Can Kosovo case be a precedent for Nagorno-Karabakh?

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo, the territory in Serbia that was mostly populated by ethnic Albanians, declared its independence and shortly thereafter was recognized by most western countries. More than 100 UN member states have already recognized the independence of Kosovo. This recognition encouraged other unrecognized states, whose officials expressed their hope that this case would set a precedent and enable their territory to be recognized, too.[1] Armenian officials also welcomed the recognition of Kosovo and stated that it would provide a boost for the possible recognition of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.[2]

‘Precedent’, as a notion, is understood differently from legal and political perspectives. According to Borgen, “political scientists usually use it to refer to a past event that could be politically persuasive or may be used in diplomatic dialogue, lawyers have a stricter understanding of the word and use it when a past event states a rule of law that is to be applied in the current case. As a technical matter, in international law as opposed to domestic law, precedent is not binding”.[3] It should be noted that none of the states that recognized the independence of Kosovo insisted that the territory had gained its independence as a legal right.[4] Indeed, International law justifies self-determination in the sense of external dimensions that results with the full independence only for colonial people. It is clear that the Kosovars were not a colonial people, but rather lived in that particular territory under the control of Serbia and were faced with ethnic cleansing by the authorities of that state.[5] Since the situation in Kosovo was considered to be violent, UN Resolution 1244 internationalized the Kosovo situation and brought it under international administration.[6] Later, that international administration considered that Kosovar coexistence under Serbia was impossible and therefore recognized their independence. It was nevertheless stressed that this case would not be a precedent for other cases.[7]

From the legal perspective, the independence of Kosovo was justified due to the fact that there was a “grave humanitarian situation” and a “threat to international security and peace”.[8] Moreover, it was insisted that as Kosovo was transferred from Serbian control and brought under international administration, this made it possible to recognize the independence of this territory without the permission of the parent state.[9]

Based on the above, and due to the following facts, the Kosovo case cannot be deemed to be a precedent for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. First of all, it is important to mention that Kosovo is an intrastate conflict, whereas the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was flamed up because of Armenia’s territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Additionally, it was not Azerbaijan but Armenia that committed ethnic cleansing against Azerbaijanis during the war; in particular, the Khojali massacre is proof of this.

Secondly, Kosovo was under international administration in the form of the UN and KFOR (the Kosovo Force) international force led by NATO, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which confirmed the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia but also included the decision on the final status of the territory.[10] However, Nagorno-Karabakh has never been under any international administration and the international community was not involved in the conflict during the war. The UN Security Council has four resolutions on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but these resolutions relate to the withdrawal of forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan rather than to any decision on the final status of the region.

Thirdly, the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was not recognized by any independent states, not even by Armenia, and the states that recognized the independence of Kosovo clearly indicated that this particular case was unique and would not be a precedent. There is therefore no prospect of Nagorno-Karabakh being recognized by these states. The international community accepted that Kosovo was a sui generis case; hence it should be neither a legal nor a political precedent for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

[1] Borgen, Christopher J., “Is Kosovo a precedent? Secession, Self-determination, and Conflict Resolution”, Wilson Center; Accessed on October 5, 2020.

[2] Antidze, Margarita and Mkrtchyan, Hasmik, “Kosovo “will boost Karabakh recognition drive”, Reuters, February 16, 2008; Accessed on October 6, 2020.

[3] Borgen, “Is Kosovo a precedent?”.

[4] Borgen, “Is Kosovo a precedent?”.

[5] Cooley, Alexander, “Kosovo’s Precedents The Politics of Sovereign Emergence and its Alternatives”, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo, No. 7, 2008, pp. 2-3.

[6] United Nation Security Council, “Resolution 1244”, s/RES/1244, 1999.

[7] “US says Kosovo no precedent for Nagorno-Karabakh”, Reuters, 5 March 2008; Accessed on October 6, 2020.

[8] Borgen, “Is Kosovo a precedent?”.

[9] Zeynalov, Mahir, “Nagorno-Karabakh and Kosovo: Politically Precedent, Legally Different”, Caucasian Edition: Journal of Conflict Transformation, September 15, 2010.

[10] “Resolution 1244”.