At the beginning of September 1991, even before Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed its independence, which it seized by force of arms in the years that followed, imposing a ceasefire on Azerbaijan in 1994. Twenty years later, while negotiations are continuing between Armenia and Azerbaijan under the aegis of the international community in order to reach sustainable peace, the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh has still not been recognized. However, the status quo has reinforced the strong desire for independence among a new generation of Armenians in Karabakh who have never been under the domination of Baku and never intend to be.
The splendor of the official ceremonies marking the twentieth anniversary of the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Armenia on September 21 in Yerevan, in the presence of a number of representatives from other countries, threatened to push to the back burner the festivities, some of them less ostentatious, organized in Stepanakert, in the neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh, which had also blown out, a few days earlier, the 20 candles of its independence.
And yet, beyond a scheduling coincidence, these two celebrations are closely linked and part of the same historical process aimed at fulfilling the national destiny that is common to these two Armenian entities, separated by the vagaries of history.
It was indeed on the fertile ground of the claim of an identity by the Armenians of the "Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region," placed by Stalin under the authority of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, that the strong desire for independence germinated and then blossomed.
If, in Yerevan, environmental questions were at the heart of the first demonstrations which were made possible under Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika at the end of 1987, it was the sound of the old shotguns resonating in the mountains of Karabakh, where the Armenians had started their armed resistance against the Azerbaijani authorities, that intensified the contest movement in the capital of Armenia, where, starting in February 1988, hundreds of thousands of people gathered every day, defying Soviet power, in the name of solidarity with the "Brothers of Karabakh."
Convulsions of a Dying Empire
The "Karabakh Movement" was born. Its main actors regrouped into the "Karabakh Committee," of which Levon Ter-Petrossian quickly became the leader. It mobilized ever-increasing crowds, from its improvised platform in Opera Square (today Freedom Square) in Yerevan.
Their watchwords were to defend the rights of the Karabakh Armenians, with even more resolve after the Azerbaijani authorities responded to their claims, in early March 1988, by allowing the pogrom of Sumgait to happen. It was the bloody prelude to a policy aimed at emptying Azerbaijan of some of its 500,000 Armenian inhabitants.
To the claim of attaching Karabakh to Armenia, expressed more openly both in Yerevan and in Stepanakert, other political and national demands were soon added, radically challenging the Soviet system and calling for independence, a word that crowds gathered on Opera Square chanted for the first time in September 1988, without being invited to do so by Levon Ter-Petrossian or the other members of the Karabakh Committee, who were clearly overtaken by events.
Indeed, at the time, in Armenia, as in the Baltic Republics, which were at the vanguard of the fight for independence in the ex-USSR, independence still appeared to be a utopia that the West, numbed by decades of cold war and convinced of the permanence of the Soviet Empire, was hardly prepared to see achieved.
Frontiers and nationalisms
Behind the rise of the nationalist fervor that was setting ablaze different regions of the USSR, from Nagorno-Karabakh to Osh in Uzbekistan, through Transnistria in Moldavia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, no one would have ventured establishing a diagnosis of these convulsions that were symptomatic of a dying empire.
Combined with other factors, mainly economic, these interethnic conflicts, which were indicative of a failing international dogma thwarted by resurgent and sometimes antagonistic nationalisms, precipitated the collapse of an ailing system. Armenia undoubtedly did not owe its independence to Karabakh, but the latter, by crystallizing the Armenian nationalist claims, acted as a catalyst in the gaining of independence.
The disappearance of the USSR had become inevitable and was accepted as a reality by mutual consent of its members—starting with powerful Russia—which declared their independence one after the other, mostly through referendums, with its official death being proclaimed in December 1991.
A Yugoslavia war-style scenario on the scale of the ex-USSR was avoided, to the great relief of the West, which adamantly sought to safeguard the principle of the intangibility of borders and hastened to recognize the States born on the ruins of the rubble of the empire as subjects of international law, within the same frontiers as those of the former Soviet republics, at the risk of leaving open the border disputes—like the one opposing Armenia and Azerbaijan about Nagorno-Karabakh—which constituted many focal points for grievances.
The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, taking advantage of the legal uncertainties surrounding an unprecedented situation, quickly asserted their right to self- determination, by invoking an article dated April 3, 1990 in Soviet law, which was still in force, authorizing them to hold a referendum on their political status, once the republic controlling them, in this case Azerbaijan, decided to secede from the USSR.
The majority voted in favor of independence, which was proclaimed on September 2, 1991, 19 days before Armenia, which followed a similar procedure to break away from Soviet rule. The force of arms gave them an edge over the Azerbaijani forces, which were abandoned by the Russians and ousted from the Sushi stronghold in May 1992, and allowed them to consolidate their de facto independence, which was sealed by a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in May 1994, under the aegis of Russia and the Community of Independent States, practically freezing the frontline into a frontier for the "Self-Proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh."
Twenty years later, Karabakh is still striving to have its independence recognized by the international community, which is cautiously hiding behind the principle of territorial integrity of States. But the resolve of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has maintained them in a status quo of "neither war nor peace"—of which Armenia has felt the impact through the drastic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan, later joined by Turkey— is starting to bear its fruits.
Karabakh continues to influence the regional destinies and occupy a central place in the policies of Yerevan and Baku: from the leadership of the Karabakh Committee, Levon Ter-Petrossian was thus propelled to the Presidency of the Republic of Armenia, a post he had to relinquish in 1998, partly because he considered Karabakh as a burden for Armenia, thus yielding his position to Robert Kocharian, a former Karabakh leader, as did his successor, the current President Serge Sargsyan, elected in 2008.
At issue: Peace in the Caucasus
In Azerbaijan, where the Aliyev clan came back to power in 1994, a considerable part of the State budget, which is boosted by oil revenues, is allocated to modernizing the army, the declared purpose being the reconquest of Karabakh. The question of Karabakh also interfered with the normalization process that was engaged between Turkey and Armenia in 2008. Baku kept pressing its Turkish ally in order to extract an early agreement from the Armenians that would be to its liking.
Karabakh thus became an essential element of peace in the Southern Caucasus, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States, in charge of the international negotiation process, is working on maintaining a precarious peace, until both parties can be brought to a compromise that would entail mutual concessions, in particular territorial ones, concerning the Armenians who control the border areas of Nagorno-Karabakh.
But regardless of the peace plan formula and its guiding "basic principles," over which the latest negotiations between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, under the aegis of Russia, stalled in Kazan last June, the Karabakh Armenians consider that the referendum on independence that was organized twenty years earlier is the founding act of their Republic.
The primary right of peoples to self-determination
For a whole generation that has only known an Armenian government and grew within Armenia, a new referendum, as provided for in the peace plan, would only serve to validate the government in the eyes of an international community that has, as a matter of fact, created precedents by recognizing the new States of East-Timor, Kosovo and South Sudan, thus shifting the balance of international justice toward the right of peoples to self-determination, at the expense of the territorial integrity of States.
The same way a return under the authority of Serbia cannot be envisaged for the Kosovo Albanians, whose independence has been supported by Europe and validated by the International Court of Justice, having Karabakh return under the authority of Azerbaijan is becoming with each passing year more unacceptable for the Armenians. It is also unrealistic in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who have left the region and feel time is running against them, no matter what the Baku authorities say, after having maintained them for twenty years in a precarious situation, nourishing the hope that they will soon return to their homes...