Despite six years of armed conflict and 18 years of mediation talks, the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh mountainous region in Azerbaijan’s southwest corner remains very much unresolved. The restoration of territorial integrity has been elusive, though it remains the top priority for Azerbaijani foreign policy.
The violence began in 1988, in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, when Armenia made territorial claims on the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Armenian armed militants occupied the region and seven surrounding districts, instigating a campaign to ethnically cleanse the region.
What started as inter-ethnic fighting became a full-fledged war in 1991. By the time a tenuous ceasefire was signed in 1994, both sides had registered high military losses, and over 600,000 people had been forced from their homes. Significantly, Azerbaijan had nearly one-fifth of its territory under armed occupation. Most of the occupied region is theoretically governed by the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, an internationally unrecognized state that the neighboring Republic of Armenia claims is a separate sovereign authority.
Since the Russian-brokered ceasefire, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been holding periodic peace talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France, and the US. The fact that all three countries have influential Armenian lobby groups has been seen as contributing to the failure to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.
OSCE mediators were last at work on January 23, 2012 in Sochi, where President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, and President Ilham Aliyev agreed to speed up the process of finding a solution.
The more significant June 2011 summit in Kazan, Russia, was the ninth trilateral meeting between the Azerbaijani, Russian, and Armenian presidents since 2008, and the second in 2011. The goal, as yet unattained, is an agreement on the basic terms of negotiation, otherwise known as the Madrid Principles. Submitted by the foreign ministers of France and Russia and the Assistant US Secretary of State, the principles include the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance, the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence, and international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation. The Minsk Group is also planning a conference in 2012 to mark its 20th anniversary, at which the lack of progress will be discussed.
Thus far, “Azerbaijan and Armenia have been able to iron out some differences,” notes Elmar Mammadyarov, Minister of Foreign Affairs, explaining that at the June 2011 meeting the heads of states issued a joint statement agreeing that the status quo should be changed. “It is our firm belief that any solution to the conflict can be lasting only if it is based on the peaceful co-existence of the two communities,” says the Minister. “Within this basic framework of territorial integrity, Azerbaijan is ready to provide self-rule to the region through the equal participation of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities.”
At the meeting of US President Barack Obama and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in 2010, Obama stressed the need to find a peaceful solution based on the Helsinki principles, which emphasize the non-use of force, Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples. Indeed, the issue will be brought more heavily into the spotlight now that Azerbaijan has become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2012-2013.
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