From Self-determination of Artsakh to Forced Displacement: Historical and Political Background

6 m.   |  2023-11-20

T he South Caucasus has historically been a region of military-political, socio-cultural active transformations and shifts. It also determined the nature of relations with the various power centers involved in the region, as well as the logic and characteristics of the international relations of the given historical period. One of the hotspots in this region was Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). The Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation over Artsakh existed since 1918-1920. Following the 70-year break of the USSR, the Karabakh conflict flared up with new strength and qualitative features in 1988. The outburst of Armenians in NKAO was a response to the discriminatory policy towards the autonomous region during the Soviet period. The essence of that policy was to destroy the Armenianness of the territory. The means to achieve that goal were different: from creating unfavorable social-economic conditions to changing the administrative-geographical and demographic picture in favor of Azerbaijani element. One of the important features of the Artsakh movement unlike other conflicts, was that it began with actions aimed at determining the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh by peaceful, legal means. The right to self-determination under both international and Soviet laws allowed Artsakh Armenians to control their own destiny. When talking about self-determination, it should be noted that Artsakh Armenians exercised their right to self-determination. Thus, on December 1, 1989 the National Council of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR decided on the unification of ASSR, and NKAO and on September 2, 1991 the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was declared. The declaration of independence was in accordance with the USSR legislation. On April 3, 1990 the Law on “The Procedures of the Resolution of Problems on the Secession of a Union Republic from the USSR” was adopted. This law regulated the mechanism of the referendum to withdraw from the USSR. Hence, from union republics to autonomous regions, they had the opportunity to leave the USSR by maintaining these legal conditions. Thus, on December 10, 1991 a Referendum on Independence was held in Artsakh, and the majority voted for independence. Let’s note, that Artsakh declared its independence de jure in accordance with the USSR legislation. The other union republics declared their independence via the same procedures, and became members of the United Nations, becoming subjects of international law. The above-mentioned law of April 3, 1990 of USSR referred to both Azerbaijan as a union republic and Artsakh as an autonomous region, since the law did not provide any restrictions regarding administrative and political status. Therefore, since the end of 1991, Azerbaijan had unleashed large-scale military operation against Artsakh, another entity that had also declared independence from the USSR. Viewing the conflict from this prospective romanticizes the perception of the situation a bit. However, it should be taken into account, that geopolitical transformations also took place at the end of the 1980s, which had an impact on regional developments. Nevertheless, even in the case of transformations of the world order, the differentiated approaches of the international community remained unscathed. During the Cold War and after its end, the international community, which was quite friendly towards individuals and nationalities with anti-Soviet positions, actually turned a blind eye to the fact that the Artsakh movement, after the romantic period, had also assumed an anti-Soviet character and it is no coincidence that at the end of April and May of 1991, the famous Koltso (Ring) operation was carried out jointly by Azerbaijan and the central authorities of the USSR. Nevertheless, the international community, putting economic and political interests above, adopted the approach of preserving the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, accepting the right of self-determination of the nations as a balance. In the 1990s, the South Caucasus and the Balkans represented a mirror contrast of the expression of these two principles. The international community which considers the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus as an inviolable principle, ignored the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia in the Balkans, encouraged the dissolution of that state and in the case of Kosovo, declaring the right of nations to self-determination as an inviolable principle, achieved its partial recognition. The South Caucasus is a chief strategic and logistic hub in the Eurasian region, and since the 1990s, all the extra-regional role-players, the West, the Russian Federation enter the processes in the region with the sole concern of satisfying their own interests. Those interests are satisfied at the expense of the countries and peoples of the region. One of the classic examples of this is the Artsakh conflict. Russia’s interest in the Artsakh conflict was to maintain the continuity of its presence in the region, and the West taking part in the conflict settlement process, aimed not to be left out of the game in the South Caucasus. And in the great noise of geopolitical transitions, the simple fact that Artsakh, having followed all the procedures for independence from the USSR, entered into a brutal war under the coercion of Azerbaijan to protect its self-determination, was ignored, perhaps silenced. The 1992-1994 war was an act of self-defense of Artsakh against the attack of Azerbaijan. If Azerbaijan, taking into account the self-determination of Artsakh, calls the latter “separatists”, then with simple logic, it also admits its “separatism”. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan’s more than two decades of continues propaganda, consistent policy and geopolitical shifts led to the 2020 war, which was then followed by a one-day war on September 19, 2023, resulting the forced deportation of Armenians of Artsakh. Azerbaijani aggression in the territory of Artsakh, the hostage-taking of the representatives of the military-political elite are part of the general policy of eliminating the Armenianness of Artsakh. As a result of the Artsakh movement, which started due to the wave of democratization and reconstruction of the USSR, calling the officials of Artsakh who took the path of self-determination as “terrorists”, the hostage-taking does not fit within the logic of any international legal regulation.   

Artak S. Khachatryan, Cultural anthropologist, ethnographer