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Is Nagorno-Karabakh an interstate or an intrastate conflict?

Armenia tries to describe the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as an ethnic dispute between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians that appeared as a result of the ethnic discrimination of Armenians living in the NKAO by Azerbaijan. In this sense, Armenia believes the conflict has an intrastate nature.[1] On the other hand, Azerbaijan identifies the issue as an interstate dispute, because of the territorial claims of a neighboring state [Armenian Republic] on Nagorno-Karabakh, historical and legitimate territory of Azerbaijan Republic.[2]

Generally, an interstate conflict is a conflict that develops between two states as a result of any disputed issues, such as territorial claims. On the other hand, an intrastate conflict means that the dispute occurs within the borders of a sovereign nation or state.[3] In order to establish whether a conflict is an interstate or intrastate one, the parties to the conflict as well as the level of their involvement have to be determined. The fact that two states, Azerbaijan and Armenia, are recognized as the primary parties in the peace talks[4] over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is concrete evidence that proves the interstate nature of the conflict. Moreover, in academic literature, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is defined as an interstate dispute and is included in this category of conflicts, together with the Israel-Palestine conflict, Kashmir, and Western Sahara.[5] In addition to the legal recognition of Armenia as a primary party in the conflict, there are various facts supporting the idea that Armenia has been directly involved in the conflict with a view to gain control over territories belonging to its neighboring state.

 Firstly, it should be noted that the dispute erupted due to the demand of the Armenian population of NKAO for seceding it from Soviet Azerbaijan and to be annexed to Soviet Armenia.[6] Officials in Yerevan, who immediately adopted a parliamentary resolution on the annexation of the Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Armenia, also welcomed the idea.[7] Furthermore, the population of Armenian Republic supported the idea as well, and expressed their wish to be involved in the dispute as a party to the conflict when they organized demonstrations in their capital city.[8] All this shows that Armenia was not only involved in the dispute as a third party but was the main initiator of the conflict that identifies it as a primary party in the dispute.

Secondly, during the war, Armenian troops directly participated in the battles and played a crucial role in the occupation not only of Nagorno-Karabakh but also of seven other surrounding regions of Azerbaijan.[9] Moreover, even after the ceasefire agreements, Armenian troops still remained in the occupied territories for the purpose of providing security for the region.[10] However, there is no international mandate that allows Armenia to engage in this military activity. It is clear that the only reason for Armenia’s presence in the region is to defend its own national interests by guaranteeing the security of the occupied territories.

Moreover, it is evident that the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is highly integrated with the Republic of Armenia and that it would not be able to survive as an administrative entity without its direct economic, social and political support.[11] Besides, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians are a dominant political group in Armenia’s political structure and they are represented in leading official posts in the state.[12] Indeed, it can be argued that the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is functioning as a region of Armenian Republic rather than as an independent entity.

In academic literature, the involvement of ethnic groups in interstate conflicts is explained with the help of the irredentist theory.[13] According to this theory, “irredentist movements usually lay claim to the territory of an entity – almost invariably an independent state in which their in-group is concentrated, perhaps even forming some local majorities”.[14] Indeed, ethnic Armenian issues in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict do not change the interstate character of the dispute, because the state attempting to annex the lands of another country uses its own ethnic group in order to justify its aggression policy.[15]

[1] “Armenia”, USDP Conflict encyclopedia, Upsala University, Accessed on October 3, 2020.

[2] Svensoon, Isak, “The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict, Lessons From The Mediation Effort”, Initiative for Peacebuilding, 2009.

[3] Açıkalın, Şuay Nihan, “Inter-state Conflicts as a Security Threat in a Globalized World with the Case of Cyprus”, Humanity and Social Sciences Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2011, p. 23.

[4] Baguirov, Adil, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Basis and Reality of Soviet-era Legal and Economic Claims used to Justify the Armenia-Azerbaijan War”, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2008, p. 10.

[5] 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.

[6] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 13.

[7] Fraser, Niall M., Hipel, Keith W., Jaworsky, John and Zuljan, Ralph, “A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1990, p. 659.

[8] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 13.

[9] Huseynov, Tabib, “Mountainous Karabakh: Conflict Resolution through Power-sharing and Regional Integration”, Peace, Conflict and Development: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Issue 6, 2005.

[10] “Foreign ministry: Armenian troops in occupied Azerbaijani territories biggest obstacle to settlement”, Trend, June 6, 2013; Accessed on October 3, 2020.

[11] “Kocharyan: Armenia should not recognize NKR’s independence at this stage”, Panaroma | Armenian News, 12 November 2013; Accessed on October 3, 2020.

[12] De Waal, Thomas, “Nagorny Karbakh: Closer To War Than Peace”, Chatham House: Russia and Eurasia Summary, 25 July 2013; Accessed on October 4, 2020.

[13] Carment, David and James, Patrick, “Internal Constraints and Interstate Ethnic Conflict: Toward a Crisis-Based Assessment of Irredentism”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1995, p. 84.

[14] Carment and James, “Internal Constraints and Interstate Ethnic Conflict”, p. 95.

[15] Weiner, Myron, “The Macedonian Syndrome: An Historical Model of International Relations and Political Development”, World Politics, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1971, pp. 665-683.