Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Nagorno-Karabakh in Limbo

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Nagorno-Karabakh in Limbo

Article excerpt

Nagorno-Karabakh is an almost forgotten land in the South Caucasus. Little known outside its region, it languishes as an unrecognized state. For fifteen years it has hovered on the margins of the state system fulfilling the empirical criteria of statehood but bearing high costs for its failure to gain international recognition by other states. The key players in achieving full recognition for Karabakh are Azerbaijan and Armenia, and negotiations between the two have continued since the inception of the Prague process in 2004.

The key obstacles to settlement are Armenian distaste for Azeri rule, Azeri dislike of Karabakhi independence, and an inability on either side to commit themselves to sustaining difficult concessions over time. There is, therefore, a need for a third party to intervene, but it is hard to find anyone to play this role. The Goble Plan, first advanced in 1992, proposed that Azerbaijan surrender its claim to most of Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for Armenian withdrawal from all other occupied territories and the establishment of an internationally monitored travel corridor between Nakchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan. This has so far proved unworkable. A full settlement may only be achievable if one side concedes status (i.e., control of Nagorno-Karabakh) unilaterally, but this is unlikely to happen. However, smallerscale agreements, such as an exchange of Armenian withdrawal for removal of sanctions by Azerbaijan, could make both sides better off and reduce the likelihood of another war.


Nagorno-Karabakh was a predominantly Armenian region within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). At the end of the Soviet era, the region tried to leave the Azerbaijan SSR and join the Armenian SSR, and in 1 988 intercommunal violence broke out. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the conflict expanded into an interstate war between the new states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The war was complex and dirty, pitting neighbor against neighbor and featuring in- formal militias as well as two national armies and remnants of the Soviet military.1 Fighting ended in 1994 with Armenian and Karabakhi forces in control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh and substantial swaths of Azerbaijani territory outside the contested region.2

More than seventeen thousand people died in the fighting, and more than one million were displaced.3 During the fighting, NagornoKarabakh was effectively ethnically cleansed-forty thousand Azeris lived in the region prior to the conflict and almost none remain.4 In addition to controlling 95 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian forces also occupy a buffer strip of territory around Karabakh that constitutes 13 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan.5

The initial ambition of the Karabakh Armenians was to merge their territory with Armenia, but following the fall of the Soviet Union, this became politically untenable. Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence in 199 1,6 and Armenia finally lent its official support to this goal in 1998.7


The persistence of unrecognized statehood in Nagorno-Karabakh is puzzling, as it is elsewhere, because unrecognized statehood is inefficient. Enormous inflows of capital from the Armenian diaspora8 have succeeded in propping up the Karabakh economy, but the costs of non-settlement remain high. Rail links between Azerbaijan and Armenia have been closed since 1989.9 Turkey closed all land connections with Armenia in 1993, 10 and Azerbaijan has continued its efforts to isolate Armenia and Karabakh economically.11 Estimates of the total cost to Armenia of the blockade range from 10 percent to 30 percent of Armenia's gross domestic product (GDP). 12 The constant threat of renewed violence has hampered the rebuilding of private enterprise in Karabakh, and the region remains dependent on economic support from the Armenian diaspora.13 Two thirds of the region's population has been displaced. …

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