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What is the highest autonomy status for Nagorno-Karabakh proposed by Azerbaijan?

The future status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been one of the most important issues in the negotiation process between the parties to the conflict. While Armenia and the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic claim full independence, Azerbaijan has insisted on the dispute being settled within the territorial borders of the country. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has stated that if Armenia abandons its independence claim for Nagorno-Karabakh, it is ready to grant the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh the highest-level autonomous status that exists in practice.[1] However, Azerbaijani officials have not clarified the details of what ‘highest-level autonomous status’ actually means.

The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic should be considered the main legal framework for the possible autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, the Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic provides all its citizens with equal opportunities, regardless of their ethnic, religious and political standing.[2] Moreover, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the use of a minority language.[3] Indeed, the Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic is proof of the legislative framework that exists for protecting the rights of ethnic minority groups. The Constitution also regulates the status of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, which forms a fundamental part of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Chapter VIII in the Constitution of Azerbaijan covers the status of the Autonomous Republic and identifies its relationship with the Baku.[4] According to the Constitution, Nakhchivan is an integral part of Azerbaijan, the legislation of Azerbaijan is binding on Nakhchivan, and the constitution of the autonomous republic must be in line with the constitutional law of Azerbaijan.[5] Moreover, Nakhchivan has its own government system, which is independent in decision-making processes regarding the internal affairs of the autonomous unit. The symbols of Nakhchivan are the same as the symbols of the Azerbaijan Republic.[6] In fact, Nakhchivan does not have its own police and military forces, its monetary system is dependent on the central system, it does not formulate independent foreign policy, and in international competitions its sportsmen represent not Nakhchivan but Azerbaijan. Nakhchivan does not have a high degree of autonomy, since the majority of its population is Azerbaijanis and they have never claimed a higher status. However, due to the absence of a direct land connection with the central government made it necessary for a self-rule system to be established there.

In order to think about what a ‘higher autonomous status’ for Nagorno-Karabakh might look like, it is important to analyze existing ‘special autonomy status’ cases, as these experiences may serve as a precedent for other issues.

In practice, whereas there are no common international regulations governing a higher autonomy status, various cases exist of an entity that can be identified as having a higher autonomy status, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, South Tyrol, and Hong Kong. In fact, these cases also differ from each other, although by analyzing them it is possible to identify a number of general common features of autonomy with a higher status that might be considered as setting a precedent for other issues, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Indeed, in most of these cases the autonomy status is guaranteed by international agreements and the constitutions of their parent state; dual-state language is in use within the autonomous territories; there is less dependence on the center on legislative, executive and judicial issues; the autonomies have their own state symbols; the ethnic language is dominant in the education system; financial liberty provides the opportunity to spend the budget without special approval from the central government; some of these entities have their own police system; and in international sport tournaments they have the right to represent their autonomous region rather than the central state. Obviously, all these privileges are not common to all autonomies that enjoy the higher status, since each one has its own specific features such as historical events, ethnic maintenance, geographical locations, etc. that influence its special status. Therefore, it is difficult to choose one of these models for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Consequently, it should be stressed that the Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic forms the main legal framework for the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This status could be guaranteed either by international agreements or by the Constitution of Azerbaijan. While relations between central government and the autonomous region are being determined, existing regulations governing various cases that are broadly similar to the Nagorno-Karabakh case can be used.

[1] Izzet, I, “Head of State Committee: After solving Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Armenians can become Azerbaijani equal citizens”, Trend, September 6, 2013; https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/karabakh/2186913.html. Accessed on October 4, 2020.

[2] “Article 24”, The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[3] “Articles 44, 45, 48”, The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[4] “Chapter VIII”, The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[5] “Article 134”, The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[6] “Article 2, 10”, The Constitution of the Nakhchivan Autonomic Republic.