Who are the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

In academic literature about the settlement of conflicts, either armed or social, steps are described that should be taken in order to find a lasting solution. Identifying the parties to the conflict is an initial and very important step that must not be ignored, because misleading information about the identities of the parties or stakeholders will result in deadlock and will prolong the process of achieving peace. Obviously, the parties to the conflict are the main actors whose perception, emotions, and approaches directly affect the peace building process. Moreover, it could be possible to define the nature of the conflict, whether ethnic or territorial, interstate or intrastate, by identifying the respective parties (stakeholders).[1]

When the first initiative for settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was set up by Russia and Kazakhstan, during the Soviet era, and later when Iran organized a meeting in Tehran to start the mediation process, Azerbaijan and Armenia were recognized as parties in the conflict. In 1992, the CSCE/OSCE Minsk group took on a mediator role in the conflict and as its first task the mission drew up the so-called Baker rules, named after the US Secretary of State James Baker. These rules, which were agreed by all sides in the conflict, recognized Azerbaijan and Armenia as “principal parties” to the conflict, while the two communities, Azerbaijani and Armenian, in Nagorno-Karabakh were designated as “interested parties”. Since then these rules have been known as the “Baker rules”.[2] To date, the format of the negotiations between the parties has not changed, and they are still based on the principles determined in those rules.

In addition, the parties to conflicts are divided into primary, secondary, and third parties, based on their role.[3] According to Paul Wehr, “primary parties are those who oppose one another, are using fighting behavior, and have a direct stake in the outcome of the conflict. Secondary parties have an indirect stake in the outcome. They are often allies or sympathizers with primary parties but are not direct adversaries. Third parties are actors such as mediators and peacekeeping forces which might intervene to facilitate resolution”.[4]

In the Nagorno-Karabakh case, the primary parties in the conflict are Azerbaijan and Armenia, the secondary parties are the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the Azerbaijani community in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the OSCE Minsk group, which plays a mediator role in the settlement process, is a third party. Because of the role they play, only Azerbaijan and Armenia are accepted as primary parties, and they have been involved as such in the negotiation process. The Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh or the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was excluded and was not recognized as a “principal” party in the regulation process. Being unsatisfied from the exclusion, the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic insists on the importance of its direct presence in the mediation process for the reestablishment of the constant peace in the region. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan recognizes that Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of its territory and treats the conflict as an interstate, rather than an intrastate (internal), one. Azerbaijan prefers to negotiate only with Armenia and believes that involving the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in the talks will disrupt the existing format of the peace building process. It is nevertheless assumed that once agreement has been reached on the Basic Principles (the principles drawn up at the OSCE Madrid Summit in November 2007), it will be possible to involve both communities of Nagorno-Karabakh in further attempts to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement.[5]

Unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia shares the Armenian community’s position with respect to direct involvement in the negotiation process, and it has officially declared that it is impossible to make further progress in the peace process unless the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic participates fully in the peace talks. Regardless of Armenia’s official position on the status of the parties, the international community has recognized Azerbaijan and Armenia as “principal” parties to the conflict since the very start of the settlement process and throughout the mediated peace building process between them.

In order to organize a better communication structure and to improve the credibility of the talks, the parties in a conflict usually opt to negotiate through a third party. Third party activities are generally identified as referring to such things as fact-finding, good offices, and mediation.[6] When a third party intervenes, the character of a conflict changes into a three-way interaction, and full responsibility for and control over the design and structure of the negotiation process therefore pass to a new actor in the conflict.[7] In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the OSCE Minsk group is a third party that has been responsible for mediating between the parties for more than two decades. Despite all this organization’s initiatives, unfortunately no progress has been made in the peace building process. The parties, and especially Azerbaijan, blame the OSCE Minsk group for the process failing and insist that this mediation group is not making enough effort to solve the problem. It is clearly stated that the OSCE Minsk group has only a mediation mandate and is not entitled to direct, impose on or otherwise affect the parties to the conflict. However, the Co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, namely Russia, the US and France, which have closer relations with Armenia than with Azerbaijan, are powerful enough states and by making appropriate efforts they could change or modify the dispute in some way. However, according to UN Guidance documents on mediation, mediators must be impartial, must treat the parties to the conflict equally and fairly, and must keep a balance between them. Moreover, it is better to appoint mediator states from different regions and ones that hopefully have no global or regional ambitions. In addition to that, interested states may not be allowed directly to involve in the mediation process.[8] But in the case of the OSCE Minsk group, all three states are countries with global and regional ambitions, and Russia while including the South Caucasus region within its sphere of interest, in fact is an interested state in the conflict.[9] It can therefore be argued that the existing co-chair format of the OSCE Minsk group is not an adequate structure for mediating in the peace building process and that in order to improve the effectiveness of the talks it would be better to bring in new mediators who have no interests in the dispute.

Finally, it can be stated that all the parties to the conflict still recognize the existing negotiation format, which is based on “Baker’s rules”. Currently, the negotiation process is being carried out between the principal parties to the conflict, Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, it is considered that in the next stage of the process it should be possible to involve the interested parties, namely the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the ineffectiveness of the OCSE Minsk group, none of the parties to the conflict has rejected the organization’s involvement as a third party in the mediation process. Hence, as the situation stands today, the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the OSCE Minsk group.

[1] Дмитриев, А. В., Конфликтология (Гардарики, 2000), p. 57.

[2] 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.

[3] Wehr, Paul, “Conflict mapping”, International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflicts, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA.

[4] Wehr, “Conflict mapping”.

[5] Pashayeva, Gulshan and Göksel, Nigar, “The Interplay of the approaches of Turkey, Russia and the United States to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh”, SAM review, 2011, p. 23.

[6] Bercovitch, Jacob, “Third Parties in Conflict Management: The Structure and Conditions of Effective Mediation in International Relations”, International Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1985, p. 738.

[7] Bercovitch, “Third Parties in Conflict Management”, p. 739.

[8] “United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation”, United Nations Peacemaker, July 2012, pp. 10-18; https://peacemaker.un.org/guidance-effective-mediation. Accessed on October 4, 2020.

[9] Cornell, Svante E., “Turkey and the Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh: A Delicate Balance”, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, 1998, pp. 57.