorist organization, have tempered their criticism in relation to its violations of human rights of Palestinians.
Geopolitical factors are manifested in the alliances and partnerships of the parties to the conflicts (i.e. NATO and EU vs. Russia in the European neighborhood area), their declared values, and their energy dependency. This correlation has not been consistent either, as while the states have aimed to reduce their energy dependency on Russia, they have been seeking to replace it with Azerbaijan. Both countries are autocracies and have launched wars to resolve conflicts with neighbors by the use of force; however, Russia is considered a threat for several neighbors with Euro-Atlantic inspirations and allegedly, some EU and NATO members, while Azerbaijan threatens only Armenia. While Russia has instrumentalized the dependency of its neighbors and Europe on its energy resources for political purposes, including to prevent their Euro-Atlantic integration, Azerbaijan’s oil and gas have become its source of leverage as an alternative energy source to Russian gas for Europe since the construction and exploitation of pipelines in the 2000s supported by the United States.
While Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia have declared their commitment to democracy, Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are autocratic states; not all those democratic states have received the same degree of support, nor have all autocratic states been treated unfavorably. In the case of Armenia, its commitment to democracy and human rights since 2018 has not aligned with its foreign policy alliances, largely causing it to miss the opportunity to significantly advance relations with the West, especially in strategic areas such as defense and security. Artsakh has established self-governance institutions without any international support unlike Kosovo and Timor-Leste where the UN administration first governed, then assisted in institution-building. Freedom House assessed Nagorno-Karabakh as much more democratic than autocratic Azerbaijan, which makes placing it under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan after three decades of institution-building extremely problematic.
Another aspect of diplomatic strategy of parties to the secessionist conflicts has been their strategic communication, the consistency and intensity of their efforts to shape favorable diplomatic narratives about the dynamics of the conflicts they are involved in, and to use international legal and political mechanisms.
While the historical background of the conflicts demonstrating which ethnicity is indigenous in the territory under question has not been a key, the criteria of a just cause, human rights violations, and existential threat have been prioritized by the major international players. The U.S. and most of the EU member states supported Kosovo to promote its cause as morally justified, including through NATO’s launch of a humanitarian military intervention, bypassing the veto of Russia in the UN Security Council and recognizing Kosovo’s independence, even if its resolution 1244 referred to the territorial integrity of the Former Yugoslavia and Kosovo as part of it.
Ukraine and Georgia have been successful in pushing their diplomatic narratives as states whose territorial integrity has been violated, and it is reflected in declarations and statements by the OSCE, EU and NATO. As soon as Russia started committing war crimes in Ukraine, Kiyev immediately applied to the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice, and strengthened the U.S. and the EU’s support to use the UN General Assembly to bypass the veto power of Russia in the UN Security Council.
Armenia, after its victory in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, failed to push its diplomatic narratives, adopting an approach of reactive and passive diplomacy. It both failed to demonstrate sufficient effort to resolve the conflict and lost opportunities to use international political and legal mechanisms, with the exception of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and made a claim to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) only after its military defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War. Armenia failed to use the precedent of Kosovo, even if there were elements of it in the Stage-by-Stage and Madrid proposals by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs. It did not use the precedents of the 2007 Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement and the 2010 ICJ Advisory Opinion on Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence. In contrast, Azerbaijan conducted a proactive war of narratives, presenting itself as a victim of aggression in spite of having responded to the peaceful movement of Armenians for self-determination with war. Azerbaijan also claimed that it was restoring its territorial integrity although Nagorno-Karabakh itself had never been part of independent Azerbaijan. It has aimed to stigmatize and put the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the same basket of conflicts as South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Crimea and Donbass, in order to gain the support of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as the West. It was using this false narrative in spite of the fundamental differences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from that group of conflicts and its similarities with the conflicts of Kosovo, Timor-Leste and South Sudan. This manipulation has become easier for Azerbaijan after the 2020 Artsakh War resulted in the increased dependency of Artsakh authorities on the Russian peacekeeping contingent as their main security provider.
Azerbaijan has seemed especially nervous about the associations of Nagorno-Karabakh with that of Kosovo both before and after the 2020 Artsakh War. Azerbaijan has aimed to legitimize the war that it launched in 2020, during which it committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, used mercenaries recruited by NATO ally Turkey, captured not only the surrounding regions but also Shushi and Hadrut, part of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAO), and conducted ethnic cleansing. Since the ceasefire, it intensified its war of narratives, mirroring Armenian claims on ethnic cleansing, making a reciprocal claim in the ICJ, distorting history, destroying and appropriating Armenian cultural heritage. Moreover, Azerbaijan has been making baseless territorial claims on the Republic of Armenia. While signing a declaration on elevating its cooperation with Russia to the level of an alliance only one day before the start of the war in Ukraine, which includes an agreement to “refrain from carrying out any economic activity that causes direct or indirect damage to the interests of the other Party,” Azerbaijan offered gas to Europe as an alternative to Russian gas. At the same time, as Armenian PM Pashinyan stated, Aliyev has been labeling Armenia as pro-Russian to the West and as pro-Western to Russian interlocutors. Azerbaijan is also inconsistent in its messaging for external and domestic audiences – it talks about peace to international stakeholders, and threatens Armenia with war and incites ethnic hatred toward Armenians to its own people. It seems that Azerbaijan is in euphoria after its military victory, and is trying to take advantage of the chaotic geopolitical environment and the fragile state of international order in light of the war in Ukraine. However, major international players have their red lines and have started making subtle statements indicating their dissatisfaction with Aliyev’s rhetoric. In his statement made on May 31, the President of the European Council Charles Michel warned against the “regrettable speculations” in relation to the agreements reached during negotiations, apparently hinting at Aliyev’s latest distortions of the essence of negotiations.
To conclude, the approaches by the international community towards secessionist inter-ethnic conflicts are shaped as a result of the following factors or their combination:
- The extent of the threat for ethnic cleansing making remedial secession, recognition or sovereignty an imperative to prevent it;
- Foreign policy choices, alliances and aspirations, balancing vs. bandwagoning in relation to the major powers by the parties to the conflict;
- Possession and instrumentalization of natural, especially energy resources;
- Government systems – democracy vs. autocracy, and their respective system of values in relation to civil and political rights and liberties;
- The consistency and intensity of the diplomatic strategies applied by the parties to the conflict and the dynamics in the war of narratives.
Part II: What May Happen to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh
In order to understand what may happen to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh if appropriate international guarantees for security and human rights are not put in place for them, Sossi Tatikyan presents the evolution of several comparable conflicts.Read more
Part I: What May Happen to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh
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
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The Dilemma of Armenian-Turkish Relations
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The Weakening of the Leviathan: Armenia, Russia, and the Consequences of the War in Ukraine
The impossible situation that Armenia finds itself in because of the Russo-Ukraine conflict can be mitigated through a policy known as strategic shirking, argues Nerses Kopalyan.Read more
Why Armenia Needs Realpolitik, Now
For over 30 years, there has been a constant refrain on the righteousness of Armenia’s national aims and precious little about the means towards those ends, and the feasibility of those chosen goals.Read more
Armenia-Artsakh: A Turning Point?
Are we headed toward a better, or a more worrying future? Is the pendulum swinging toward more uncertainty or toward a lull? Two fundamental questions stand out: the survival of Artsakh and the independence of Armenia.Read more
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