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Is Nagorno-Karabakh a frozen or an intractable conflict?

The term “frozen” is used for conflicts, which “haven’t been solved yet, resolution is delayed for another, more hopeful time, relations between conflict parties are regulated by ceasefire or other agreements and at the same time the peace attempts are continuing”.[1] The Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts in Georgia, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Transnistria conflict in Moldova are generally considered as examples of frozen conflicts, which have neither been solved nor are active, but remain fragile and are prone to flare up again. Another very important feature of frozen conflicts is that the negotiation process seems to continue, not with the purpose of solving the existing problem, but rather in order to keep a status quo that was achieved after the first phase of the conflict. This situation can be defined as imitating peace negotiations so as not to start a war. When this happens, one or both sides, and maybe a third officially not visible side (external factor), are interested in having neither a peace nor a war situation until an unknown appropriate time.

Alternatively, following terms are also used to describe these types of disputes: unresolved, protracted, stagnant, enduring, gridlocked or prolonged conflicts. Edward Azar was one of the first authors who systematically developed theories about prolonged conflicts and used the term “protracted” to refer to what he identified as “new types of conflict”. According to Azar, protracted conflicts take place between communal groups but quickly transcend national boundaries. They are usually linked to some intangible needs and they tend to generate or reinforce a high level of violence.[2] Other scholars such as Burton have defined these “new types of conflicts” as deeply rooted.[3]

Recent research carried out by scholars and analysts has shown that using the term “intractable” to describe this type of conflict defines the real nature of the conflict better than other terms do. According to specialists at the United States Institute of Peace, “intractable conflicts are persisted over time to yield to efforts-through either direct negotiation by the parties or mediation with third-party assistance to arrive at a political settlement”.[4] In short, an intractable conflict is irresolvable, rather than one that resists resolution. Moreover, Coleman characterized intractable conflicts as recalcitrant, intense, deadlocked, and extremely difficult to resolve.[5]

Coming to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is described as “frozen” conflict by practitioners. Besides, mass media around the world also use that term when they publish information about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. So, which term is correct to use in the Nagorno-Karabakh case, “frozen” or “intractable” is the question? After analyzing these two approaches, “frozen” mainly focuses on prolonging the conflict and keeping it on ice until there is a more suitable time for a resolution, “intractable” explains and stresses on incurability of the solution. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been waiting for more than two decades to be resolved, but there have been no steps forward, regardless of the involvement of third parties in the negotiation process. In “frozen” conflicts, attempts by third parties are expected to guarantee a ceasefire, suspend violence and continue negotiations towards a political settlement. In fact, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is active, the ceasefire is periodically broken and the negotiation process is deadlocked. Between the ceasefire agreement of 1994 and 2007, 4,000 soldiers and civilians from both parties died,[6] regardless of the mediation activity by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs and time to time deadly clashes happens between the parties. There were no achievements in the resolution process. Therefore, it is more appropriate to describe the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as “intractable” rather than “frozen”.

[1] Morar, Fillon, “The Myth of Frozen Conflicts: Transcending Illusive Dilemmas”, Concordiam: The Journal of European Security and Defense Issues, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2010, p. 11.

[2] Azar, Edward, “Protracted International Conflicts: Ten Prepositions”, in Azar, Edward and Bruton, John W., (eds.), International Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice (London Wheatsheaf Books, 1986).

[3] Burton, John W., Resolving deep-rooted conflict: A handbook (University Press of America, 1987).

[4] Crocker, Chester A., Hampson, Fen Osler and Aall, Pamela, “Introduction: Mapping the Nettle Field”, in Crocker, Chester A., Hampson, Fen Osler and Aall, Pamela (eds.), Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict (US Institute of Peace Press, 2007), p. 13.

[5] Coleman, Peter T., “Intractable Conflict”, in Coleman, Peter T., Deutsch, Morton and Marcus, Eric C., (eds.), The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[6] International Crisis Group, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Risking War”, Europe Report, No. 187, November 14, 2007.