Precedents for Europe on Azerbaijan’s Conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh

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By David Davidian, WGI World, 12 December 2023

Despite the seemingly never-ending classic debate between territorial integrity and national self-determination, international jurisprudence nevertheless accords all peoples the entitlement to self-determination.

The international community purportedly supports and gives attention to remedial secession. The international law doctrine of remedial secession grants to a group within a state the right to secede and form its own independent state in response to severe and ongoing human rights abuses or denial of fundamental rights by the central government. This idea challenges the traditional principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, suggesting that under certain circumstances, the international community may recognize the right of a specific group to secede from a state that is violating their basic rights.

A strong affirmative case existed for the remedial secession for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, considering the Soviet Red Army colonized the Southern Caucasus and its leadership transferred this region with a 95% Armenian population to Azerbaijani jurisdiction in 1921. Albeit with autonomous status, the Soviets placated Armenians, giving the illusion they would have their land in perpetuity. Other than a mechanism of Soviet control, why assign a nearly mono-ethnic region’s jurisdiction to a belligerent?

Demands for justice by survivors of the 1915 Turkish genocide of the Armenians needed to be suppressed by both the Soviets and Turkey, each synergistically fulfilling their interests. The engendering of a novel Turkic Azerbaijani national ethos and the reduction of territory under Armenian jurisdiction has as its basis the 1921 disposition of Nagorno-Karabakh. To this day, not only is the term Armenian a pejorative in Turkish society, but in Azerbaijan, the more anti-Armenian one is, the more one is considered an Azerbaijani patriot. This socialization is enshrined in the Azerbaijani educational system and is expressed today by Azerbaijani leaders who call for the complete elimination of Armenians.

Armenia’s ability to achieve recognized self-rule over Nagorno-Karabakh and other regions extending south to the Iran border in the First Karabakh War (1988-1994) was never achieved, lacking the requisite diplomacy to gain “remedial secession.” The Alma-Ata Declaration formed the basis for international recognition of existing Soviet borders, which included Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Considering the significant number of ethnic groups demanding remedies for almost seventy years of Soviet gerrymandering, a failure to adopt this declaration would have created a horror show of precedent that could have extended across much of Europe. Even in the wake of today’s Russian special military operation in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and others have made claims against Ukrainian territory or at least made demands for cultural autonomy for their respective minorities. Alma-Ata thus codified the international recognition of existing Soviet republican borders, setting the precedent of restricting autonomy and any expectation of secessionist self-determination akin to state boundaries in the E.U.

As Azerbaijan seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh in the fall 2020 in the Second Karabakh War, international diplomatic verbal outrage ensued, but no state came to oppose Azerbaijani actions, however barbaric. No economic sanctions were placed on Azerbaijan. No country helped the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who a generation earlier had declared themselves an independent self-ruling entity, albeit one lacking international recognition. Azerbaijan’s exports of its huge reserves of Caspian gas to Europe trumped any chance of economic sanctions against Baku.

Even though Armenia is a member of the CSTO, Russia offered no assistance to Armenia or the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming the battle was on Azerbaijani sovereign territory. Beyond Azerbaijan’s usurping of Nagorno-Karabakh, by the summer of 2023, the Azerbaijani military had occupied nearly 150 sq km of territory inside the internationally recognized borders of Armenia proper, as outlined in the Alma-ATA Declaration. Subsequently, there were calls by major world powers for Azerbaijan to respect Armenian sovereignty. Those nations challenging Azerbaijan included, but were not limited to, nations in the EU, France, the USA, Iran, and China. In particular, France also called for the withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from Armenia.

These declarations of support for Armenian sovereignty were merely reiterations of all currently recognized borders, that is, the official national borders absent regard for the international jurisprudence doctrine of the right to self-determination. The same nations who called for Azerbaijan to vacate sovereign Armenia were deafeningly silent regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Those nations wanted to avoid setting a precedent for separatist movements and declarations of the right to self-determination by others. Europe has approximately one hundred twenty-five active, distinct separatist movements. This activity follows the approximately two hundred and fifty national border changes since WWI. National governments fear loss of control over territory, loss of access to mineral and natural resource rights, a weakening of military power and the ability to protect sovereign borders, and a host of other related concerns.

The prevalence of separatism and regionalism across Europe is extensive and multifaceted, as evidenced by Catalonia, the Basque regions along the borders of Spain and France, Scotland, Flanders, and others. Other movements actively pursue regional autonomy, notably in Italy’s Lombardy and Veneto, where demands to govern and administer the interests of the local people according to its own initiatives. Other separatist movements in recent years involved the creation of entities with a de facto status such as Kosovo (a creation of NATO) and Turkey’s expansive presence in North Cyprus.

National governments fear loss of control over territory, loss of access to mineral and natural resource rights, a weakening of military power and the ability to protect sovereign borders, and a host of other related concerns. It is clear that, in Europe, other than the forced creation of Kosovo by NATO as a way to degrade Serbia as a Russian ally, there is distinct pressure not to create the precedent of any successful separatist or re-integration movements. Thus, it should not be surprising that Europe not only didn’t pressure Azerbaijan to cease and desist in its 2020 war waged to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh into its ‘internationally recognized borders,’ but it didn’t blink an eye when 120,000 Armenians, were forcibly expelled by Azerbaijani forces in 2023.

Documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, used as one of the excuses for NATO ‘liberating’ Kosovo Albanians from ‘Serbian oppression,’ were seemingly irrelevant in September of 2023 when Azerbaijan forced the exodus of 120,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. The only thing worse would have been the wholesale extermination of the lives of the 120,000 Armenians of Artsakh. That forcible expulsion of 120,000 Armenians involved a full-scale physical blockade, starvation, shutting off of the water supply to the entire region, shutting off of all electricity and communications, and constant attacks against the civilian Armenians, which are all activities constituting genocide according to the definition in international law.

It was not in the interest of the existing world order for the Republic of Artsakh or Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh to be a successfully recognized entity — the abject lack of active or competent Armenian diplomacy notwithstanding. So, Russia, for its parochial interests, and the E.U. out of fear of setting any precedent, watched as Azerbaijan forced the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. International geopolitical interests trump all else.

Despite the resistance to separatist movements, there is arguably another aspect to the aforementioned desire of nations. As nations vie for access to and control of the world’s natural resources, Europe in particular recognizes its vulnerability and dependence on the East for its energy.

As a result of Europe’s naïve and obsequious deference to the US’s instigation and machinations in Ukraine and its relentless beleaguering of Russia, Europe finds itself paying three or four times the cost of Russian energy that is now delivered via pipelines running through Azerbaijan and Turkey. Upsetting Azerbaijan would be a risky move for Europe

Baku, emboldened by the frozen inaction of the international community, and encouraged by Russia’s agreements of collaboration with Azerbaijan and Russia’s disparaging of Armenians, is amplifying its rhetoric and claims that the southern part of internationally-recognized Armenia proper is really part of an imaginary Azerbaijani state in the past.

Perhaps out of fear of regional instability that could mushroom into a far-reaching chaos that might descend into war across the Caucasus, South Caucasus and even the Middle East, the U.S. has begun pressuring Azerbaijan in the form of the Armenian Protection Act of 2023. Concomitantly, France and India have sold military equipment and training to Armenia. Baku has retaliated by closing the USAID operation in Azerbaijan. This pressure, perhaps, is to force Azerbaijan to sign a peace treaty with Armenia, considering Baku is hindering such efforts as a pretext for further aggression: a full-scale invasion of Armenia proper, further violating its recognized territorial integrity. Pressure on Azerbaijan and the apparent Western tilt toward Armenia encourages Armenia to pull away from its Russian orbit further.

It will be interesting to observe if the precedent of one state [Azerbaijan] claiming territory within another’s internationally-recognized borders [Armenia] will be as vigorously opposed as the destruction of Armenian civilization in Nagorno-Karabakh was silently endorsed. The former precedent will not be welcome anywhere, especially across Europe.

David DavidianLecturer at the American University of Armenia. He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms. He resides in Yerevan, Armenia.

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