Berg-Karabach: Die Außenpolitik im Wandel

Armenisch-Deutsche Korrespondenz (ADK)[Koln], No. 103, 1999/Heft 1, pp. 7-8; No. 104, 1999, Heft 2, pp. 2-4.

Berg-Karabach: Die Außenpolitik im Wandel [published in German, see PDF versions] 

[Nagorno Karabakh:  Foreign Policy in Transition]

Hratch Tchilingirian

For over a decade now, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict in the South Caucasus remains the oldest unresolved conflict in the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, a fragile cease-fire since May 1994 remains in place and the OSCE's Minsk Group continues attempts to mediate a resolution. 

While multilateral political, military, social and economic transitions continue to shape the region, in the last ten years, the political and military leadership of Nagorno Karabakh has played a pivotal role in transforming a 'domestic' problem in the Caucasus--the 'Karabakh conflict' that started in the late 1980s--into an international issue. They have turned the early years of political activism and 'freedom fighting' into serious diplomacy and combat ready, disciplined army.

As far as the Karabakhis are concerned, the most significant achievements of the ruling political and military elite has been the establishment of de facto independence since 1991--reinforced by the 1993-1994 'military victories' of the Armenian forces and subsequent maintenance of a well-disciplined armed forces--and the building up of constituent elements of statehood. These achievements have also accorded legitimacy and power to the Karabakh leadership.


Indeed, given the centrality of the conflict in the everyday life of Karabakhis, the ongoing military tension, and the perceived eventuality of resumption of armed conflict with Azerbaijan, there is an ideological and political uniformity in Karabakh. For example, other than the nominal presence of two political parties--the Communists and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--political disagreements are virtually non-existent, especially in foreign policy, among the elite and the various political and civic organisations. The essential elements of this ideological and practical 'doctrine' are: a) the inviolability of Karabakh's right of self-determination; b) the unacceptability of vertical relationship with Azerbaijan; c) physical security of the population of Karabakh; d) permanent land, political and security link with the Republic of Armenia; and e) that the problem of Karabakh is a problem of the entire Armenian nation - it concerns not only the population of Nagorno Karabakh, but the Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora. 

Currently, several key issues preoccupy Karabakh's foreign and domestic affairs: 


While de facto independent, the non-recognition of Karabakh's 'statehood' or independence by other states remains a major foreign affairs challenge to the leadership (1). The problem of recognition is also a contending issue in the negotiations process, whereby Azerbaijan's refusal to recognise Karabakh as a side to the conflict has hampered the talks.

Despite the obvious implications of non-recognition--for example lack of foreign aid and normal inter-state relations--Karabakh has progressively enjoyed unofficial and semi-official recognition, especially in the last two years.

While still facing diplomatic difficulties, Karabakh's foreign policy evolves around two main tracks:

a) In the short term, it involves efforts toward full recognition as a side to the conflict and toward direct talks with Baku. Already, as implied by the November 1998 OSCE Minsk Group proposal and the invitation of the Council of Europe for hearings on the conflict, Karabakh is clearly recognised as a side and a legitimate entity for negotiations by the international community.

b) In the long term, it involves efforts toward recognition of statehood or a "special status"--similar, for example, to Liechtenstein, San Marino or Andora (based on a special agreement with Azerbaijan and with international guarantees)--by other states. Toward this end, the Karabakh leadership has developed close contacts with "sympathetic states" who might possibly provide limited or full recognition. The establishment of such contacts have been possible with the support and lobbying efforts of the Armenian Diaspora, especially in the Middle East, Europe, South and North America. Currently, Karabakh has unofficial representation ("Information Offices") in Moscow, Washington, and Paris. It has received the most vocal support from Middle Eastern countries. For example, the Lebanese Parliament Speaker, Nabih Berri, has stated that Lebanon would recognise the Nagorno Karabakh Republic as an independent state if the population votes for independence in an UN-sponsored referendum (2).


In the words of the Speaker of the enclave's National Assembly, Oleg Yesayan, "The Nagorno Karabakh Republic is now a sovereign entity with all power attributes, such as permanent population, a certain territory, legitimate and democratic authorities able to build relations with other countries" (3). On the tenth anniversary of the "Karabakh Movement", President Arkady Ghoukassian underlined that "independence had not been granted to Karabakh by international institutions but gained in bloody battles". He assured that Karabakh's leaders would spare no efforts to defend the country's independence (4).


Military strength and security issues predominate Karabakh's internal and external affairs. As characterised by Karabakh's defence minister, the current post-war situation in the region is "a cold war between Azerbaijan and Karabakh" (5). The balance of military power has been a significant factor in the maintenance of the fragile cease-fire since May 1994. The cease-fire regime has provided respite to the warring sides, but it has also been a period of rearming and vigorous military training. As reported by the mass media, about  $1 billion worth of arms were transferred from Russia to Armenia in 1994-1996. As for Azerbaijan, in addition to purchases of weapons from Russia and Ukraine, Azerbaijani Air Force Chief Ramiz Rizayev told journalists in Turkey, in April 1998, that "Azerbaijan is considering purchasing F-16 fighters manufactured in Turkey under US license" (6).

The Karabakh leadership believes that Azerbaijan will eventually resolve the conflict militarily. This "threat", whether perceived or real, has made military strength and combat readiness top priorities in Karabakh. The defence establishment in Karabakh argues that the high combat readiness of the Karabakh army is an important safeguard against renewed fighting with Azerbaijan.  Indeed, the two key elements to Karabakh's survival as a quasi-independent state are the militarisation of the population in 1992 and the financial and logistical assistance provided by Armenia and the Diaspora.

Former Russian Security Council secretary, Aleksandr Lebed, has assessed Karabakh's army as probably "the most professional in the entire CIS" (7), which has not only deterred Azerbaijan to restore control over the enclave by force, but also successfully occupied swathes of Azerbaijani territory surrounding the enclave, which form an effective security zone and protect Karabakh's sole land link with the outside world via Armenia.

The Karabakh leadership has repeatedly stated that the ultimate guarantor of the security of Karabakh Armenians is Karabakh's strong army. However, the maintenance of a large armed forces has a very high price for an enclave with limited natural and economic resources.


In addition to the hardships caused by the economic transition that all former Soviet republics experience, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has created its own dynamics and difficulties for Karabakh's economy. Coupled with the Azerbaijani blockade, the military situation takes a major toll on the enclave's economic development.  For example, since all male citizens between the ages of 17 and 45 are drafted for a three-year military service (8), a sufficient labour force is virtually non-existent in Karabakh. Currently, agriculture remains the primary economic sector while other sectors remain either under-utilised or underdeveloped.


In April 1995, the government in Stepanakert estimated that the war has caused an estimated $2.5 billion damage to its economy and infrastructure. Karabakh's economy remains meagre, and its relies heavily on Yerevan for financial assistance. Reportedly, its state budget for 1997 was $20 million, $13 million of which came from Armenia in the form of long-term credit, to cover basic needs such as social welfare, education and health.

As opposed to microeconomics, Armenian Diaspora's assistance has been primarily in Karabakh's infrastructure, such as building of roads and water supply systems. In this regard, one of the most notable projects is the construction of the Goris-Lachin-Stepanakert highway. In September of this year, President Kocharian and Karabakh officials attended the opening of the 55km highway (85% of the project). The almost $9 million cost was entirely financed by the Armenian Diaspora.

In addition to the economy, a number of social problems--for example, orphans, widows, the elderly--exist in Karabakh, which require short and long-term solutions. While the government has instituted various social welfare programs, the establishment of adequate socio-economic infrastructure will depend on the resolution of the conflict.


Over the last decade, Karabakh's "foreign affairs" have developed along the lines of the developments in the former Soviet space in general and the Caucasus in particular. The role and policies of the three major players of the region--Russia, Iran and Turkey--have significant implications on the present situation and the future geostrategic makeup of the region. While international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict are underway, it is generally believed--at least by the Karabakh leadership--that the three powers in the region and their relationship with each other, as well as the region itself, will ultimately decide the 'final outcome' of the Karabakh conflict.


After Armenia, Russia is the second most important country for Nagorno Karabakh for several key reasons:

a)  As the successor state of the Soviet Union, the political and military presence and networks that Karabakh Armenians had developed, particularly in Moscow, continue to provide substantial support, especially military, at this critical juncture in Karabakh's struggle. Many Armenian natives of Karabakh had established themselves in Moscow and other parts of Russia, especially after the Azeri suppressions in 1960s and 1970s, and have subsequently risen to prominent positions. (Among them are Yuri Parsekhov, an international law expert and legal counsel on international affairs to the Karabakh leadership, and Arkady Vartanian, international legal expert and Chairman of the Russian-Armenian Initiatives.)

b)  Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia has been the first and key player in the negotiations process (the May 1994 cease-fire was brokered by Russia). Due to their historical experience, Karabakh Armenian's view Russia, despite its weaknesses and the growing US influence in the region, as the most important regional power in the present and the foreseeable future.


c)  Karabakh provides an important political lever to Russia vis a vis Azerbaijan's stated "pro-Western" stance and the multinational efforts to exploit the Caspian in particular, and Russian's overall geostrategic interest in the Caucasus in general. 

d)  Russia has been and is the largest arms provider to both Karabakh (whether directly or through Armenia) and Azerbaijan (9).

e)  The close relations between Russia and the Republic of Armenia, reinforced with a host of landmark treaties, directly or indirectly protect Karabakh's interests. Most notable among these agreements is Armenia's August 1997 treaty with Russia on friendship, co-operation and mutual assistance, in which Moscow committed itself to the defence of Armenia should it be attacked by a third party. Russia, as the key regional security player, has proved a valuable historical ally for Armenians.

While official Moscow has employed unpredictable political influence on both the Armenians and the Azeris--depending on its own changing geopolitical and strategic interests in the South Caucasus--Karabakh Armenians have enjoyed consistent support in the wider Russian political circles, raging from Duma deputies, to prominent political figures and organisations, to Russian media outlets.

In February 1998, thirty Russian State Duma deputies participated in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the campaign for Nagorno Karabakh's unification with Armenia, in Stepanakert. The visit stirred a statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadii Tarasov rejecting Azerbaijan's objections to the participation of the Russian deputies and pointing that the visit had been private, not official (10).


During the same celebrations in Stepanakert, Lieutenant General Alexander Lebed in a gesture of full support stated at a public meeting: "Ten years ago the people of Karabakh resolutely and clearly declared they will not be anyone's slaves. They declared to live independently, and according to their own laws" (11). Previously, in a letter addressed to the OSCE Minsk co-chairmen in July 1997, Lebed  considered the higher consideration given to the principle of territorial integrity and the subordination of the Armenians of Karabakh to Azerbaijan as "impractical". He warned that if such a solution is imposed, "There's going to be much blood, but no peace". Finally, referring to history and citing Chechnya's example Lebed wrote: 

In 1921 the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) sacrificed the fate of the Karabakh people in the interests of 'the world revolution'. Yielding to a temptation to impose your [Minsk Group] will on the Armenian people in a similar way, you will achieve only one thing--the resumption of large-scale hostilities (12). 

As for the Russian government, similar with the recent case of its Abkhazia policies--when President Yeltsin and the Russian Foreign Ministry disagreed over the continued presence of a Russian peacekeeping force along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia--the Yeltsin administration's Karabakh policy has not been always consistent. For instance, Acting Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Ivan Rybkin, during a visit to Yerevan to attend President Kocharian's inauguration stated: "The people of Nagorno Karabakh must find its self-determination, and everybody should pay due regard to that choice" (13). A few weeks later at the start of the CIS summit in Moscow, President Yeltsin bluntly told the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan: "You should sit down and sign a document and take away your problems" (14).

In January 1998 a group of pro-Armenian Moscow intellectuals met to revive the "Karabakh Committee of the Russian Intelligentsia". As explained by the group, "the exacerbation of the situation around Nagorno Karabakh" necessitated the move. An article by a member of the Committee, Kirill Alekseevskii, clarified its position on the policy debate in Armenia. He criticises President Ter-Petrossian's discourse on Karabakh, stating that "the main thing is that the people be led by a person related to them by blood and spirit. A person who would not disguise his ugly thoughts by nice words... Ter-Petrossian's long article [published in November 1997] is but a call on the Armenians to betray Nagorno Karabakh" (15). 

Some Russian media commentators have been vocal as well. A June 30, 1998 article in Nezavisimaya gazeta listed the reasons why the author considers Nagorno Karabakh qualifies for UN membership. The article pointed out that the December 1991 referendum on independence from Azerbaijan took place in accordance with existing Soviet legislation. It also stated that, as a non-UN member, Karabakh is deprived of the opportunity to defend itself by diplomatic, as opposed to military, means. An article published by the same author in the same paper in January 1998 similarly called for the "decolonisation" of Karabakh and for the creation of a permanent security corridor linking the enclave with Armenia. That article argued that only international recognition could provide adequate security for the Karabakh population (16). 

The Karabakh Armenians, through their contacts in various Russian power circles, especially the military, have successfully manoeuvred among the rival forces in Moscow and elsewhere, which have resulted in favourable support for Karabakh's interests. For example, despite Russian's declared intentions to stop arming the Armenians, a convoy of six trucks belonging to the Group of Russian Troops in the Caucasus was detained on 28 January 1998 at the Georgian-Armenian frontier. The trucks were loaded with ammunition and weapons and were headed for Armenia on orders from the Commander of the Group of Russian Forces in the Caucasus  Lieutenant- General Viktor Kazantsev. They were forced to turn back (17). 


Armenian-Iranian relations are increasingly cemented  by numerous bilateral agreements.  Iran's economic presence in Armenia (especially in energy, industry and consumer goods) and by extension in Karabakh is particularly strong.  Although Iran maintains a relatively neutral stance on the conflict, its economic ties with Armenia aggravate Baku, as they undermine the effect of the Azerbaijani blockade.  

Since the beginning of the conflict, Iran has attempted to mediate on several occasions, but without success. Two Iranian-brokered cease-fires in Nagorno Karabakh in the spring of 1992 were violated almost immediately after they were signed. Meanwhile Armenia has called for Iran's mediation in the Karabakh dispute on several occasions (most recently in January 1998). 

The Karabakh leadership views Iran as an important regional player. As stated by Karabakh President Arkady Ghoukassian:

All these territories were once a part of Persia, and only [later] were joined to Russia. Iran has  significantly more moral, political, historical, and geographic rights for participation in resolution [of the conflict], then Turkey. Yet the negotiations are held within the framework of OSCE, and Iran is not [a] member. This, along with a range of other reasons, keeps Teheran on a distance from participating in the peace process. In general, we believe that Iran has a right to apply [sic] for the mediator's role (18). 

Both former President Rafsajani and current President Khatami of Iran have expressed desire and willingness to assist in the settlement of the conflict. President Khatami has stated that "the region is in need of reconstruction and development, something which requires collective efforts", that Iran "believes in co-operation based on mutual respect, and that regional states should beware not to let the region be turned into alien powers' zone of influence". 

Iranian leaders have stated that the Karabakh crisis should be settled fairly and peacefully and "without any interference from outside" (19). They hope that resolving the Karabakh conflict would facilitate further development of Iran's collaboration with Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

During an April 1997 visit to Baku, Iranian Foreign Minister Akbar Velayati told journalists that "the liberation of Azerbaijani territories currently occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces should take place without the intervention of external powers". He urged that "the Transcaucasian countries should join forces to prevent the increase of U.S. influence in the region" (20). A few months later, in October 1997, Iran once again expressed readiness to help resolve the conflict. While in Baku, Iran's First Vice-President Hassan Habibi, referring to peaceful coexistence as the centrepiece of Iran's foreign policy, announced Iran's readiness to help resolve the Karabakh conflict. He added that Iran and Azerbaijan, on the strength of common culture, history and religion, can expand their co-operation in the region (21). Iran warned that the "intrusion of a military contingent," even a peacekeeping force, in the region of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict will only destabilise the situation (22). 

In the last two years, direct (though unofficial) economic relations have been established between Karabakh and Iran. Today one could find shops in Karabakh full of mostly Iranian goods. Large trucks with Iranian license plates could be seen on a regular basis driving back from Karabakh with loads of mostly scrap metal and building materials. 


 So far normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkey remains hostage to Turkey's expectation that no diplomatic relations would be established until the Karabakh conflict is resolved.  This has kept Baku happy in return for which Turkey expects to benefit from the Azeri oil transit. 

As stated by successive Turkish governments, President Suleyman Demirel has proclaimed "full identity" of the positions of Turkey and Azerbaijan over the "regulation of the Karabakh conflict as well as the regional instability".  He stated that "Turkey and Azerbaijan are two states but they are one nation: they are twin states" (23). He has warned that "If Armenia is  wise  enough,  it  will  free  the  occupied territories soon" (24). Earlier in June, State Minister Refaiddin Sahin had stated that even Turkey's setting up economic relations with Armenia was out of question until the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is solved" (25). 

A more radical proposal has been suggested by then Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit suggesting that southern Armenia, the territory between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan be given to Azerbaijan in return for Karabakh since this would enhance the establishment of "communications between Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia" (26). 

The Karabakh elite and the leadership view Turkey's political role and military participation in the conflict within the wider historical context of Armenian- Turkish relations. As explained by President Arkady Ghoukassian "Karabakh is only a part of the "Armenian Question" (Hay Tad) and that the issues of the [1915] Genocide and Karabakh are the same, with one difference: Armenians still live in Karabakh today, and no longer in Turkey" (27). 

On April 22 of this year, the Nagorno Karabakh parliament adopted a resolution condemning the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. When asked why so late, a senior deputy explained that it would have been adopted six years ago had the former Armenian authorities not prevented them from doing so. As to the implications of the resolution on Turkish Armenian relations, he stated that "Time has showed that the more concessions we make on this issue the more demands we get" (28). 

Karabakh Armenian's point out that Turkey's economic and military assistance to Azerbaijan negates Ankara's stated efforts for regional peace. On the other hand, Turkey's political and military double standard vis a vis Cyprus presents another problem for the Karabakhis. During his address to the UN General Assembly in September 1998, Prime Minister Yilmaz, while referring only to the "heightened tensions" in Cyprus, "called for an urgent settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh dispute and called for "the termination of the Armenian occupation of Azeri territory" (29). 


Today, the unrecognised "Nagorno Karabakh Republic" has acquired basic state attributes and functions effectively as a de facto independent state. It has a president, a government, a parliament, an efficient army, and secure transportation links with the outside world (30). Having learned the "lessons of their history" (as they state it), Karabakhis believe that ultimately they are--not the international community--the guarantors of their independence and security. While this presents a colossal challenge to the Karabakh leadership, since 1991 they have been fairly successful in finding a place for themselves in the evolving and complex geostrategic architecture of the region. 



1.  It should be noted, as occasionally indicated by Karabakh officials, that the issue of independence and the issue of recognition by others are not necessarily connected. Former President of Karabakh, Robert Kocharian, said: "Our independence is a reality-it exists. Our people elect their own leaders. They determine with whom they shall deal and with whom they will not. Whether we are recognised by other countries or not, it is unlikely that the daily lives of the people of Nagorno Karabakh will be affected." Press conference at the United Nations in New York, Armenian Assembly of America, 2 February 1996. 

2.  RFE/RL Newsline Vol 1, No. 118, Part I, 16 September 1997. 

3.  Noyan Tapan 23 February 1998. 

4.  Noyan Tapan 23 February 1998. 

5.  Snark  12 May 1997. 

6.  Azadlyg (Baku) 4 April 1998. 

7.  Liz Fuller, "Karabakh A Quasi-Independent State; South Ossetia's Status Unclear", RFE/RL 27 July 1998. 

8. Those who are in high school are allowed to study and are drafted after graduation. In the first year, at 17, they attend special military school, and at the age of 18 join the regular army ranks; so that "international norms are not violated", according to Henrig Abressian, vice-commander of military commissar.  About 80 percent of the recruits have military experience due to the war in Karabakh. The Karabakh military school was founded in 1992. Only those with five or more children are relieved of military service. Recruitment is held twice a year, one in the Spring and one in the Summer. Republic of Mountainous Karabakh newspaper, 29 July 1995. 

9.  cf. Transitions, September 1997; RFE/RL Armenia Report 29 August 1998. 

10.  RFE/RL Newsline Vol 2, No. 38, Part I, 25 February 1998. 

11.  Respublica Armenia 23 February 1998. Recently assassinated Russian State Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova, during a meeting with representatives of the Armenian Diaspora in New York, considered the proposals of the international mediators unrealistic. She stated that for Armenians to cede Kelbajar today without any due guaranties of security and a determined status of Nagorno Karabakh would be just like an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Noyan Tapan 17 Dec. 1997. 

12.  Noyan Tapan 15 July 1997. 

13.  Noyan Tapan 9 April 1998. 

14.  Reuters 29 April 1998. 

15.  RFE/RL Armenia Report 31 January 1998. 

16.  RFE/RL Newsline Vol. 2, No. 124 Part I, 30 June 1998. 

17.  RFE/RL Newsline Vol 2, No.19 , Part I, 29 January 1998. 

18.  Respublica Armenia 4 October 1997. 

19.  Ettelaat 4 November 1997; Azg 29 January 1997. 

20.  RFE/RL Newsline Vol 1, No. 17, Part I, 23 April 1997. 

21.  Ettelaat 14 October 1997. 

22. RFE/RL Newsline Vol 1, No. 94, Part I, 13 August1997. 

23. Armenpress 3 April 1998. 

24.  Azg  4 April 1998. 

25.  BBC Summary of World Broadcasts 6 September 1998. 

26.  Al-Wasat (London) No. 296 (29 Sept.-5 Oct. 1997). 

27.  Azg  11 July 1998. 

28.  RFE/RL Armenia Report, Press Review 23 April 1998. 

29.  RFE/RL 25 September 1998. 

30.  For example, Karabakh's automobiles have their own distinctive number plates. The government in Stepanakert has also issued the "Republic of Nagorno Karabakh" postage stamps. Interestingly, an Armenian-American, in an article about Karabakh's stamps, indicates that several letters with Karabakh stamps were successfully delivered to his address in the United States; see Matthew Karanian "Stamp of Approval" in Armenian International Magazine November 1998, pp. 44-45.

Hratch Tchilingirian
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